Why does H&M’s Textile Recycling Program Is Not All That Its Cracked-Up To Be?

Picture this, you’re standing in your closet looking through your clothes.

You have a date, an interview, a party, or an event you need to get to. You want to look your best, but none of your clothes scream “wear me!”.

You decide that you need to go shopping, but your closet is already full.

So you throw all your clothes on your bed and start sorting through them. You make a pile of clothes you’ll keep, sell, donate, and toss. By the end of it, your closet is bare, your rooms a mess, and your car trunk is full of donations and textile waste.

Sound familiar?  Refreshing our wardrobes on a regular basis seems to be a staple routine in most of our lives.

Annually, the average American spends $1800 on new clothes and tosses 200 t-shirts worth of textiles (Hager et al., 2021).

But what happens after we clear out our closets?

landfill clothes, recycling clothes

Where do our donations and waste really end up?

You guessed it, landfills. Textile waste is contributing to the ever-growing laundry list of man-made pollutants. Any clothing that cannot be upcycled or sold to a new owner is sent to the landfills to be incinerated (Damayanti et al., 2021).

“But wait!” You say, “what about textile recycling programs?” By now you’ve seen ads and campaigns by fast-fashion retailers like H&M promising an easy fix to the problems they’ve caused. All they ask is you bring in your old textiles and they’ll recycle them for you.

Problem solved, right? No. Despite what H&M will have you believe, the textile recycling industry is far from effective. This is because our clothes are made from a blend of synthetic and natural fibres, making it hard for any computer-driven or manually-operated machine to separate garments into their individual fibres to then be used again in a new product (Damayanti et al., 2021; Patti et al., 2020; Matteis & Agro, 2018). 

Even the technology that H&M uses to recycle the textiles they collect is in its infancy.

The Swedish retailer has partnered with The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textile and Apparel to use their patented textile recycling machine. As savvy as this new machine is, it has its pitfalls.

  • For one, it still has to use virgin fibres in the recycled fibre mix in order to strengthen the end product.
  • As well, it takes at least three days to recycle just one garment. Meaning, it would take H&M 50,000 years to recycle just one week’s worth of textile waste from the market (Hager et al., 2021).

This is not a solution, it’s a baby step.

So where does all that textile waste H&M collect go?

H&M’s website does not shed any light on this, they have no transparency on the end product of their campaign. Moreover, less than 1% of the fabric they use in their new garments is recycled, so we know they aren’t recycling everything they collect into their clothing.

Unfortunately, the most probable final destination for the clothing you donate to their recycling program are third-world flea markets or the landfill (Matteis & Argo, 2018). To add, H&M has no plans of changing their business practice to stop the flow of their textiles entering the environment and reducing their own impact on the environmental problem (Hager et al., 2021). 

So, what now?

Is there a real solution to this mess? Kinda.

One solution is simply to buy less. Since polyester entered the market in the 1990s, there was a shift in how we viewed clothing. It became less about preserving the few clothing items we had, and more about treating clothing as a cheaply-made and disposable item. So, if you want to decrease your textile-waste footprint, start by buying less and taking care of the clothing you do buy (Hager et al., 2021). If you’re crafty, try making your own clothing, upcycling the garments that no longer serve you, or repairing clothing when it starts breaking down.

recycling clothes, textile repairing clothing

As with any other product, don’t rely on recycling schemes. These programs rarely work because they are not cost-effective, the technology isn’t reliable, and the end product is often weaker than the virgin product.

Keep this in mind the next time you decide to turn over your closet. The best practice is to reuse and reduce!

About the author: Melika Faramarzian is a Univesity of Guelph Alum with a degree in Geography and Ecology. Besides her avid interest in all things sustainability, she is also keen on learning and sharing knowledge on the world around her through the intersectional lens of an immigrant woman. 

Work Cited

Damayanti, Damayanti, et al. “Possibility Routes for Textile Recycling Technology.” Polymers, vol. 13, no. 21, 2021, p. 3834., https://doi.org/10.3390/polym13213834.

Emily Harger, Elizabeth McCauley. “Inside a Swedish H&M Store Where Recycling Machines Are Making New Clothes from Old Fabric.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 9 June 2021, https://www.businessinsider.com/hm-sweden-recycling-center-fast-fashion-waste-2021-6.

Matteis, Stephanie, and Charlsie Agro. “What Really Happens to Old Clothes Dropped in Those in-Store Recycling Bins | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 19 Jan. 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/clothes-recycling-marketplace-1.4493490.

Patti, Antonella, et al. “Eco-Sustainability of the Textile Production: Waste Recovery and Current Recycling in the Composites World.” Polymers, vol. 13, no. 1, 2020, p. 134., https://doi.org/10.3390/polym13010134. 

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