UK’s ‘addiction’ to fast fashion creating cost strains for second hand clothing market

The UK is consuming more clothes per head than any other country in Europe, but is failing to adequately support the reuse and recycling sector to find new markets for used textiles, with WRAP citing concerns about low-quality fast fashion items.

UK’s ‘addiction’ to fast fashion creating cost strains for second hand clothing market

WRAP’s latest Textiles Market Situation Report 2024, published on Tuesday (30 April), found that the UK purchased 1.42 million tonnes of textiles in 2022 while discarding 1.45 million tonnes. As a result, the UK is throwing away more than 700,000 tonnes of post-consumer textiles into residual black bins and general waste at Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs).

The research found that, on average, individuals in the UK discard 35 items of clothing into general waste streams each year. This adds up to around 49% of the textiles used by people in the UK being thrown away, rather than recycled or reused.

WRAP reports that 84% of this material was incinerated for energy recovery and 11% was sent to landfill.

WRAP’s chief executive Harriet Lamb said: “We’re all buying too many new items and then putting too many clothes in the waste-bin consigning them to landfill or incineration.

“These are valuable resources, not waste. We should be giving to charity shops who rely on the income, selling on e-commerce, repairing or sharing – anything but the bin!”

Industry warnings

The research found that the UK’s textile consumption levels are now nearing pre-Covid levels. As such, the UK now consumes more clothes per head than any other European country.

However, most of this consumption ends up as general waste and even the items that make their way into reuse and recycling businesses are of a far lower quality and cost than previously.

WRAP states that the value of recovered textiles from textile banks and charities has fallen from £406 (per tonne from textile banks) and £432 (per tonne from charity shops) a decade ago to £172 and £255 respectively.

Businesses handling these items are struggling with an increased quantity of lower-quality goods, meaning operational costs are higher, but profits are lower.

WRAP cites the presence of more fast fashion items as a major challenge for the profitability of these sectors. Recent research from Remake World found that waste resulting from ‘fast fashion’ often ends up in landfills or incinerators, disproportionately impacting countries in the Global South such as Chile and Ghana, that simply lack the necessary resources and support to manage this waste.

The reuse and recycling sector is responsible for finding new markets for used textiles and unsold, surplus, or faulty stock. The sector has suffered a 57% reduction in price from textiles in the last 10 years, without accounting for inflation.

WRAP is calling on the UK to boost textile donation efforts, either via textile banks, charity shops, or burgeoning retail takeback schemes and online preloved marketplaces. The organisation also wants brands and retailers to fund the reuse sector while also designing clothes for durability as part of a circular economy.

Commenting on the report, the Textiles Recycling Association’s chief executive Alan Wheeler said: “The quality of fashion is declining and the mass of textiles products put on the market is increasing.  We are also in a current situation where the global used textile industry is in a dire situation, warehouses are full, collections are grinding to a halt, demand in the main global markets is being hugely disrupted, trade has dropped off a cliff, and news of layoffs and rumours of closures are a daily occurrence.

“This current situation coupled with the findings of the new Textiles Market Situation Report show why we need serious interventions and support from government and industry through policies such as EPR, product standards and minimum recycled content in new products.”

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