The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 8

Last updated on June 6, 2024.

Interior of a clothing store, upscale appearing fixtures and lighting with neatly folded and hung clothing.
Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay.

We know that the clothing and fashion industries have major flaws that only some companies are trying to rectify. And we, as consumers, have choices as well – one is to simply buy less. Buy secondhand when possible. Take good care of our clothes. By doing those things, we can save money and the environment.

Before wrapping up this series, I wanted to touch on a few subtopics I hadn’t written about yet. Though some topics are big enough to warrant an entire series of their own, I believe them important enough to mention.

The fashion industry releases 10% of total carbon emissions.1

Chemicals

Worldwide, we use thousands of chemicals in textile production. Those chemicals can stay in clothes, even after washing. We can absorb those chemicals through our skin or inhale them. While these are small, or even trace amounts, the accumulation of toxins over time causes health problems. This is because there are chemicals in most consumer products. “For example, formaldehyde is not only used in fashion; it’s a common wood preservative found in furniture and is sometimes used to manufacture mattresses, meaning we could be exposed to this chemical not only through our shirts but also while we sit at our desks and sleep.”2 There are also chemicals in all plastic items, including fabric.

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Companies treat clothing with formaldehyde to prevent mildew growth and parasites during transit. Clothing labeled ‘wrinkle free,’ ‘stain resistant,’ or ‘water resistant’ are treated with toxic fluorocarbons, also known as PFAS, also known as ‘forever chemicals.’ These are extremely toxic. Workout clothing and athletic fashion may be treated with the antibacterial chemical triclosan, which is a known endocrine disrupter.

Here are some disturbing facts about chemicals in the fashion industry:

Worldwide, the fashion industry uses one-quarter of the chemicals produced.4

The World Bank estimates that the fashion industry is responsible for close to 20% of annual industrial water pollution, due to chemicals.5

While cotton is a natural fabric, it is also known as the world’s dirtiest crop. Cotton production requires around 19 million tons of chemicals annually.6 The pesticides alone are toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organization.7

Rack of t-shirts on clear plastic hangers, in order of hues, from yellow to order to red, then green to blue.
Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash.

Dyes

Most dyes are synthetic, meaning made from chemicals and fossil fuels. Synthetics are popular because they dye vibrantly and retain their color. However, many of these dyes contain harmful chemicals. Azo dyes, the largest category of dyes, are carcinogenic and are restricted in the state of California and the European Union.8 In addition to the textile and leather industries, manufacturers also use Azo dyes in food, candy, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics.

Other synthetic dyes contain heavy metals such as mercury, lead, chromium, copper, and chemicals such as benzene. All get into bodies of water and harm both the environment and human health.9

“There is a joke in China that you can tell the ‘it’ color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers.” -Orsola de Castro, fashion designer and activist10

Stack of 4 pairs of denim blue jeans in different hues, white background.
Photo by Claire Abdo on Unsplash.

Example: Indigo

Indigo is a good example. Almost all of the denim we wear is dyed with synthetic indigo. Synthetic indigo is made of ten chemicals, including petroleum, benzene, cyanide, formaldehyde, etc. All are toxic or harmful to humans. The chemicals are cheaper to buy than paying a farmer to grow crops from which to harvest dyes.11

The Chinese manufacture most synthetic indigo today, and they use a chemical called aniline. It is a likely human carcinogen. “Recent reports indicate that two-thirds of aniline residue winds up in wastewater, lakes, rivers, and other waterways; on workers; and in the air that workers breathe.” The remaining third is embedded in the denim clothing sold in stores.12

Natural Dyes

Natural dyes made from plants, seeds, and fruit don’t pollute water, but many still require the use of chemical mordants (substances that bind the dye to the fabric). They can also use a lot of water. Some companies are developing dyes that use 95% less water, as well as dyes that are recycled by reusing the same water and chemicals over and over again. Another process pulverizes leftover textiles, turning them into pigment powder, and using them as dyes.13

Shelves of colorful women's shoes with sales tags on them.
Photo by Megan Lee on Unsplash.

