Waste management

August 2008

Our throwaway culture has left landfill sites bulging at the seams. But savvy fashionistas and a whole host of companies are taking up the challenge by re-styling old clothes.

No idea how many items of clothing you've bought in the past year? You're not alone! 'Last season' seems an old concept when new styles hit the rails every few weeks.

In this era of 'fast fashion' you no longer have to be Imelda Marcos or Hollywood royalty to constantly top up your wardrobe with new goodies and throw away clothes after a few outings.

But it's not all fabulous. Like bingeing on ready-meals, our fast-fashion benders have some real downsides once the initial euphoria's over.

Most of us have limited wardrobe space, so our new purchases push growing mounds of rejected clothes out - often straight into the bin.

In the UK we throw away a staggering 1 million tonnes of old clothes and textiles each year. Over 7.5 billion articles of clothing go into our dustbins every year, with most ending up in landfill. These underground rubbish dumps are not only in short supply, they cause huge environmental problems, too.

Rainwater draining through the rubbish picks up chemicals and hazardous materials - including chemicals used in textiles, such as dyes and bleaches - and can leak into groundwater. And as waste (including cotton and woollen clothes) decomposes in landfills, it produces methane. This greenhouse gas is 21 times more potent than CO2. So your cast-off jumpers could be directly contributing to climate change! And synthetic fabrics don't decompose, taking up valuable space that could be used for genuine rubbish.

Savvy fashionistas recognise that the dizzying cycle of short-lived tat whizzing through their wardrobes isn't the greatest look either for them or the planet. So they're seeking ways to 'slow down' their clothes. They're buying beautifully cut (often vintage) pieces made from quality fabrics that'll last many seasons. Canny individuals are accessorising and customising outfits to achieve new looks without replacing every piece. And they're looking after their clothes again (remember cobblers?!) and clothes-swapping to get new garb without hitting the shops.

Only about an eighth of the clothes we throw away are recycled, but sophisticated charity shops are increasingly starting to help us close the fashion loop at last, keeping clothing out of landfill as well as raising cash for good causes. The results of major wardrobe clearouts can be taken to one of the around 3,000 clothing 'banks' run by charities nationwide. Only about a quarter of the space in these is currently used, so there's lots of room! Some charities also run doorstep collection schemes. Or you can take your cast-offs directly to their shops.

Centres such as Oxfam's Wastesavers in Huddersfield sort through unsold/unwearable stuff. The best bits are re-styled into new garments by specialist designers. TRAID (Textile Recycling for Aid & International Development) has a similar scheme, with re-styled items sold under the award-winning TRAIDremade recycled fashion label.

Stuff that's really past its prime can be sold for other uses, such as padding and stuffing in loudspeaker cones and furniture.

So take the plunge and step off the dizzying merry-go-round of fast fashion. The growth in recycling, restyling and sophisticated swapping mean there's never been a better time to start building a gorgeous 'slow' wardrobe!

Joanna Yarrow is a broadcaster, writer and consultant specialising in green living. She's GMTV's eco expert and presented BBC Three's Outrageous Wasters

Model in red re-styled dress by TRAIDremade
  • Young woman carrying clothes at Visa Swap 2008

    Swap shop

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