Ever walked into a store and spotted a clothing collection bin, or been encouraged by a brand to send them the unwanted pieces in your wardrobe? Clothing take-back schemes are on the rise, as the fashion industry grapples with the challenge of reducing its clothing waste crisis.
In the UK, 376,000 tons of clothing ended up in landfills in 2017, while in the same year, U.S. landfills received 8.9 million tons of discarded clothing and footwear. Take-back schemes, in theory, offer one way to keep clothing in circulation for longer.
“You need take back schemes if you’re going to have a half-serious conversation about circular fashion,” says Jack Ostrowski, the founder and chief executive of Yellow Octopus, a circular fashion solutions company that works with brands ranging from Boohoo to Balenciaga. “We’re in the infant stage, it’s just the beginning of the journey for take-back schemes.”
But what happens to your clothes after you hand them back to the brand? And are these initiatives actually an impactful way to tackle fashion’s waste crisis?
Types of Take-Back Schemes
There are two main types of retail take-back schemes. First, there are recycling schemes, like Nike’s Move to Zero initiative and H&M’s garment collecting program, launched in 2013 with textile logistics company I:CO. With one of the biggest garment take-back programs in the world, H&M says that in 2019 it collected the equivalent of 145 million T-shirts. It’s not just the conglomerates — there are plenty of smaller sustainable brands with recycling initiatives too. Activewear brand Girlfriend Collective, MUD Jeans, Reformation, Madewell, and many others have been incentivizing customers with discount codes and other rewards for sending back their unwanted pieces.
Recycling schemes like these usually accept apparel from any brand and then a logistics partner — like Yellow Octopus, ThredUp, or TerraCycle — would collect or sort the garments. This usually falls into three categories: rewear (wearable clothes to be resold), repurpose (unwearable clothing to be turned into other consumer goods), or recycle (textiles that become things like carpet padding or building insulation).
Then there are brand-specific take-back schemes, like Eileen Fisher’s Renew initiative, where customers can take back their old Eileen Fisher clothes to be repaired and resold in dedicated stores. Glossy recently reported that the brand has collected 1.5 million garments since launching the scheme in 2009. Then there’s Patagonia’s Worn Wear initiative, Levi’s SecondHand platform, and French brand A.P.C, which all allow their customers to trade in good-condition clothing for store credit.
In-house schemes tend to be used by more expensive brands that sell higher quality, durable pieces. This model is less popular with fast fashion brands that create ultra-cheap clothing, simply because there’s less demand for say, a secondhand Boohoo dress when you can buy a brand new one for the same price.
According to GlobalData and Mercari’s “Reuse Report,” from 2015 to 2020 the second-hand clothing and shoe market rose from $91.1 billion to $139.6 billion.
In 2018 in the UK, take-back schemes prevented 620,000 metric tons of used textiles from ending up in landfills, according to a report from WRAP. There are clear benefits — according to ThredUp, buying secondhand instead of new reduces the carbon footprint of your purchase by 82%. But whether the growth of the secondhand market is replacing our obsession with new clothing or just supplementing it remains to be seen — around 75% of Americans buy secondhand, and apparel is the most popular category, but traditional retail sales are also increasing, according to GlobalData and Mercai’s survey.
On a practical level, take-back schemes protect clothing so it can be resold or reused. “They have the advantage over [donation] bins in car parks or on street corners in that people will bring things in store,” says Sarah Gray, senior research analyst for WRAP. “It’s indoors so it stays dry and clean, it’s separate from other materials and it’s not hidden away,” she says. Public clothing donation bins can sometimes allow clothing to get wet and moldy, and thus turn into trash. Ostrowski says that around 70 to 80% of the clothing that comes through Yellow Octopus’ take-back programs is in a good enough condition to be resold, which is important, considering the current state of global textile recycling infrastructure. Yellow Octopus also claims that none of the products they process end up in landfills.
On a conceptual level, take-back schemes are an accessible way for consumers to get familiar with the basic principles of a circular economy. “If you stand in front of the local Starbucks and ask people if they know about the circular economy, I’m not so sure they’ll know what you’re talking about,” says Ostrowski. “At least we’re going to educate people about the circular economy, so that they understand that what they treat as waste isn’t waste, it’s a resource to make new products.”
The biggest downside is that only the resellable clothing is truly being diverted through these take-back programs — it’s extremely challenging to recycle old clothes into new fiber. “We collaborate on different pilots with different companies that are in the space of developing new fabrics out of waste, however, it’s still a way to go,” says Ostrowski. “None of them have the technology that can be scaled, none of them have economies behind them, and it’s so much more expensive than regular raw materials. It’s almost out of the question.”
Until textile recycling can become more sophisticated, many textiles end up being down-cycled into lower-quality products. Textile recycling company Reskinned has ambitions to chemically recycle polyester and cotton for reuse as new yarns, but currently downcycles the old clothing they receive into cotton wipes, mattress filling, and insulation. There are some promising possibilities for the recycling of textiles — in the UK, a material science company called Upcycle Labs creates homewares from waste garments.