Shoes

“When we think about sustainable fashion, we tend to overlook footwear, but the reality is that shoes are undoubtedly one of the most environmentally impactful elements of our wardrobes. Around 25 billion pairs of shoes are made each year – close to 70 million every single day.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe14

The footwear part of the fashion industry has major environmental impacts. According to Elizabeth L. Cline, “it’s responsible for 700 million tons of carbon emissions per year, the equivalent of burning more than 765,000 pounds of coal. Many of the components in our shoes, from synthetic rubber to chrome-tanned leather, don’t biodegrade and are difficult or impossible to recycle; some are made of toxic building blocks. Shoes, even cheap ones, can and should be made with more sustainable, non-toxic, and recyclable or biodegradable materials.”15

The footwear industry uses a lot of plastic for coatings, foam soles, laces, and other components. Vegan leather is usually plastic. “Some shoes comprise 65 parts…the more components and the more different materials used, the more difficult a pair of shoes is to dismantle and recycle…As many as 95% of shoes go to landfill at the end of their life.”16

What You Can Do

Buy higher quality shoes and find a cobbler to repair them as needed.17 This is better for the environment and more economical over time. Cobblers can replace soles, remove scuffs, repair buckles, snaps, zippers, and straps, and replace high-heel tips. Some can even darken the color of leather, stretch leather shoes to a slightly bigger size, and also repair and condition leather jackets and handbags.18

As consumers, we can do our part by buying more durable shoes whenever possible, and taking good care of the shoes we already own.

Recycled Fabric is Available

Some companies are trying to help the textile industry change by recycling textiles and making new cloth from them. Clothing producers can use waste from the scraps from factory floors or the leftovers that brands often burn or shred.19

A company named Evrnu takes old garments and textile production waste with high cotton content and recycles them into new fiber for cloth. Evrnu produces 80% less greenhouse gas emissions and uses 98% less water than virgin cotton. The company eliminates up to one-third of all garment waste, causes zero deforestation, and requires no farming.20

Worn Again Technologies is a company that has developed a chemical process that “converts textiles containing polyester and cotton back into circular materials.” This offsets CO2 emissions and diverts material away from incineration and landfills.21

ECONYL uses nylon from used carpets, old fishing nets, and fabric scraps to recreate nylon items, such as clothing, carpets, and furniture items.22

Other companies, such as Patagonia, are trying to do the right thing by using recycled plastic bottles to make them into fibers for their product lines. But now many companies are mimicking this practice and the less ethical ones are “buying new plastic bottles to make polyester textile fibers that can be called ‘recycled.'”23 As always, be aware of what you are buying.

Store shelves with hanging clothes and folded clothes, mostly fall colors, mannequin on left.
Photo by Burgess Milner on Unsplash.

Demand More From the Corporations

We should all demand that corporations be transparent and honest about their effects on the environment, as well as their sustainability efforts. “Few companies, both outside the fashion world and particularly inside of it, seem particularly eager to share the environmental effects of what they do because usually they are bad.”24

Many companies have a sustainability page on their website. But sometimes these are no more than public relations pages created to sway consumers into thinking the company is doing great things for the environment. “Unfortunately, these pages usually contain little or no specific information about how the company’s products are actually made,” explained Tatiana Schlossberg. They ensure transparency in their supply chain but provide no evidence or explanation of what that means.

“I shouldn’t have to find out which brand of jeans uses the least amount of water; the brands should be more transparent and tell us how much water they use, and then use much less. They are the ones who are making money from our choices, and we should not support those who don’t at least tell us what they’re doing.” -Tatiana Schlossberg, Inconspicuous Consumption25

If you’re not sure about a company’s environmental commitments or have specific questions about how something was made or chemically treated, ask the company via email, contact page, or phone. Elizabeth L. Cline wrote that “a responsible brand will make it easy to get in touch with them and will respond to your queries.”26 Further, they will be clear in their response and you’ll be able to tell if it is a stock response or a true response. If a brand turns out to be unethical, you can decide to shop elsewhere.

Remember the Human Factor

When purchasing new clothes, pause and reflect on the humans who sewed the clothes. Are they being treated well, paid well, and working in a safe environment? These days, with profits at record highs for many industries, companies have zero excuses for not caring about the people who labor for them.

Most brands contract out for production, and contractors often subcontract the work. This is where the sweatshops come in. “When caught, the brands often claim they had no idea their ‘approved’ contractors were subcontracting to sweatshops. Subcontracting is endemic in the apparel industry, creating a fractured supply chain in which workers are easily in jeopardy.”27 The right to subcontract is part of the negotiated contract, so it doesn’t seem likely that companies don’t know about the subcontracting.

