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How We Can Reduce Textile Waste and Contribute to a More Sustainable Future

How We Can Reduce Textile Waste and Contribute to a More Sustainable Future
Lilija Karpjaka

By Lilija Karpjaka

9 min read

Back when I was a student, I was an avid fast fashion consumer. I’d drop in the popular stores just to see the newest trends. The pressure to keep up was heavy, so whenever I could, I’d get the latest pieces for that satisfying feeling of fitting in.

That’s exactly what fast fashion wanted me to do. Fast fashion stores present new clothing multiple times a month by filtering high-end design into its most basic, egalitarian ranges. Because of this fast-paced production, the clothes are made of poor quality materials, and each time you go shopping, the trends have shifted and your trendy clothes are chic no more.

Each month, my closet grew with items I no longer felt comfortable wearing. As I stuffed bags of my pilling so-out-of-seasons, I contributed to the 100 million tons of waste each year.

Today, the fashion industry has become one of the biggest polluters in the world, earning itself fourth place on the list.

Becoming sustainable for each of us should no longer be a trend but a necessity. So let’s talk about how textile waste affects our planet and how the print-on-demand (POD) industry can help pave the way to a more sustainable future.

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Fashion production

Printful and other print-on-demand companies are part of the fashion industry. Yet we believe on-demand production is a step ahead in terms of sustainability and this model makes sense for the age of fast-changing tastes.

The fashion industry plays a big part in the increasing volumes of wasted products entering landfills each day. Print-on-demand means that we make clothes only when a customer makes an order, avoiding that excess stock and reducing fabric waste. Brands can respond to customer preferences and delete anything from their stores that are no longer wanted.

This also means that business owners don’t lose money on overproduction and warehousing fees, and they don’t have to deal with a pile of the wasted potential of clothes that didn’t sell.

Fast fashion and textile waste

Fast fashion exploded in popularity in the early 2000s and has grown exponentially ever since. As the massive shopping boom continues to create various issues for the environment, which we’ll cover in the following chapters, we need to find sustainable solutions for damage control. 

Why is it important for fashion brands to start thinking more sustainably?

Sustainable fashion is a much-needed counter-culture to fast fashion. It means longer-lasting clothes of a higher quality. Sustainable clothes might be more expensive, but they’re generally more durable and last longer. People tend to part from good quality clothes less often, meaning less goes to waste.

Let’s look at some statistics to back this all up.

Textiles in our landfills

The textile industry is one of the most significant manufacturing industries in the world. It follows the fashion industry’s dynamic trend requests, so most textile waste comes from discarded clothing.

Stat #1: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that in 2018, the US alone generated 17 million tons of textile waste

The chart below shows the total number of tons of textiles generated, recycled, burned (with energy recovery), and landfilled over three decades. 

EPA chart showing generated, recycled, burned, and landfilled textiles over three decades
Source: EPA

As you can see, most of the clothes end up in the trash and rot in landfills.

Stat #2: In the US, a person throws away an average of 81 pounds of clothes each year. Globally, right now, we’re reaching 101 million tons of waste per year.

That’s the equal of a garbage truck full of clothes heading to the landfill sites every second.

These textiles then decompose, creating greenhouse gasses and harmful leachates. These contaminated liquids form when rainwater filters through waste and draws out harmful chemicals from the fabrics.

But our consumer waste isn’t all that ends up in landfills.

Stat #3: The average apparel factory discards or incinerates about 60,000 pounds of usable textiles every single week.

Pre-consumer textile waste (or post-industrial waste) generated in factories by fashion companies also end up in landfills. All the unused fabric samples, cut-outs, defective products, and overstock are burned or trashed, never reaching the consumer. 

POD is also a contributor to this waste as damages and fabric scraps are an unavoidable part of the production process. However, POD businesses can avoid overproduction that makes up most of the pre-consumer waste.

Burned and barely recycled

Recycling clothes isn’t a simple process. The clothes are often made of complex blends of fibers, plastics, and metals, and contain fixtures and accessories. Sorting clothes for recycling demands a skilled workforce that separates materials by hand. It’s labor-intensive and slow.

But this isn’t the only reason why fashion companies burn huge swathes of clothes worth millions of dollars. They also do this either to protect the exclusivity of the brand or to discard “out-of-fashion” apparel.

For example, a few years ago a luxury label announced they had burned $30M+ of unsold goods. After facing fierce criticism, they claimed they’d stop burning their products.

Although many fashion companies are making an effort to change their ways, the industry shifts too slowly to meet the sustainability requirements our planet desperately needs. So what can print-on-demand companies like Printful do differently?

Printful sustainability campaign image
Source: Printful

Print-on-demand and sustainability

Younger generations are driving consumer trends towards more sustainable products. This new wave of consumers is born in a time when pollution and waste are a hot topic, and they want to do something about it.

Here at Printful, it’s our goal to make on-demand manufacturing the norm for a planet with finite resources and people with infinite ideas. While it won’t solve all textile waste-caused problems, it offers a starting point for the shift from overproduction and pollution in the fashion industry.

Print-on-demand is a fulfillment method where products are made only when the customer has ordered them. This means the print-on-demand method can reduce textile waste by only manufacturing products that customers actually order.


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Here’s how popularizing print-on-demand could help shape a more environmentally friendly fashion industry.

