Clothing – is a Zero Waste outlook possible?

Like most discussions of waste in your mailbox. this report will outline lots of stories of waste, over-production and discard, resulting in giant accumulations and mountains of unwanted excesses. Shot through the tearful descriptions are examples of the many author’s solutions. Take note that the solutions invariably solve 1% to 5% of the problem, even though they are put forward with glowing predictions of solving THE problem. The failure to solve any of the world’s waste problems doesn’t seem to bother any of the authors. They don’t wring their hands over how useless recycling and circular economy and reduced purchasing have proven to be. They don’t even notice it. “Just do some more” of whatever they are selling “and it will all be taken care of”. Sure! The only way to solve the identified problems are to change manufacturing itself. That is also the only way that will not, must not be mentioned. Take note that every solution that is put forward is one that leaves manufacturers free to make anything they want. Then the responsibility to do something about waste is left on the heads of users, recyclers and others, after it is really too late to make a dent.

A recent article on Grist brought up the issue of how to look at clothing as a product. See it here.

Anything written for women on Grist seems to assume that their audience is an educated air-head. But some statistics are interesting.

  • our fiber consumption has leapt from 10 million tons to 82 million tons [annually] in the last 60 years. It’s far outpacing population growth.
  • the waste that’s created. We throw away 68 pounds of textiles per person per year.
  • We’re using thrift stores and charity shops as dumps for an incredible volume of clothes that we don’t wear anymore.
  • The average charity shop is able to sell a mere 20 percent of what comes in.

Note the third point about using thrift shops (recyclers) as surrogate dumps, a constant claim on this website.

What these statistics say is that there is a problem which is ruining the planet by causing the creation of enormous quantities of fiber, all causing immense waste in their production, which are used to produce products that are used for just a short time, then discarded.

As usual, the writers make the mistake of ascribing the locus of waste to the dump, or to the act of discard, and they miss the far greater waste inherent in producing goods that are not needed. But this is the great error of the entire public, not just Grist’s air-head audience.

So what is the professed answer to this problem that the writer urges? Very simple. Stop buying cheap clothes and start paying a lot more money for clothing. The article is sprinkled with clues like this that the writer(s) have ample paychecks to rely on and are not relying on welfare or Social Security.

A recent (2021) article on discarded clothes piling up in mountains in the Chilean Atacama Desert shows how bad it has all become. For some reason, Chile has become the last repository for unwanted textiles and clothing. Read the article and weep. MOUNTAINS OF CLOTHING! Maybe the desert is preferred because it is so dry that the textiles can sit there for decades without starting to decompose.

Read the article Mountains of discarded textiles.

In the above article they reference a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on textiles. This is a huge whale of a report. She/they understand the Zero Waste problem in a vague, general way. Their basic plan is:

  1. Wouldn’t this be a great idea.
  2. It would be hard to implement but here’s a general idea without any specifics.
  3. Wouldn’t it be cool to do this

Their biggest push is for creating a “circular economy”. Well, sure, everything that is wasted is reused. Great idea! Now what’s for lunch?

And as always, their thinking is heavily contaminated by unpinned, unexplained references to recycling as a holy grail of waste management. What recycling means is not important. Just let’s have more of whatever it is. Read their Executive Summary.

Getting back to Grist, she gets on the right track by pushing repairability through the use of seamstresses and tailors for adjusting clothing. More expensive clothing would favor this. But we need to do more than hope, we need to figure out why seamstresses, who used to be common, are now more rare than a Siamese twin Barby doll.

Note that there is not even a necessary connection between price and quality. A hope of such a connection maybe, but no suggestion of any way to insure such a connection. I don’t get the impression that quality is really that important to the writer. What is important is to spend more money so that buyers will be able to afford less clothing, thus reducing the glut.

The reader here has been reading about Zero Waste principles and knows how to approach a new problem of the inefficient use of resources. We ask ourselves how the entire system can be redesigned, in the most basic way.

There are two main problems with clothing that I know of. One, the cutting of pieces from large swaths of woven fabric, leaving lots of scraps to discard, and two, the production of too much clothing, more than the world needs because of the success of forced purchase through fashion.

One suggestion that applies not only to an improved design for production and use of clothing but also applies right now, in this conventional situation, is a way to enhance reusability. As suggested elsewhere for books, every piece of manufactured clothing could have an rfid chip sewn into it which in a detailed way describes the clothing.  RFID chips can be as small as a piece of glitter. This is already being done for lots of clothes but the thinking has only to do with theft and tracking, not with reuse potential.  Then a thrift shop could wave a wand over their inventory and know exactly what they had. They would know how many dresses, tops, jackets, pants or shirts they had in what color, what weave, what fiber and what size. Any customer could look up their desired clothing on the store’s computer or on their smartphone or even on the web while at home. This would reduce the non-productive shuffling through confusing racks that is now the norm in thrift shops.