David Weil, Dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, wrote that today, fashion executives “dictate everything they want in their supply chain to an incredible degree…they will send back an order when the dyes aren’t right – they monitor that precisely. But somehow it’s unreasonable to make sure that there is adherence to fire emergency escape rules, and you aren’t operating in a building like Rana Plaza.”28 Companies must do better. I’ve included a list of organizations below that support textile industry laborers.

“Ultimately, brands are responsible for their massive exploitation of garment workers—creating massive profits for only a handful of billionaires and environmental harm to the planet. But added together, people still have significant power to hold these companies accountable as consumers and push for legislation as citizens.”29

Our Role

In the end, we are all responsible. But as consumers, we don’t have to tolerate the poor actions of these huge fast fashion companies. Shop less, buy second-hand, and take care of the clothes you have. If we all commit, we can make a huge difference. Ask questions, demand transparency, and don’t purchase items from companies that don’t provide clear answers. There’s so much clothing in the world that we could clothe everyone and then some. We have so many choices when it comes to clothing!

Last, learn all you can! Knowledge about environmental problems is the key. Thank you for reading, please subscribe and share!

 

Support the work of these organizations:

Asia Floor Wage Alliance

The Awaj Foundation

Clean Clothes Campaign

Fair Wear Foundation

Fashion Revolution

The Garment Worker Center

The International Labour Organization

Labour Behind the Label

No Sweat

The Or Foundation

Remake

The Solidaridad Network

Workers Rights Consortium

“It’s important that we amplify what garment workers are demanding and support the people who make our clothes by spreading their message and holding brands and the people in charge to account.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe30

 

Additional Resources:

Guide to my Clothing and Fashion Industry Series.

bluesign: This organization sets standards for chemical usage in textiles.

Fair Wear Foundation: a non-profit organization whose mission “is to see a world where the garment industry supports workers in realizing their rights to safe, dignified, properly paid employment.”

Article, “10 More Sustainable Sandals Like Birkenstocks You’ll Love,” by Isobella Wolfe, goodonyou.eco, August 24, 2023. I’ve been wearing Birkenstocks for 20 years because they support my feet and back and are just about endlessly repairable. However, Birkenstocks aren’t very environmentally friendly. Article, “How to Recycle Your Used Hiking Shoes,” by Jeff Podmayer, thetrek.co, January 18, 2021.

Footnotes:

The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 7

Last updated on June 6, 2024.

Hanging Shirts in Ombre order, from reds on left, oranges center, and yellows on right.
Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash.

One of the best ways to fight fast fashion and textile waste is to make your existing wardrobe last longer. We can do this by washing our clothes less, but better, and by repairing and mending. “According to the EPA, for every 2 million tons of textiles we keep in circulation and out of landfills, we can reduce carbon emissions equivalent to taking 1 million cars off the road,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline. “In fact, reusing a ton of textiles saves twice as much carbon as recycling a ton of plastic, one of the most commonly recycled materials.”1

But what else can we do?

Stop Shopping!

“Today’s rapid cycle of production, buying, and disposal of clothing impairs our ability to feel satisfied and connected with our wardrobes. It’s time for a new, slower approach to repairing clothes and to cherishing what we have.” -Zoe Edwards, Mend It, Wear It, Love It!2

Stop shopping. Or at least shop much less. Since most of us overbuy, we should buy less clothing going forward.

You don’t have to be a minimalist, but you don’t need closets and dressers and shelves overflowing with clothing. You can’t possibly wear all of it. Calculate how much clothing you need by how often you do laundry. For most people, this is one or two week’s worth. Then, account for the few special pieces you need – a black dress or a suit, or maybe you wear uniforms to work – it will be unique for everyone. Own only the amount of workout clothing you actually work out in. Don’t keep clothes that don’t fit (unless you regularly fluctuate in sizes). Limit excess of all types of clothing.

Subconsciously, or maybe even consciously, clothing represents who we are or the person we want others to perceive us as. Wear the clothing that makes you feel good. But fight against the influence of advertising, trends, and fast fashion sales. As Dana Thomas in Fashionopolis wrote, “[Fashion] preys on our insecurities and our increasingly short attention spans. We are prone to a barrage of fashion images –  on social media, on television, on billboards, in the press – begging us, taunting us to indulge in what one executive described as ‘temporary treasure.'”3 Be selective and intentional about the pieces you purchase.