Limiting waste

Besides only manufacturing items that people want, Printful is looking for ways to reduce production waste too.

  • We donate damaged and returned products to local charities, reducing landfill waste. 
  • Most of the fabrics that we can’t donate are recycled by our waste management service partners in Tijuana and Charlotte facilities. By the end of 2020, we sent a total of 206,737 lb. (93,774 kg) of fabric waste to be recycled.
  • As of 2021, we’ve found recycling solutions for apparel produced in our Los Angeles, Barcelona, and Riga facilities.
  • In 2020, we started optimizing our all-over print product layouts to avoid producing textile waste from scraps.

And we have more plans in the works like introducing new product solutions to reduce fabric waste and optimizing the way we calculate the amount of fabric waste. And there’s so much more that we’ve done and planning to do.

Transparency

Printful is committed to ensuring ethical and fair-labor practices within our operations and we expect our suppliers to do the same by following our Code of Conduct.

All Printful products have information about where they’re sourced from. Information on our most popular clothing suppliers and their sustainability efforts is available in our apparel brand guide.

Equipment

We’ve partnered up with Kornit, specialists in direct-to-garment (DTG) printing.  DTG is more sustainable than older apparel printing methods like screen printing. As a result, we use less water (Kornit printers produce almost zero wastewater) and less energy, lowering our carbon footprint. So far we’ve invested around $42M in state-of-the-art printing equipment.

Peoples’ love of trendy items won’t change any time soon, but certain shopping habits are already changing.

The Gen Z demographic (people born between 1995 and 2015)  is choosing to shop with small niche businesses that can be found a few taps away online. The younger generations also demand more sustainable options from fashion brands. Online searches for sustainable fashion have tripled between 2016 and 2019.

“Small businesses have adapted well to consumers’ dynamic expectations and are outperforming larger competitors when it comes to online shopping.”

This evolving ecommerce market means that more consumers are going to buy online and there’s a lot of room for businesses to make a profound impact on the future of online shopping and sustainability.

In the age of mass production, made-to-order is already making a difference in traditional retail and each year we’re a step closer to a better and more sustainable production model.

Textile sorting and recycling

How you can contribute to a more sustainable future

Despite the bleak statistics we looked at before, we all can strive to reuse, donate, sell or recycle more textiles. And much is being done to ensure recycling is accessible.

For example, in 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution to achieve a toxic-free, carbon-neutral, and environmentally sustainable economy by 2050. For the fashion industry, this means tighter textile recycling rules.

As for the US, EPA hosted first America Recycles Day Summit in 2018, which brought together stakeholders from across the US to join EPA in signing the America Recycles Pledge. Participants included representatives from federal, local, state, and tribal governments as well as the recycling industry, non-profits, manufacturers, and product brands, who collaborated over the course of 2019.

All 45 signing organizations, including EPA, pledged to work together to identify specific actions to take in addressing the challenges and opportunities facing the US recycling system.

While our governments are working on improving recycling, let’s not wait for the new rules to take place but instead focus on making changes in our own shopping habits.

Remember the three Rs you learned back in the day?

Reduce (sometimes “Refuse”), Reuse, and Recycle anything you can.

  • Buy only the things you know you’re going to use. 
  • Be mindful of the clothes you throw away. If you can, give them a new breath of life or re-use them.
  • If you no longer want your clothes and they’re in good condition, mindfully donate or sell them.

Check to see if your city collects clothes and textiles for recycling or drop off your unwanted clothes at recycling points.

As a business owner, you can communicate your sustainability efforts by underlining what makes your products more eco-friendly (compared to mass manufacturers). It’ll also help you reach a like-minded audience who are drawn to companies that really care. You can share how you restyle/sell/repurpose your clothes, influencing others to do the same.

If you have usable product samples, sell them to your customers, or give them away as prizes on social media. You can’t control what customers will do with your products at the end of their use, but you can lead by example. Social media is a powerful tool for this.

In the end, when you have a choice, go for product models and designs that are timeless rather than trend-based. Develop your niche and you’ll reach your audience without being led by memes and fast fashion trends.

Ready for change?

If I could go back and have a sit-down with my past student self, I’d tell her that buying new clothes every week isn’t the same as buying happiness. I’d also remind her that everything she throws out won’t go anywhere: it’ll stay right here on planet Earth.

Every little step taken with the future of our planet in mind creates a real impact. We all have to become more mindful of what we’re buying and promoting to others to create positive ripple effects of change.

Here at Printful, we’re always open to suggestions on how we can become better and more sustainable, if you have any ideas, please let us know in the comments.


Start your own clothing brand with Printful!


If this article inspired you, we would also love to hear what you will do today to reduce textile waste in the future.

Read next: How to Start a Sustainable Fashion Brand: the Complete Step-by-Step Guide

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By Lilija Karpjaka on Feb 15, 2022

Lilija Karpjaka

Lilija is an SEO content marketer at Printful. She's passionate about ecommerce, and in her spare time, she's an avid reader of various book genres.

Lilija is an SEO content marketer at Printful. She's passionate about ecommerce, and in her spare time, she's an avid reader of various book genres.

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Lilija Karpjaka

By Lilija Karpjaka

9 min read Feb 15, 2022

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