What happens to the clothes we don't buy? You might think that last season's coats, trousers and turtlenecks end up being put to use, but most of it (nearly 13 million tons each year in the United States alone) ends up in landfills. Fashion has a waste problem, and Amit Kalra wants to fix it. He shares some creative ways the industry can evolve to be more conscientious about the environment -- and gain a competitive advantage at the same time.
This talk was presented at a TED Institute event given in partnership with Tommy Hilfiger. TED editors featured it among our selections on the home page. Read more about the TED Institute.
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A few years ago, I found myself looking for the most cost-effective way to be stylish. So naturally, I wound up at my local thrift store, a wonderland of other people's trash that was ripe to be plucked to become my treasure. Now, I wasn't just looking for your averageoff-the-secondhand-rack vintage T-shirt to wear. For me, real style lives at the intersection of design and individuality. So to make sure that I was getting the most out of the things I was finding, I bought a sewing machine so I could tailor the 90's-style garments that I was finding, to fit a more contemporary aesthetic. I've been tailoring and making my own clothes from scratch ever since, so everything in my closet is uniquely my own.
But as I was sorting through the endless racks of clothes at these thrift stores, I started to ask myself, what happens to all the clothes that I don't buy? The stuff that isn't really cool or trendy but kind of just sits there and rots away at these secondhand stores. I work in the fashion industry on the wholesale side, and I started to see some of the products that we sell end up on the racks of these thrift stores. So the question started to work its way into my work life, as well. I did some research and I pretty quickly found a very scary supply chain that led me to some pretty troubling realities.
It turned out that the clothes I was sorting though at these thrift stores represented only a small fraction of the total amount of garments that we dispose of each year. In the US, only 15 percent of the total textile and garment waste that's generated each yearends up being donated or recycled in some way, which means that the other 85 percent of textile and garment waste end up in landfills every year. Now, I want to put this into perspective, because I don't quite think that the 85 percent does the problem justice.This means that almost 13 million tons of clothing and textile waste end up in landfills every year in just the United States alone. This averages out to be roughly 200 T-shirts per person ending up in the garbage.
In Canada, we throw away enough clothing to fill the largest stadium in my home town of Toronto, one that seats 60,000 people, with a mountain of clothes three times the size of that stadium. Now, even with this, I still think that Canadians are the more polite North Americans, so don't hold it against us.
What was even more surprising was seeing that the fashion industry is the second-largest polluter in the world behind the oil and gas industry. This is an important comparison to make. I don't want to defend the oil and gas industry but I'd be lying if I said I was surprised to hear they were the number one polluter. I just assumed, fairly or not, that that's an industry that doesn't really mind sticking to the status quo. One where the technology doesn't really change and the focus is more so on driving profitability at the expense of a sustainable future. But I was really surprised to see that the fashion industry was number two. Because maintaining that status quo is the opposite of what the fashion industry stands for.
The unfortunate reality is, not only do we waste a lot of the things we do consume, but we also use a lot to produce the clothes that we buy each year. On average, a household's purchase of clothing per year requires 1,000 bathtubs of water to produce. A thousand bathtubs of water per household, per year. That's a lot of water. It seems that the industry that always has been and probably always will be on the forefront of design, creates products that are designed to be comfortable, designed to be trendy and designed to be expressive but aren't really designed to be sustainable or recyclable for that matter. But I think that can change. I think the fashion industry's aptitude for change is the exact thing that should make it patient zero for sustainable business practices. And I think to get started, all we have to do is start to design clothes to be recyclable at the end of their life.