Brits toss $142 million in clothing after single wearing

Brits toss $142 million in clothing after single wearing

Ever tossed an ugly sweater from your aunt in the trash after wearing it over to her house just once? If you're a Brit, that action added you to the ranks of the more than 12 million citizens who do the same thing every year.

As it nears the end of its five-year Plan A sustainability initiative, Marks & Spencer released a poll last week last week showing that British consumers annually dump nearly $142 million of clothing worn a single time into landfills.

In the latest promotion for its Shwopping customer clothing recycling program -- which takes in used clothing and donates it to the Oxfam human rights organization -- M&S released a YouGov poll of 2,200 UK consumers stating that in the past year, one in five UK consumers threw at least one item of clothing away after only one wearing. The Shwopping program, launched in April, accepts in-store clothing donations – including apparel, accessories and shoes -- of any kind and condition for resale, re-use or recycling of basic materials.

The research caps a busy three months of environmental news from the London-based retailer, which began the $300 million initiative in 2007 with the tagline, "There is no Plan B." The 118-year-old chain also announced it reached its goal of becoming the world’s first major retailer to become carbon neutral and to make all of its children’s clothing from fully traceable materials.

No dollar results yet

While confirming that UK shoppers have brought in 500,000 items of clothing since launching the "Shwopping" program in April, a M&S spokesman would not give details on whether the program has yielded a bump in profitability or traffic for the company, which has 700 stores in the UK alone.

"It’s not something we have published figures on – it’s too soon at this stage," he said. "M&S sells around 350 million items of clothing a year and therefore it’s our long-term aim to collect 350 million items of unwanted clothing a year." M&S now operates the Shwopping program throughout its UK stores and the Republic of Ireland, and the company adds "we’re investigating how it can work in international markets," which includes 300 stores in 43 territories across Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

The weekend of June 21-24 was a critical one for M&S’s investment in the program – the company offered a voucher worth nearly $8 to customers bringing in items who spend over $50 on new items.

The used clothing problem

Unwanted clothing has become just one of the much-publicized disadvantages of the global "fast fashion" movement, where supply chains are moving at increasingly top speed to deliver trendy, affordable fashion to consumers of all ages. One challenge for retailers' sustainability and human rights efforts is the criticism that has erupted at all stages of the process, from attacks on sweatshop manufacturing to poor workmanship and use of inferior raw materials that force virtually new garments into landfills almost immediately.  

A June 18 story in Slate reported that most donated clothing in the United States is actually sold overseas and that used clothing is now one of the United States’ top exports by volume alone.

Said the M&S spokesman, "We already use clothes donated to Oxfam to help make (in-store) products. Shwopping will give us an even greater supply of materials that can be turned into material of high enough quality to make new garments. Last year we sold an Autograph ladies coat made entirely from recycled cashmere and wool sourced from products that had been returned to M&S stores."

Carbon neutrality

M&S announced June 7 that it became the first major retailer to achieve carbon neutral status as part of the Plan A initiative. The company’s stores, offices, warehouses and transportation operations met the goal through an emissions cut of 22 percent and the purchase of carbon offsets to balance out the remainder of the goal. 

The company updates its results in the program every June and November.

Kids lead the traceability effort

On June 19, M&S said its children’s clothing line – most M&S apparel is sold under its house brand – will become the first to have entirely traceable materials under Plan A. "We have committed to full traceability across our entire clothing and home supply chain by 2015," said the M&S spokesman. "Children’s wear is not necessarily a priority over any other department, it is simply the first department in the roll out of our new traceability system."

In that program, the retailer announced what it called the "world’s most sustainable suit" priced roughly at $550 and made of organic wool fully traceable back to the farm that produced it, with a lining made from recycled plastic bottles and reclaimed buttons, pocket and waistband fabric. Recycled polyester was used for the canvas inside the main body of the suit and all the labels.