People search among racks of clothing, a Mariah Carey song plays on the speakers, and jarring statistics about textile waste fill a screen.
This is the scene at Ryerson’s Student Learning Centre on Sept. 27 during the university’s clothing swap to promote awareness for textile waste. The event, organized by the Fashion and Social Ventures Zones, allowed students to turn old clothes into new treasures by donating their unwanted garments.
According to the Recycling Council of Ontario, the average Canadian annually discards 81 pounds of textiles while in North America, 9.5 million tons of clothing are sent to landfills.
Kelvin Li, marketing and events co-ordinator at the Fashion Zone, said the swap is a fun way to do something good for the planet. These types of events provide a different experience than simply donating clothes.
“It’s more fun,” he said. “It’s kind of cool when you get all these different students bringing their clothes and you see what are in other people’s closets.”
This year, the Fashion Zone invited the Ryerson community and the general public to its swap. According to Li, inviting a greater audience provides the opportunity to educate more people.
“A lot of people, I’m sure now, know that a lot of clothing gets wasted throughout the year,” he said. “So as the institution, how do we promote awareness of this and how do we actually do something about it?”
He said that this particular swap generated more than 250 pounds of clothing, and every year there is more participation.
Claudia Marsales, senior manager of environmental management for the City of Markham, said clothing swaps are one of the many ways consumers can begin the switch to more sustainable shopping.
“Textile waste is the second most polluting industry in the world,” said Marsales. “We just haven’t realized it yet because all we think about as a consumer is, ‘Wow. Two T-shirts for two bucks. I’m buying those two T-shirts whether I need them or not.’”
In 2014, the City of Markham began holding focus groups to educate residents on the consequences of textile waste.
“People were making their decisions on what to do with their clothing based on the brand,” she said. “If we named off a label they felt was more substantial, maybe more high end, they didn’t trash that.”
The clothing at Ryerson’s swap supports the findings from Marsales’ focus groups. Suit racks were full of high-quality pieces that, according to Li, still had tags on them when they arrived at the Fashion Zone.
“We saw brand names like Holt Renfrew exclusives in there,” he said. “Full 100 per cent wool and silk was in there, just hidden treasures.”
The luxury approach
Luxury fashion brands are also playing a role in reducing waste. Earlier this month, Burberry announced an immediate end to the company’s practice of burning unsold products. In 2017, the fashion house was criticized for destroying over $37 million dollars worth of clothes and perfume.
In a statement, Burberry chief executive officer Marco Gobbetti said that “modern luxury means being socially and environmentally responsible.”
According to the New York Times, companies like Chanel and Louis Vuitton also destroy unsold stock to maintain exclusivity.
Ben Barry, chair of Ryerson’s fashion department, said this practice is “completely arrogant and wasteful.”
“They’re putting the prestige of their brand ahead of people on the planet,” he said. “I think we fail to recognize the incredible destruction fashion causes to the planet and the incredible classism that exists and excludes so many people from having the opportunity of having clothing.”
What can we do?
While many are taking part in Ryerson’s initiatives to reduce textile waste, there are still those who are hesitant to shop from someone else’s closet.
“Maybe they’re used to buying new, and they think they don’t know where this shirt has been,” he said. “But I would say, washing it carefully and taking care of the garments is enough to actually make a garment totally reusable.”
For those hesitant to go through a clothing swap, Li says to start small and within your own family.
“There’s a bigger push and more knowledge out there that fashion is very destructive so having something that’s actually fun and engaging, you never know what you’ll find when you’re at a pop-up,” said Li.
If you’d like to participate in a clothing swap, the Fashion Zone will be holding a followup on Oct. 16 for waste reduction week.