A recent investigation from nonprofit Changing Markets Foundation is questioning the state of apparel trade-in programs.
Using 21 Apple AirTag identifications, the Dutch nonprofit traced pristine garments, among them coats, trousers and jackets, through major programs including H&M, Zara, C&A, Primark, Nike, The North Face, Uniqlo and M&S. Locations spanned Belgium, France, Germany and the U.K., only. Additional items were donated to a Boohoo upcycling scheme.
Given the sheer scale of clothing waste, even the best efforts came up short, according to the study. Program tag lines suggest customers help “Close the loop,” as is the case for H&M or “Complete the circle,” per The North Face.
The majority, or 76 percent, (16 out of 21 garments) were either destroyed, left in warehouses or exported to Africa for disposal, which is a mounting human rights and waste crisis. Trousers donated to M&S were scrapped within a week. Joggers donated to C&A were burned in a cement kiln. A skirt donated to H&M traveled 24,800 kilometers from London to waste ground in Mali, allegedly dumped. Three items ended up in Ukraine, where import rules have been relaxed due to the war. Only five items, around a quarter of the original 21, were reused in Europe or ended up in a resale shop.
“We take the findings presented in the investigation very seriously and we are humble to the fact that we and our previous partner in this case have not managed to live up to our own high standards,” an H&M spokesperson told WWD. “We agree with the report that it is a major problem in our industry and in others, that discarded products are not disposed of properly and become waste in different countries.”
Addressing the accusations in the investigation, the spokesperson added: “At the time the investigation was conducted, our garment-collecting partner was still I:Collect. As of Jan. 1, 2023, Remondis has taken over the responsibility as our partner for operating H&M Group’s garment collection program globally. With the change, we also ensured that all garments collected in the U.K. are now sorted within Europe.”
Remondis is a 50-50 joint venture with H&M. H&M’s garment collecting program was established in 2013. Since then, the group has made 17 investments in circular fashion start-ups including textile-to-textile recycling firm Renewcell. The brand said it has a “zero tolerance” policy for textiles becoming waste in its partner agreements and underscored its commitment to more routine follow-ups.
Primark also offered clarity, in a statement. “Our take-back scheme is run by Yellow Octopus, textile recycling specialists with a no-landfill policy and together we take a number of steps to ensure clothing donated through the scheme is managed in a responsible way,” per Lynne Walker, director of Primark Cares. “We believe the hoodie has been handled as it should have been and is with a clothing reseller in Budapest, Hungary.”
Since its launch in 2020, Primark has put up collection boxes in stores across the U.K., Ireland, Austria and Germany. Under the Yellow Octopus’ Upcycle Labs, the program is said to use textile waste to create home products such as soap dishes, vases and candle holders. Earlier this year, Primark launched its Circular Product Standard for making more durable clothing.
In its summary, Changing Markets said European Commission regulators need to include “mandatory” reuse and recycling targets, a tax on synthetic textiles and circular design standards among its legal measures. Already, France and the Netherlands instate legally binding reuse and recycling targets for used clothing. Past reports from Changing Markets linked fashion to Russian oil and clothing waste exports to Kenya landfills, among other sustainability focuses.