Gray believes that while recycling infrastructure has a ways to go, the situation isn’t as bad as certain high-profile news stories, like the images of discarded clothing covering the Atacama desert in Chile, make it seem. “The question I’m normally asked is: aren’t we just sending stuff to be landfilled and none of it gets recycled? That’s absolutely not the case, because there’d be no business for collecting this stuff if it was.” Still, we have to wonder if take-back schemes are just shifting valuable secondhand fashion out of local charity shops and into the maws of for-profit internet resellers, who ship across the country, while sending the low-value textiles off to the same place they’ve always been sent.
A huge proportion of resellable clothing enters the global secondhand clothing market, finding its way to countries like Kenya and Ghana, two major secondhand clothing hubs. In 2015, Oxfam estimated that 70% of clothing donated in Europe ended up in Africa. At Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana, it’s believed that 15 million items of secondhand clothing are unloaded every week — and that 40% of that is in an unsellable condition. So where does it end up? In landfills.
Rightly so, there has been increasing scrutiny on the fundamental injustice built into the secondhand clothing market, where an attitude of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ has forced countries like Ghana to deal with a mounting problem caused by overconsumption in Europe and the U.S. “There are some real initiatives trying to get it right for countries that are receiving used clothes — trying to make sure that we’re sending the right amounts to markets that do value them,” says Gray. “We don’t want to send more than they need, but if we stop sending them it leaves people without an income who are currently relying on that income. We’re trying to allow for that valuable market for used clothing to carry on, without assuming they can handle and want everything that we can throw at them. That’s an unreasonable expectation.”
Another criticism of take-back schemes, especially the ones that hand out coupons in exchange for your old clothes, is that they actually encourage more consumption. But Ostrowski doesn’t think so. “The Boohoo consumer is already going to go and buy from Boohoo again,” he says. “We have to accept it, and create an outlet for the old clothes so it doesn’t go to waste.” And without these incentives, customers might just throw the clothing away. With such low-value clothing, incentives are a necessary evil in convincing customers to spend the time and effort sending clothes back for recycling. “We did a survey with the UK Census for UK consumers, asking them: what would have to happen so that you’ll engage with recycling more?” explains Ostrowski. “And there were just two answers: it would have to be hassle-free, and I’ll need to get something out of it.”
The big question is, what happens to the clothes from fast fashion brands like Boohoo that can’t be recycled, because of low-quality construction and a lack of infrastructure, and can’t be resold, because of a lack of demand? All roads lead to landfills. Take-back schemes can never balance the equation of overproduction. Eileen Fisher, for example, takes back less than 5% of the nearly five million garments the brand sells every year. These schemes are a start, but to effectively combat fashion’s waste problem, we have to start by making less stuff — continuing with the same level of output is not an option.
What’s Next for Take-Back Schemes?
Take-back schemes are far from perfect, but they’re a promising sign of increased producer responsibility — brands being held accountable for the post-purchase journey of their products. Circular thinking starts in the design of a product. “We need stuff to be designed so that it is durable, recyclable and suitable to be sorted readily for recycling,” says Gray. This could look like anything from creating monofiber garments that can be stuffed wholesale into a recycling machine, to embedding traceability tech that allows recyclers to easily understand the makeup of garments using blockchain.
Our experts agree, take-back schemes are one of a suite of solutions — like made-to-order fashion, science-based targets, and a degrowth economy — that will help fashion tackle its overabundance issues. “Take-back schemes on their own aren’t the end game solution,” says Ostrowski. “It needs to be one of many solutions that are happening on the post-purchase front.” Gray agrees. “There’s a big need for how we can make sure this market is stronger, and it’s about more than just having a bin in the corner of the store that accepts clothes back,” she says. “There needs to be a solid market that is able to handle used clothing and direct it to the best route possible.”
Introducing regulation around a product’s end-of-life phase will also play a role in pushing brands to take more responsibility. “For the industry, changes in legislation will change a lot of problems,” says Ostrowski. “Suddenly, [brands] will be forced to look at these issues. You have two kinds of incentives, negative and positive, and you need a bit of the negative one to force them to create these systems.”
So if you’re planning to spring clean your wardrobe, should you use fashion brands’ take-back schemes? If the other alternative is the trash can, then yes. But it’s our responsibility to donate with intention. Consider if there is a local charity you like that can raise money through selling your donation of high-quality fashion.
If not, find out what the brand does with the clothes you send back (most brands have information about their take-back partners on its website) — this will help you choose what clothes to give them. Make sure everything you donate is clean, not damaged or stained, and in good condition, to give them the best possible chance at being resold. Bag them up to keep them clean and dry, tying shoes together by the laces (or in a separate bag) to keep them paired up. If your old clothes aren’t in a reusable condition, don’t hand them off to charities, which usually have limited resources and staff to deal with the quantities they receive. Instead, look to stores like H&M that work with trusted recycling logistics companies like I:CO or Yellow Octopus.
While it’s not always possible, we recommend favoring brands that repair and resell their own clothes so that you have greater visibility of where your clothes end up — something that recycling programs simply can’t provide at this stage.
It’s also important to examine your intentions for using take-back schemes. If you think it gives you a free pass to refill your wardrobe with lots of new clothes, you may be contributing to the problem more than solving it. And why not check out a brand’s resale platform for a pre-loved item before opting for new?
One thing is for sure, an easy solution would be to reconsider how quickly we purchase, use, then get rid of our clothing in the first place. “One of the things that would be nice is if there was less churn,” says Gray. “Maybe we need to hang on to the stuff we’ve bought for a bit longer.”