“Volume is what gave birth to sweatshops. Volume is what makes fast fashion so profitable. Volume is what’s stuffing our closets. Volume is what’s rotting in our landfills.” -Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis4

Women's outfit lying on white background: white blouse, blue jeans, red and white striped t-shirt, and red shoes.
Photo by Junko Nakase on Unsplash.

We Can Spend Our Money Differently

“The number one reason we buy what we don’t wear is because it’s on sale or it’s so cheap that we’re willing to overlook flaws.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet5 

Don’t buy a $5 shirt because it is cheap. Buy a shirt because it feels good on your body. Embrace slow fashion, which is the idea that a thoughtful and intentional wardrobe greatly reduces environmental impact. It is the opposite of excessive production, overcomplicated supply chains, and mindless consumption.

“Most of our clothes are bought on impulse; we’re buying items without wider thought of how they fit into our lives or our wardrobes.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet6 

Buy Quality, Not Quantity

Buy more classic pieces and less trendy items. This will allow you to mix and match more easily and allow you to wear your clothes much, much longer. Buy fewer, higher-quality pieces and buy second-hand when possible. In The Conscious Closet, Elizabeth L. Cline wrote that you should be skeptical of cheap and heavily discounted items. She says to try everything on because it takes more time and hassle to return an item than to just try it on in the first place. Buy one or two quality pieces at a time instead of trying to revamp your whole closet in one shopping trip. Plan ahead, and hold out for those great items instead of settling for items that are just okay.7 

“Consumption has accelerated to such a furious pace that most of us don’t thoroughly consider what we purchase.” -Katrina Rodabaugh, Make Thrift Mend8

Cline offered these tips to identify quality clothing items:

Study the sewing and construction details of your own clothes that have lasted a long time. Look at your grandmother’s clothing or at clothes in vintage shops, as clothes made decades ago were not meant to be thrown away.

Check out a variety of brands and stores.

Look at men’s clothes, which are typically made better than women’s.

Quality includes good fabric, construction, fit, and a warranty. Usually the better the guarantee or warranty, the better the quality. “Nudie Jeans, a sustainable denim brand, offers free repairs on jeans for life, for example. Patagonia offers repairs, replacements, or refunds for damaged products or if the product simply doesn’t live up to expectations.” Other brands offer repairs within one or two years of purchase.9 

“Quality clothing is made to last, wear well, and look good over time.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet10 

Beware of Outlets and Off-Price Stores

There has been a drop in quality at factory outlets since the 2000s. These stores used to sell name-brand items with slight defects and imperfections, or overstock. But now most outlet stores have a special line of lower quality items, made just for those stores. It is the same for off-price stores such as T.J. Maxx, Ross Dress for Less, Marshalls, etc. These stores carry clothing without hems, fabrics that shed fibers in your hands when you touch them, and no regularity in sizing.

“Off-price stores and outlets were once a reliable way to land well-made and name-brand products at a discount, but no longer. Today, many sell a lot of factory rejects or canceled orders – the products that should have never made it to a store in the first place…[they are] manufactured exclusively for these stores and [are] intentionally mislabeled as discounted.” -Elizabeth L. Cline11

Circular clothing racks of shirts, organized by color.
Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay.

Buy from Responsible Brands

Research which brands are ethical and sustainable, or follow sustainable fashion writers like Elizabeth L. Cline to get the information. Or look for brands that use recycled textiles to make new clothing, such as Patagonia and Osom Brand.

Focus on what is most important to you. Sophie Benson, author of Sustainable Wardrobe, wrote, “Just as style is personal, so too are our moral drivers. For instance, I’m vegan, therefore I wouldn’t buy new leather. You might appreciate the longevity of leather but want to ensure it’s vegetable-tanned. One person might want to do their best to keep clothes in circulation by shopping exclusively secondhand via charity shops, another might be dead set on supporting independent brands who manufacture small batches at every opportunity. The better you understand your own principles and priorities, the easier it becomes to know whether a brand or product lives up to them.”12

Affordability

Sometimes buying higher quality or ethical/sustainable means the monetary cost is higher. Conscious fashion brands are mainly independent startups and smaller companies.13 So those companies have a higher overhead because they use responsibly sourced fabrics, little or no chemicals, and pay proper wages to workers. See Additional Resources below for a few brands that have good labor standards and sustainable practices, as well as an article on sustainable brands by budget.

