HOW MUCH DOES GARMENT INDUSTRY ACTUALLY WASTE?

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How much textile waste is created by the global garment industry? Honestly, the answer to this question is unknown. We can make an educated guess, however, and outline an
approximate waste structure – we can describe where in the production cycle textile waste is generated and where leftovers (i.e. waste) are produced geographically.
As there are no exact figures available, we have no alternative but to assess by proxy. Yet assessing by proxy is methodologically risky because it entails approximation, which can lead to considerable distortions in figures. So sit tight and be prepared for a methodologically bumpy ride. Be critical about what you read below and let us know where you disagree with our analysis.

But before that, let's define some terms. First of all, by leftovers we mean material leftovers directly from the product (fabrics and accessories, e.g. buttons), and not waste water, chemical pollutants, emissions to air, packaging waste, machinery amortisation and other types of waste. And we talk about leftovers, because we assume that all the materials that are "wasted" from production can be used somewhere else as a resource.

The method for calculation 

Assessing the amount of leftovers from the garment industry requires two things. First, that we know how much waste is generated by garment manufacturers per product on average; and second, how many garments are produced altogether or in some geographical area. It is possible that due to differences in  culture and practices the average amount of leftovers varies region by region, but as we already are trying to assess by proxy, let's assume that the differences aren't that big. Besides, variations are probably much bigger depending on the type of product.

Kasemset et al. (2010) conducted hands-on waste mapping in a small Thailand garment factory of 30 workers with a primary aim of assessing environmental and financial effects of used materials and energy. But they also provide us with exact quantity and structure of waste from production, which shows that waste is generated in cutting (by handheld rotary fabric cloth cutter), sewing, and in the process of quality control.

Several case studies to learn from

Let’s get detailed. Cutting – the process where the fabric is cut following a pattern shape of the marker – generates most waste by comparison with the other production stages. By tracing the production of one hundred traditional-style t-shirts Kasemset et al. show that cutting process counts for 16.36% of waste from the total material intake – the factory bought 272.4 m2 of textile to produce the 100 t-shirts, and 44.57 m2 of that material ended up as cutting waste. 6.37% of waste was left over from sewing (14.71 m2 from the 227.83 m2 of cut fabric sent to sewing) and 0.09% from quality control.

Of course, the listed numbers are not generic but depend on the product type (e.g. t-shirt, jacket), size of the given product (e.g. XL, S), marker efficiency, etc. This is where measuring the quantity of leftovers gets complicated because conducting waste mapping on all garments in the world would be absurd. Hence, in order to scale the quantity of leftovers from garment production we have to fix an average leftover margin. (We would get a more precise figure if we fixed a percentage of waste per every product type separately, but here we are content with just one number.)

Our own research

Over the years we have conducted interviews with more than 40 factory managers in Europe and Asia and detected some common patterns. First, waste from production falls between 10 to 30% from intake materials, and that leftover percentage can rarely be pushed below 10%. Unless the product is designed for zero-waste production you can’t avoid cutting scraps and defects. Second, bigger production brings along larger quantities of leftovers per product. By bigger production we mean both big in quantities as well as big in product size. For example, kidswear give much smaller amount of leftovers than XXL sized hoodies. And third, any kind of fabric pattern means more leftovers because bigger pieces must be left aside in order to make the stripes fit.

In the following we will postulate three scenarios – the pessimistic scenario where the amount of material leftovers from garment production is 30%, the mean scenario with 20%, and optimistic scenario with 10% of leftovers. The figure of 21.76% presented by Kasemset et al. falls to the mean category and nicely affirms our admittedly approximate scale.

The full amount of garments and fabrics in the world

All we have to do now is to find out the number of garments produced in the world per year or, more precisely, how much textile is used in the process. According to an MIT report (2015), the global apparel industry produced more than 150 billion garments in 2010.  Going through several other sources, we can say that roughly 40% of all garments are produced in China, Bangladesh and India (with total export value of around $200 billion), roughly another 20% comes from nearby countries (Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc.) and the rest 40% from all around the globe. 

The MIT report also notes that “by 2015, the global apparel industry is expected to produce more than 400 billion square meters of fabric per year, representing nearly enough material to cover the state of California annually.” 

Estimated amount of cutting scraps from garment production

The quantity of leftovers per annum is immense. Even according to our optimistic scenario, the world would create 40 billion square meters of leftover textile per year, almost enough to cover the entire republic of Estonia with waste. According to the mean prediction, the leftovers would amount to 80 billion square meters, and according the pessimist scenario the waste would cover North Korea and its 120 billion square meters. 

Now, if we turn these numbers upside down (60 billion garments worth $200 billion in China, Bangladesh and India creating at least 10% of leftovers) we can say that if there were means to take these materials back to production efficiently, it would be possible to produce at least 6 billion clothes worth $20 billion in these three countries alone.

The potential resource from waste is even bigger

Our analysis leaves out unknown quantities of excess trims and yarn, dead stock and defected fabric which are never used in production, not to mention non-textile waste like polluted water, CO2, dyes and other chemicals. In addition, we have not talked about home textiles, footwear, furniture and other industries using textiles, nor do we talk about other phases of the supply chain like design and planning and about what happens to the unsold items.

Interestingly, many Chinese garment factory owners regard product samples as the main waste problem with no good solution available. (Hong Kong Design Institute; Redress 2012) So if we dig deeper, the potential to reuse excess materials from garment production is even bigger.

The overall situation is not good. But all is not lost. Admitting the problem is always the first step towards solving it. Moreover, all these leftover materials are already being used by some companies. Most major fashion brands that we have talked to are looking for or working on some sort of solution to the waste problem. And so are we. If all goes well, Reverse Resources may indeed be among the companies that help considerably reduce waste from garment manufacturing. We'll get back into digging up the data from factories to know what exactly is left over and could be reused, efficiently!

References

Hong Kong Design Institute; Redress. Reuse, Recycle, Remake: How the Hong Kong Fashion Industry is Rethinking Pre-Consumer Textile Waste. Stage 1 Research Summary, 2012.

Kasemset, Chompoonoot; Jintana Chernsupornchai; Wannisa Pala-ud. Application of MFCA in waste reduction: case study on a small textile factory in Thailand. Journal of Cleaner Production 108, 2015, pp. 1342-1351.

Kirchain, Randolph; Elsa Olivetti; T Reed Miller; Suzanne Greene. Sustainable Apparel Materials: An overview of what we know and what could be done about the impact of four major apparel materials: Cotton, Polyester, Leather, & Rubber. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge (MA), 2015, p. 3. The MIT report can be freely accessed at: http://msl.mit.edu/publications/SustainableApparelMaterials.pdf

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