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Image: H&M

Are fast fashion’s recycling programs all they are cracked up to be? Swedish fast fashion giant H&M, for instance, has spent countless dollars on massive campaigns advertising its various recycling programs, whether it be the World Recycling Week initiatives or its ongoing in-store clothing trade-in option (trade in clothes and receive 15% off your next H&M purchase). While H&M is – in theory – doing more than many other similarly situated brands, these types of recycling drives often prove to be more of a marketing effort than a game changer for the environment.

According to a statement from H&M, which has worked hard to position itself as a pioneer when it comes to sustainability (while holding the title of the second largest apparel retailer in the world): “H&M first launched the Garment Collecting program in 2013. The idea is simple: Bring your unwanted clothes (from any brand, in any condition) to your nearest H&M store. H&M will then make sure to give them a new life, by re-using them or recycling them, and in return you get vouchers to use at H&M. Everybody wins!”

But do such recycling initiatives, however promising on paper, really allow everyone to win? Not really. In fact, such initiatives more often than not fall victim to gross oversimplification, as the marketing for them is absent any context as to how they are actually executed.

As noted by Newsweek in September 2016, “Despite the impressive amount of marketing dollars the company pumped into World Recycle Week to promote the idea of recycling clothes—including the funding of a music video by M.I.A.—what H&M is doing is nothing special. Its salvaged clothing goes through almost the exact same process as garments donated to, say, Goodwill, or really anywhere else.”

Lucy Siegle, a journalist at The Guardian and a dedicated fashion sustainability advocate, has stated that it would take H&M up to 12 years to use 1,000 tons of the recycled clothing it collects. (Since 2013, the company says it has collected more than 25,000 tons of recycled garments).

In case that is not telling enough, Newsweek – which asserts that the old-fashioned kind of recycling, donating and reselling of secondhand clothes “is basically a myth” – further notes, “Many secondhand stores will reject items from fast-fashion chains like Forever 21, H&M, Zara and Topshop. The inexpensive clothing is poor quality, with low resale value, and there’s just too much of it.”

And even when secondhand stores accept clothing donations, that does not mean your used garments are being sold or given to those in need. Instead, as Fashionista noted last year, “only a small portion — about 20 percent — of Americans’ used clothing, including those sent to consignment shops, are being sold at secondhand retail outlets and thrift stores in the U.S.” The rest is “shipped to developing areas like sub-Saharan Africa, South America and China where clothes are bought in 1,000-pound bales, sorted and then resold to the local populace, sometimes wreaking havoc on local industries by taking jobs away from local textile workers.”

Still yet, “another 45 percent is recycled through one of the U.S.’s 3,000-odd textile recycling facilities,” and the rest ends up in landfills. The best case scenario here – one would think – is the discarding of natural fibers, such as cotton, linen and silk (as distinct from completely synthetic, petroleum-based fabrics). But even that is ugly; “Natural fibers go through a lot of unnatural processes on their way to becoming clothing,” Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, told Newsweek.

“They’ve been bleached, dyed, printed on, scoured in chemical baths.” Those chemicals can leach from the textiles and—in improperly sealed landfills—into groundwater.” Meanwhile, truly synthetic fibers (think: polyester, nylon and acrylic) take hundreds of years, if not a thousand, to biodegrade.

As such, the longstanding notion of “Buy Less. Buy Better.” still stands and is arguably more important than ever given the near-exponential rise in the amount of garments that are thrown away each year. Fast fashion retailers will continue to churn out tons of garments (literally and figuratively); the power of the individual actor in creating a wardrobe of clothing that is lasting and not disposable cannot be understated.

A movement away from buying cheap, low quality, trend-specific garments, wearing them for a short time, and discarding them and then starting the cycle all over again – without any remorse – will be born from a collective shift that requires individuals to begin to think about how we value clothing (and in connection therewith, the environment, as well as the wellbeing of the individuals making such items). Given the low success rates of these glorified recycling programs, an emphasis on buying garments we want to keep might prove a more useful tactic that we can all begin to (or continue to) engage in now.