But affordability is an issue. While it’s easy to say ‘just buy higher quality pieces’ or ‘purchase from sustainable fashion companies,” the reality of that is often difficult. What author Leah Thomas calls ‘the elephant in the room’: not everyone can affordably access sustainable clothing. Sustainable clothing often costs far more than the $10 shirt at H&M. Thomas argues that many sustainable fashion brands also do not offer plus-sized clothing even though over 60% of American women wear a size 14 or larger.14

Second hand shop clothing racks, lots of colorful article with a black short sleeved top on a headless mannequin in the foreground.
Image by Daniel Kapelrud from Pixabay.

Second-Hand Clothing

Affordability is why second-hand clothing is key: you can find higher-quality pieces without paying the high retail price. There are thousands of thrift stores, yard sales, and second-hand shops everywhere, as well as online stores.

Buying second-hand is always better for the environment and much more affordable.

There are also consignment shops in most areas. Just search “consignment near me” on the internet. These shops can vary from children’s clothing to boutique clothing to upscale women’s wear. Items at consignment shops have been inspected and vetted more thoroughly than items at thrift stores, and are sometimes cleaned or repaired before being sold.15

Used clothing is also all over the internet. Sites like eBay, Poshmark, The RealReal, Mercari, ThreadUp, and OfferUp are just a few places where you can find any type of clothing you want.*

Red-haired woman shopping at a thrift store, looking through clothing racks with other items in background, such as hats and framed art. Yellow tint to photo.
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay.

Stop ‘Wardrobing’

‘Wardrobing’ refers to buying the same item in multiple sizes when shopping online, and returning the ones that don’t fit. Now, it would help if companies would standardize sizes, especially in women’s clothes. But try using the size charts and measurement guides on clothing sites when they are offered.

The reason is that returned clothing sometimes gets landfilled. “Reverse logistics -which includes things like opening returned packages, inspecting returned items, steaming or cleaning them, adding them back into the system and repackaging them – can be time-consuming and costly, so many brands simply cut their losses and dispose of returned items. In the US, 2.3 billion kilograms (5 billion pounds) in weight of returned goods ends up in landfill each year, creating 15 million tonnes of carbon emissions.”16 This is a poor practice that companies should be barred from, but let’s do what we can to reduce returns in the meantime.

Build a Capsule Wardrobe

A capsule wardrobe is a curated but versatile wardrobe. As Elizabeth L. Cline wrote, “What defines a capsule wardrobe is not its smallness but the versatility and intentionality of its contents.17

Courtney Carver’s Project 333 is a great capsule wardrobe plan! It embraces minimalism and stress reduction, while fighting fast fashion and supporting sustainability.

“You get to wear your favorite things every day.” -Courtney Carver18

Renting

Renting is another viable solution. According to Dana Thomas, author of Fashionopolis, the average professional woman spends $3,000 or more per year on buying clothing. “Renting fashion could change the entire shape of the apparel industry. Imagine if that $3,000-a-year clothing budget was spent on renting instead of buying. Fewer clothes would be made, and what is out there could be circulated more, tossed less.” Rent the Runway is a well-known example.19 See Additional Resources below for an article covering several rental subscription services.

Rack of formal gowns in multiple colors, with sparkles and sequins.
Photo by form PxHere.

Consume Less

We need companies to produce less clothing, and we need to consume less. What changes can you make to reduce clothing waste?

So slow down, buy less, buy natural, buy better, buy second-hand. You’ll save money, time, and the environment. Please share and subscribe, and thank you for reading!

“If I had to give one piece of advice on what turned my wardrobe into a Slow Fashion wardrobe, I’d say ‘pause.’ If we could just pause our shopping habits, slow down our consumption, and pay attention to the clothes we bring into our homes, we’d collectively make a huge shift.” –Katrina Rodabaugh, Make Thrift Mend20

Wooden clothing rack with clothes in whites, reds, pinks and turquoises, with a shorter black empty clothing rack in front of it with hangers. Background wall is hunter green.
Photo by EVG Kowalievska on Pexels.

 

Additional Resources:

sustainyourstyle.org is a website dedicated to helping people understand and make sustainable decisions related to fashion.

fashionrevolution.org is a group that campaigns “for a clean, safe, fair, transparent and accountable fashion industry.”

