Used threads are big business as fast fashion pollutes planet
The secondhand clothing market is quickly expanding as global fashion houses, including Chanel, embrace sustainability.
The amount of apparel wasted is still immense, though efforts are being made globally to recycle clothing.
Yuchang Trading, a Gwangju, Gyeonggi-based textile company that collects and exports used apparel, processes about 28 tons of used clothing a day.
Piles of clothing as high as 7 meters are dug through by backhoes at its two facilities, and approximately 100 employees sort clothing into 80 categories.
Once sorted, 99 percent of the recyclable clothes are exported, while the rest goes to the domestic secondhand market.
"Though these clothes were thrown away, they are neither worn-out nor outdated," said Yuchang Trading CEO Yu Jong-sang. "Most of the clothes are from fast fashion brands."
Fast fashion, one of the most resource-intensive industries in the world, takes advantage of quickly-changing fashion trends by mass-producing clothing at affordable prices to maximize profitability.
100 billion garments a year
Fast fashion is generating an immense amount of pollution every year.
According to a Korea Institute of Industrial Economics & Trade report released last November, global clothing consumption amounts to 62 million tons a year. The number is estimated to reach 102 million tons by 2030 at the current pace, mostly due to fast fashion.
A 2017 Ellen MacArthur Foundation report found that an average American buys a new fashion item every 5.5 days. Clothing consumption increased 40 percent from 1996 to 2021 in Europe, and an average person living in Britain purchases 25.7 kilograms of clothes a year.
"Most of the recycled clothes are downcycled rather than upcycled," said Hong Su-yeol of Resource Recycle Consulting, "and every piece clothing ends up as trash in terms of the overall resource circulation."
When a material is upcycled, it is converted into something of better or equal quality. Through downcycling, the quality of the product goes down.
"Fast fashion mass-produces and quickly discards clothes, which creates a serious environmental issue," Hong pointed out.
Fashion United reported that the global fashion and textile market is worth $3 trillion, with a total of 7 million people working in the industry.
The fast fashion industry is growing fast, as well as its environmental impact.
According to a UN Environment Programme report released in 2018, the global fashion industry produces about 400 million to 500 million tons of greenhouse gas a year, eight to 10 percent of the total emissions, and is also responsible for one-fifth, or some 79 trillion liters, of industrial water pollution worldwide.
"There are a number of issues that need to be resolved in the clothing recycling process, but voices for change often go unheard by the government," said Jeong Seok-gi, director of the Korea Clothing Textiles Recycling Association.
Fashion industry at a crossroads
Major fashion brands such as Chanel and Swedish H&M have come forward, pledging to make their businesses more sustainable.
Last November, about 130 apparel makers, including LVMH and Nike, signed the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action proposed by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, during the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 26). The updated Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action aims to cut emissions 50 percent by 2030.
Of industry leaders, 43 percent said that they are planning to reduce inventory levels, according to survey conducted by McKinsey & Company and industry outlet Business of Fashion, and 61 percent said that they will cut the number of products to avoid oversupply.
"The breakout of Covid-19 pandemic drew attention to sustainability," said Ko Eun-ju, a fashion marketing professor at Yonsei University.
The number of consumers making environmentally conscious choices when shopping is increasing, she explained.
"Sustainable fashion is also on the rise in result," said Ko.
Rise of secondhand fashion
The significant growth of the secondhand fashion market also shows the shift in consumer behavior.
"As vintage items are ranging from 1950s-style to the early 2000s, a wide variety of choices are available," said Jung Eun-sol, the head of the store, adding that vintage might be "the new black."
An increasing number of second-hand clothing stores are emerging throughout the country.
"Unlike the older people who grew up in a relatively harsh social circumstance, younger people brought up in an affluent society tend to be less materialistic and less self-conscious, which made them the main consumers of secondhand clothes," said Yang Yoon, a consumer psychology professor of Ewha Womans' University.
Oakland's thredUP sells over 100,000 garments a day on average. It posted the quarterly revenue of $63.3 million in the third quarter of 2021, a 35 percent increase on year.
According to a 2020 Boston Consulting Group report, the secondhand market size is estimated at $40 billion, and will almost double in 5 years to reach $77 billion by 2025, surpassing the fast fashion industry in terms of revenue by 2027. Secondhand selling is also booming in Korea, especially through e-commerce sites such as Danggeun Market and Bungaejangter.
BY JEON YOUNG-SUN, BAE JUNG-WON, KIM YEON-JOO [email@example.com]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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