N° 55 | Take-back schemes: solution to the fast-fashion problem or greenwashing?

September 08, 2023

Pile of used clothes

As we know fast fashion has severely impacted the clothing industry: an environmental crisis and the exploitation of workers lye behind the low prices and short fashion cycles. The rapid production of low-quality clothes designed to be worn for a short period does nothing but increase the amount of waste in landfills. In addition, recycling and reuse are challenging due to the fact that fast fashion relies on synthetic materials derived from fossil fuels, whose fibres do not biodegrade spreading microplastics. Also, the majority of discarded clothes are not reusable because of their poor quality or lack of demand for second-hand clothing and the recycling technologies are still in their infancy.

To demonstrate a shift to a circular model, an increasing number of brands are establishing take-back schemes, where consumers can return their used clothes that can be then reused or recycled. Actually, few of these brands track and supervise what happens to the clothes after they have been collected. Changing Markets Foundation's investigation “Take-back trickery: an investigation into clothing take-back schemes” published in July 2023 demonstrated that this system can create the illusion that the fashion industry is dealing with its waste problem. However, despite the promises of reuse and recycling, 60% of collected clothing items were dumped, destroyed (i.e. via energy recovery), or downcycled (i.e. shredded to create items of lower value such as insulation materials, cleaning cloths, or chair padding), while others were shipped to the Global South, adding up to the burden on countries ill-equipped to deal with this volume of waste, polluting the environment. With Europeans discarding ca. 11 kg of clothing per person every year (European Environment Agency, Textiles in Europe’s circular economy, 2019), if the fate of our tracked garments is reflective of the wider market for used and donated clothing, it represents a very significant problem indeed.

 The Changing Markets Foundation's report also shows that take-back schemes are used as a tool for greenwashing, enabling brands to show a circular approach avoiding a meaningful systemic change. This system offers consumers a false sense of environmental responsibility allowing in addition brands to encourage consumption by offering incentives like vouchers or discounts when customers drop off their used clothing. It is clear that the fashion industry needs a wake-up call to start aligning with the upcoming regulatory storm: on 5 July 2023, the European Commission has published its long awaited revision of the Waste Framework Directive, where an EU-wide Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme for textiles and footwear is outlined. This legislative proposal is the first attempt to regulate the environmental performance of the textile industry specifically focused on its waste aspect. It will require to take responsibility for the cost of end-of-life treatment of clothes and sorting of textiles before shipment abroad. The upcoming legislation on green claims will hopefully also help in uncovering greenwashing tactics, requiring substantial evidence for claims made by brands on their take-back schemes.

 At such a crucial time, it is very important that both consumers and brands navigate this scenario with critical awareness. While take-back programs offer potential solutions for positive change, industry transformation requires more than superficial or partial gestures. Authentic sustainability will require transparent accountability, systematic change, and a collective commitment to a truly circular fashion ecosystem.

 At Regenesi we have engaged in many “end-of-life collection and recovery" projects together with our partners or on our own, involving our production chains with the logic of waste regeneration and creative recovery. And so from a pair of customers' old jeans new bags are born and from old plastic bottles a set of eco-jewelry is created. We believe that it is necessary to integrate the awareness dimension with the conscious management of the product at the end of its life, as well as help to change the behaviour of each consumer.

 An example of upcycling of an end-of-life fashion product based on a take-back scheme is the project Regenerate Your Jeans” where we preserve the uniqueness of a pair of jeans but also support ethical, sustainable, and made in Italy manufacturing. We collect a pair of jeans and transform it into a new product, a bag,based on the costumer choice among the available models and a free butler service. We send a courier to pick up the pair of jeans, on a mutually agreed date, and we'll return it as soon as its transformation has taken new shape through the hands of our artisans.

Furthermore, with Regenstech we have developed an industrial process that allows us to transform textile waste into thermoplastic material. From industrial and civil textile waste it is therefore possible to create a recycled and recyclable secondary raw material directly that allows companies in the fashion sector to directly manage the closing of the circle with their own waste and scraps. This offers a concrete solution to the easy option of shipping used garments to developing countries.

In our opinion, the transition to a sustainable and circular model is based on behavioural change in conscious purchases and upcycling projects of consumer clothing and on the application of technological innovative solutions. Like all new approaches, implementation is tiring and challenging but the road has been traced, now it is necessary to put it into practice.