Here are a few conscious brands and related articles:

Eileen Fisher: Eileen Fisher produces 25% in the US and has living wages as part of its code of conduct.21 Their Renew program is a take-back and resell program. “Three-fourths of [the] garments are reconditioned with treatments like overdyeing with pomegranate or safflower to camouflage stains and embroidering with traditional Japanese Boro and sashiko stitching, which can hide, or highlight, tears and moth holes.”22*

Article, “The Pain of Progress: Our Renew Program Reaches 2 Million Garments,” by Kris Herndon, Eileen Fisher Journal, April 10, 2023.

Patagonia is a company that follows high standards for production, labor, employment, and environmental concerns. The company also buys, repairs, and resells its own brand of clothing and accessories.*

Reformation:  They are actively working toward a living wage for its Los Angeles workers. 23 Their “goal is to source 100% of our fabrics from recycled, regenerative, or renewable materials by 2025.”*

Elizabeth Suzann: This is a Nashville-based slow fashion brand that uses responsible materials and pays double the minimum wage in Tennessee.24*

Article, ” 99 Sustainable Fashion Brands By Budget (2023),” The Good Trade, October 3, 2023.

Article, “How To Thrift-Flip Your Wedding Dress,” canvasbridal.com, accessed January 6, 2024.

Renting Clothing:

Article, “Thinking About Fashion Rentals? Consider These 7 Services,” by Alexis Bennett Parker, Vogue, January 12, 2023.

Haverdash*

Rent the Runway*

Nuuly*

Gwynnie Bee*

Tulerie* – community rental clothing

 

*I do not necessarily endorse these products and I do not get paid to mention them.

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 6

Last updated June 20, 2021.

Another plastic product graphic
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

If you’ve been following my series on the Packaging Industry, hopefully, you’ve found it informative! In my last article, I wrote about Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Today, I’ll tell you about one type of EPR, called Take-back programs.

Take-back programs are designed to ‘take back’ discarded items that are not accepted in regular recycling streams like curbside pickup. These programs are typically separate from municipal programs. They are often hosted by manufacturers or companies, for a variety of purposes.

Purposes of Take-Back Programs

Take-back programs exist for several reasons:

        • To reduce contamination of municipal recycling efforts
        • For recycling, at least parts of the items
        • To prevent toxic materials from entering landfilled
        • Simply to draw in customers

It is often a combination of one or two of those reasons. “Some collections, like the ones for e-waste and plastic bags, are often not so much a recycling effort as an attempt to reduce contamination of municipal solid waste streams and ensure proper disposal,” wrote Chris Daly in The Future of Packaging.

Earth friendly graphic
Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

‘Eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainability’ are good for business

Many people want to buy from companies that ‘take back’ or recycle items. “We know that consumers are more likely to patronize companies committed to making positive social and environmental impacts,” wrote Tom Szaky, founder of TerraCycle.1 He noted that many companies have had an influx of marketing campaigns in recent years for consumers to bring back their containers for recycling, but that not all companies are actually socially responsible and transparent in the process.

Sometimes this is greenwashing! If a company cannot actually fulfill its promise of recycling or taking back items, then that is false advertising.

“In the face of increasing demand for more corporate social responsibility and environmental-friendliness, however, the authenticity of some of these recycling programs is questionable.” -Chris Daly

Types of Take-Back Programs

There are many types of take-back programs, so I am presenting the most common ones here.

Computer waste
Computer and other e-waste. Image by dokumol from Pixabay

Plastic Bags, Styrofoam, and Electronics Take-Back Programs

Many stores accept things that typically cannot be recycled, such as plastic grocery bags, styrofoam, and electronics. These programs are good for businesses because they generate foot traffic and brand affinity. This also prevents those items from going to a landfill. It also prevents them from going into your curbside bin, where they will contaminate recycling. Grocery stores, such as Publix, accept plastic bags, #4 plastic bags and Amazon Prime type shipping envelopes, toilet paper wrap, produce and bread bags, dry cleaning bags, styrofoam egg cartons, and styrofoam meat trays. Staples and Best Buy take back many electronic items for recycling. Many electronics companies, such as Samsung,2 have take-back programs of their own, through the mail or drop sites.

While it’s not clear what happens to any of those items, at least there’s a chance that some of those are actually recycled. Also, toxic materials will not leach into groundwater from landfills. In the meantime, these companies appear to be eco-friendly. They can also physically draw you into the stores. Might as well pick up some milk and eggs or printer paper, or maybe check out the new iPhones since you’re already there?