RFID for scanning clothing

The clothing industry, and the chemical industry that supplies many of the fibers to them in the form of polymers (polycarbonate, polyester, rayon, nylon) has a “solution” to the glut of unwanted textiles called fiber recycling. Does it make any more sense here than it does anywhere else? You be the judge.

Look up the discussion under Fashion (this page, below) and you will learn that there is a Zero Waste movement to improve the cutting and weaving of cloth to reduce scrap generation. The scrap problem will not be solved until computer driven weaving machines can create cloth in the shapes actually wanted, with no extra and no cutting from large pieces of fabric.

One basic principle of  Zero Waste is the use of standardized fastenings. Clothing is as dependent on fastenings as any product. Most of it is called stitching. Are there possible variations in stitching that could affect reusability? Standard stitching creates two intersecting loops of the thread that place the intersection in the middle of the cloth. This is a very strong design. Would it be possible to change the design so that the loop is left on one surface of the cloth without losing strength? It might take a different kind of thread for the tie loop. Could this make it much easier to pull out a tie thread and split a sewn seam to make repair easier. Just a thought. How about those rivets on Levi jeans and other clothing. Could they be converted to locking, twist on, thin fasteners to allow the temporary dismantling of fabric parts for repair or replacement. Stitching is not easily removable or easily replaceable. As always, my goal is to bring up possibilities, not push a final solution. Could strong velcro replace stitching thus allowing a worn or torn piece to be easily replaced? How about glues that can be softened when needed?

It seems clear that a major component of a new Zero Waste design for clothing is not going to be a product design but a social function design. The way that clothes are regarded has to change. Is this an idiotic position?

I have a guess to offer. When synthetic dyes, starting with coal tar reds and purples and blues,  were developed in the nineteenth century, the whole feeling about clothing began to change. Suddenly ordinary people could afford colorful body decoration. Instead of finding royal reds and purples by crushing millions of insects or marine organisms, all clothing and beads and pictures could cheaply be colored. Could the fashion industry be far behind?

What I want to say here is that people are capable of being far more practical about clothing than they are today. If clothing production was reduced in quantity by about 80% and increased in quality by 100%, it would not support as many workers but the workers it did support could be better paid. Probably hardly anyone would even notice a loss of choices.


Clothing in the form of Fast Fashion i.e. cheap, disposable clothing, is one of the commodities that challenges and breaks the assumptions of Zero Waste. In ZW Theory, we assume that articles of commerce have well defined and important functions which motivate their purchase and use. But in this case, the use functions (covering bodies, keeping warm, decorating oneself) are subordinated to being flashy, spending money, being cool, following fashion. These are flighty and seemingly trivial purposes compared to the down to earth uses for clothes. And by reducing the costs so drastically, the products are given the veneer of being disposable, temporary decorations that exert no loyalty on their owners. Once again, all that counts to manufacturers is wringing profit out of this unsustainable, wasteful market. Of course there are alternatives to this flighty, uncaring, high fashion attitude. Denim jeans are worn forever, until the holes in the legs join up. Some clothing is actually sold by thrift shops as part of a longer life. Not all clothing is disposable. But among the wealthier, flightier, “cooler” consumers of capitalist worlds, fashion is an affliction. In a sane world, it can’t exist. But how could it ever be tamed?

At any rate, it seems that the key to improving the status of clothing has nothing to do with poor people just resolving to devote more of their small incomes to clothing, but lies with a planned and inescapable change in the way clothing is viewed by users and manufacturers.

Be especially wary of slick schemes that seem to promise reuse. You do not have a viable reuse plan until the amount of input is matched to the amount of output. Hundreds of schemes, for all manner of inputs, manage to reuse a tenth of a percent of what is streaming in as an unwanted excess and yet they loudly proclaim that they have solved the problem of reuse. Don’t be fooled!

Lately clothing excess has reached such a feverish level that it is being dumped in giant piles around the third world. In Chile for example. Or also in Ghana.

And yet an environmental organization called SumOfUs claims that the dump in Chile has suddenly been burned and disappeared. Is this possible? What do you think?

Some people want to reduce clothing excess by reimagining it as a commons. Read their story here.

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