Take-Back Trickery: an investigation into clothing take-back schemes

July 2023 Report
Take-Back Trickery: graphic of piles of clothes not being recycled

Executive summary

Take-back schemes are presented as a convenient option for consumers to return their unwanted clothes directly to fast-fashion brands and retailers, who promise to give them a second life, either by donating to those in need or recycling into new clothing. For example, C&A promises to ‘give your clothes a second life’, H&M says ‘Let’s close the loop’ and The North Face ‘Let’s complete the circle.’

But to what extent are these take-back schemes delivering on their promises and effectively addressing the systemic waste issues generated by the fashion industry? This investigation, conducted between August 2022 and July 2023, set out to trace items submitted to these take-back schemes, to establish what actually happens to clothing beyond the deposit bin.

Through discreet airtag trackers concealed within clothing, we tracked, in real time, 21 items submitted to ten fashion brands (H&M, Zara, C&A, Primark, Nike, Boohoo, New Look, The North Face, Uniqlo and M&S) at their stores in the UK, France, Belgium and Germany. All clothes returned in this way to the brand’s take-back schemes were of good quality, originally bought from second-hand clothes shops, and therefore considered suitable for reuse.

After 11 months of tracking, the outcomes of the tracked items expose the discrepancy between brands’ claims and the actual fate of the collected clothing. We categorised the journey of the trackers into four groups: resold within Europe, downcycled (where clothing material is turned into other products of lower quality such as stuffing) or destroyed, lost in limbo (for clothing stuck in collection containers or along the way), and shipped to Africa.

1. Downcycled or destroyed

Seven items were quickly destroyed, dumped or downcycled, either as stuffing, cleaning cloths or in one case burned for energy in a cement plant. This was despite the items being in good condition and the fashion brands asserting they consider downcycling or burning for fuel only for items not suitable for reuse or recycling. One pair of trousers in perfect condition dropped off at M&S in the UK was downcycled at a Veolia plant within one week. Three items in great condition were likely shredded at a SOEX facility in Germany, rather than being diverted for reuse or resale. One of these was pair of trousers in excellent condition with a clothing tag still attached, originally deposited in C&A’s collection bin in France. This shows a failure of brands and their contractors to properly sort clothing that gets returned through take-back schemes, indicating a disregard for the waste hierarchy, which prioritises prevention and reuse before recycling, let alone downcycling.

2. Resold within Europe

In total, five items of clothing found a second life either in a second-hand shop or with a customer on the same continent. Only one of the items was resold in the same country where it was initially deposited, a shirt returned to Zara’s Oxford Street shop in the UK. Two items travelled to Ukraine for resale. While the possibility that these found a second home is promising, the trade of used clothing in Ukraine was found to be something of a poisoned chalice, adding to the burden of waste experienced by a country at war.

3. Lost in limbo

Multiple items became ensnared in the global used clothing trade, lingering for months in indeterminate locations and warehouses, or in some cases never leaving their original drop-off location. In these cases, take-back schemes are clearly failing to meet the goals communicated by brands. Whereas customers would assume that the clothes they drop off are reused or recycled into new clothes in a reasonable timeframe, in fact they have been left to languish in warehouses across Europe for up to a year. The brands have benefited from the reputational gains of operating a take-back scheme without having done anything at all with these clothes.

4. Shipped to Africa

The most contentious category was clothing that ended up shipped to Africa. Here, items entered massive second-hand clothing markets in countries with inadequate waste management systems for handling market refuse, resulting in a significant portion being bound for landfill or burned. Two C&A items and two H&M items were in this category, travelling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mauritania and Mali. An olive green skirt deposited at H&M’s London store took a five-month, 24,800km journey, through the United Arab Emirates SOEX processing facility and later to Bamako, Mali, where it was eventually tracked to a vacant lot, suggesting possible dumping or discarding. Multiple investigations in African countries into the issue of textile waste and used clothing imports, including our own, have revealed that 20-50% of clothing imported through second-hand trade ends up as waste. It is highly concerning that brands’ take-back schemes are directly contributing to this problem.

Beyond the brands, several companies emerged as key players deciding the fates of clothing within the system. The first is SOEX, a global collection, sorting and recycling company with partnerships with many of the brands in the investigation. Six items passed through SOEX sorting and recycling facilities in Germany and its Middle East processing unit in the UAE. Despite being in good, resellable condition, three of these items were shipped to Africa and the remainder were downcycled, suggesting the company focuses more on waste disposal and sending the problem elsewhere than finding new homes for items in Europe. Another company is ReSales Textilhandels- und -recycling GmbH, part of the TEXAID group. Two items went through this company: one was burned for fuel at a cement plant and the other was shipped to Mauritania.

As we have discovered, beyond the slick marketing of take-back schemes, the final destination of these clothes is far messier than brands would like their customers to think. Promises that items will be reused or recycled ring hollow, with evidence from our investigation suggesting that items in pristine condition are mostly shredded and downcycled, or shipped tens of thousands of kilometres across the world. These schemes offer consumers a false sense of environmental responsibility, tricking them into thinking that they are making a responsible choice.

Many take-back schemes compound the problem by offering vouchers, discounts or member points for customers to immediately purchase more products. In fact, for 13 out of 21 items tracked, some form of discount of voucher is provided by the fashion brands. In this way they are perpetuating the very model of fast fashion that drives excessive consumption and waste, without addressing the systemic issues, like moving away from the wasteful fast-fashion model or investing in innovative fibre-to-fibre technologies.

The fashion industry is at a critical crossroads. For the first time ever legislators have started to address its environmental performance, specifically its huge and growing waste problem. On 5 July 2023, the European Commission published a revised Waste Framework Directive that proposes an EU-wide extended producer responsibility (EPR) system, which will make fashion brands pay fees for every product they put on the market to cover the costs of end-of-life collection, sorting, recycling and responsible disposal. In addition to this, the proposal is taking a first step to control exports of used clothing to the Global South. All used clothes will be considered as waste under the proposed rules, until they are professionally sorted. As critical legislation gathers pace in the EU to regulate the waste trade and the life of the clothes we throw out, it is vital that the role of take-back schemes in this system is properly understood and integrated in the legislation. Our findings show that brands have very little traceability and control over what happens to the clothes returned even in the schemes they operate. Producer responsibility must include and finance proper sorting and investments into better end-of-life management. The legislative proposal must also be improved to include mandatory reuse and recycling targets, as well as upstream measures that lead to the reduction of overproduction (by taxing synthetic fibres) and mandatory eco-design criteria.

This report includes a set of policy and company recommendations.

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