Plastic bag from Food City
Plastic bag from Food City. Photo by me
Publix

Publix states that “by inspiring customers to recycle these items, we ensure they are disposed of properly and keep them out of the environment and landfills.” It is unclear if these items are actually recycled as they do not specify what they do with the items. The corporation indicates that they are collected at their return centers and “then processed and sold to be made into other items.”3 That’s vague, but I still respected Publix for the effort.

Until I read that Publix actually claims that plastic bags are more sustainable than paper bags! In fact, the entire post is dedicated to promoting plastic over paper. I am appalled and extremely disappointed in Publix for making false claims such as “plastic bags use 71% less energy to produce than paper bags.” Among the many others, “using paper bags generates almost five times more solid waste than using plastic bags,” is similarly outrageous.4

Recycling bins at Publix. Photo by me
Amazon Prime envelopes
Amazon Prime plastic envelopes, accepted at some grocery stores for “recycling.” Note that Amazon does not take these back directly. Photo by me
A Microwave

A few years ago, I had a Hamilton Beach brand microwave that stopped working. I begrudgingly replaced it with a new microwave and immediately searched for a proper way to dispose of it but to no avail. I found out that Hamilton Beach will recycle and “properly dispose” of their products if you mail them to them at your cost.5 So I measured and weighed the microwave and looked up the shipping cost on USPS – and it would have been $41! So instead I put it in my shed and forgot about it for a while.

Last year, I called Staples to see if they accepted microwaves. They told me on the phone that yes, they do accept microwaves. So I loaded it in the car and took it to my local Staples. When I got to the service desk, I again asked if they’d recycle the microwave. They said yes. However, when I was researching for this post this week, I discovered that their site says they do not accept kitchen appliances. Now I wonder if that microwave was recycled, or if it was tossed in the trash after all. I guess I’ll never know, but I sure tried.

Brother brand printer ink cartridges.
Image by tookapic from Pixabay

Ink Cartridges, Light Bulbs, and Rechargeable Batteries Take-Back Programs

These programs are designed to keep contaminants out of landfills, as all three types of these items contain toxic materials. A few companies offer “rewards” in exchange for recycling. For example, Staples offers $2 back in rewards per recycled ink cartridge. This creates brand loyalty, as you are more likely to buy your ink there regularly if you are trying to use this rewards program. In fact, you have to – their rules state that you can earn the $2 per cartridge “if the member has spent at least $30 in ink and/or toner purchases at Staples over the previous 180 days.” This is only a good deal if you buy enough ink to keep up with that. At least these cartridges are likely recycled. Other companies, such as HP, have many ways for consumers and businesses to recycle their ink cartridges and electronics.6

Many hardware stores and home improvement centers, such as Lowe’s and The Home Depot, take back used compact fluorescent light bulbs and rechargeable batteries. Batteries Plus Bulbs will accept certain types of light bulbs and batteries, although not alkaline. For alkaline battery recycling, see my article from earlier this year.

Compact fluorescent light bulb
Compact fluorescent light bulb, image courtesy of Pixabay

Textile Recycling

The textile industry is notoriously wasteful, especially now that major retailers promote new fashion trends weekly rather than seasonally. But there are a few companies that have take-back programs. Patagonia may be the best example of this as they’ve had the program for a long time, don’t push new trends weekly, and stand by the quality of their products. Patagonia accepts all its products for recycling if the items can no longer be repaired or donated.7

Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe product claims to take their old shoes grind them down to use in performance products and sports surfaces.8 The NorthFace and Levi’s are among others that take back some of their clothing for reuse or recycling. However, please know that clothing is so disposable in western society that second-hand clothing is overwhelming other parts of the world, creating waste problems in those areas. The solution for textiles is to buy less clothing, wear your clothing for a long time, and buy second-hand when possible.

Donated clothing stacks at a Goodwill outlet being prepared to be sent to various aftermarkets.
“A tour of the Goodwill Outlet warehouse and retail store in St. Paul, MN, in April 2019. Goodwill processes and recycles enormous amounts of material. Its outlets take in things that didn’t sell in Goodwill stores and separates them for various aftermarkets.” Photo by MPCA Photos on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Solutions

Take-back programs offer a solution for some items that are hard to dispose of, such as computers, batteries, and light bulbs. It isn’t clear if these programs result in real recycling. Sometimes the companies are not transparent about their take-back program details. The real solution is for companies to invest in a system that can make these items reusable, in a circular economy or closed-loop system. We also need to consume less in general.

In my next post, I’ll examine two types of take-back programs that have high success rates. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

 

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