Textile Trash: Just What Goes In the Bin? A Guest Post by Kelly Drennan from Fashion Takes Action

fashion takes action sustainability recycle clothes

We are so pleased to introduce Kelly Drennan, Executive Director of Fashion Takes Action, Canada’s only non-profit industry organization devoted to the social and environmental impacts of fashion. FTA promotes sustainability to industry and consumers through education, awareness and collaboration. Today Kelly is going to tell us what to do with clothes at the end of their wearable life (stained clothes, socks with holes, worn-out underwear – all of it). Spoiler: do NOT throw it out!


As a sustainable fashion advocate for the past decade, my world is full of ever-changing facts about the social and environmental damage caused by the fashion industry. I am constantly working to raise awareness about fashion’s impact on the earth. For example:

  • fashion is the second largest polluting industry after oil
  • the average t-shirt travels 35,000 km before landing on your back
  • 85% of our used textiles end up in landfill, and account for 10-15% of total landfill mass.

Textile waste is a huge environmental issue, and most of us don’t think much about what truly happens to our garments when we’re done with them. But there’s a lot to learn, and so much that we as consumers can do about it.

Buying less is, of course, the golden rule. We don’t need more clothes. According to Fashion Revolution, we purchase 400x more clothing per year than we did in 1980. And with the rise of fast fashion, we are becoming more and more addicted to low quality disposable clothing.

But what happens to all the clothing we do have once we’re done with it? Passing on unwanted but wearable clothing is the best thing we can do, but what about our unwanted, unwearable stuff (the 10 pairs of socks with holes in the toes, old underwear, ripped or stained linens)?

fashion takes action sustainability recycle clothes

I polled my Facebook community to ask what they do. 90% said they never donate underwear, socks, bedding, etc. They wouldn’t even imagine doing something like that! Some people stretch the life of unwearable clothes by using them as rags around the house, but eventually they get chucked into the garbage can.

Here comes the shocker: EVERYTHING can go into the clothing donation bins. That’s right. Everything – even your holey-toed socks and other unmentionables. Not because there is a market to resell these items, but because there is a market to recycle them. And while that market might be small now, we as consumers have the power to make it great. If we start donating EVERYTHING to the bins and to the second hand retailers, it means we will have a whole lot more textile waste on our hands. This will force industry and government to move quickly and create innovative solutions, which in turn can help boost our economy or grow the low-carbon economy by creating jobs and reducing greenhouse gases.* Some municipalities are already on board, like the City of Markham, which recently imposed a landfill ban on all textile waste.

About 60-70% of what we donate is resold, either in stores like Value Village and Salvation Army that collect them or ship to developing countries (who are slowly starting to say “no thanks”). Another 20-25% is sold for shredding to other sectors, like the automotive, carpet, toy, and hopefully soon the building sector. These industries buy shredded textile waste and use it for insulation, underpadding, stuffing, etc.

fashion takes action sustainability recycle clothes

Unfortunately, it is much more lucrative for the clothing collectors to sell to exporters (who then ship our used clothing to developing countries) than it is to keep it local. Which is really crazy when you think about it. Used clothing is a commodity, just like any other recyclable, and contributes billions of dollars to the global economy. So keeping this commodity local means it has potential to boost our own economy. Yet without government incentives or infrastructure, the collectors will continue to export it.

About 5% of what is collected is truly recycled and turned into new fabric, and eventually into new garments. This is the most exciting for me because it means we can start creating fabric from our waste. H&M and Levi’s are 2 brands that are doing this now, and they are collecting used textiles (from any brand in any condition) in their stores. There are other brands that now do this, and I am confident that even more will jump on board in the next year or two.

It is this textile recycling that we need to grow – right here in Canada. It is what will create new jobs and support our country’s climate action plan under the Paris Agreement. So please, donate EVERYTHING and force industry and government to solve this massive issue. We have more power than we think. We can do this!

* On the issue of greenhouse gases: 1kg of textile waste generates 4kg of carbon dioxide. The average Canadian household generates 56kg of textile waste, 85% of which goes to landfill. 46kg of textile waste x 13 million households equals 600 million kg of carbon dioxide. In addition, there will be methane released from decomposing plant-based materials or nitrous oxide from synthetic materials, which are 25 and 310 times more harmful respectively to the planet than carbon dioxide.


If you are looking for other ways to support the work we do at Fashion Takes Action, join us and witness history in the making at Design Forward 2017: Canada’s Sustainable Fashion Award on May 27th, when 10 semi-finalists will show 3 looks each on our runway as they compete for the title. Tickets ($50) are on sale here!

fashion takes action sustainability recycle clothes

Kelly Drennan is a social entrepreneur devoted to making change within the fashion industry. Ten years ago she founded Fashion Takes Action, out of her desire to create a better, more sustainable future for her two daughters. She has most recently been recognized as a Canadian environmental leader with the esteemed Clean 50 Award for her work in Education & Awareness, and is the first recipient of this award for the fashion industry.


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