New report exposes fashion brands’ take-back schemes: how can the industry deal with its vast waste problem?

An NGO investigation which tracked used clothes donated to a number of major retailers found that the great majority were either destroyed, abandoned or sent to Africa, where up to half of used clothing is quickly shredded for other uses or dumped. The findings raise fresh questions not only about greenwashing but how the fashion and textile industry can address the huge amounts of waste it creates.
August 23, 2023

Last month, the Dutch NGO Changing Markets Foundation published a new report which concluded that three-quarters of clothing donated to major fashion stores in Europe to be reused or recycled are actually destroyed, abandoned in warehouses “or sent to an uncertain future in Africa.”1 The results emerged from what Changing Markets claimed was the largest tracking investigation of its kind, with Apple AirTags used to track 21 perfect condition coats, trousers, jackets and other used clothes as they passed through take-back schemes. The pressure group donated the items to H&M, Zara, C&A, Primark, Nike, The North Face, Uniqlo and M&S stores in Belgium, France, Germany and the UK or posted them to a Boohoo scheme. The C&A scheme has the slogan ‘Give your clothes a second life’, H&M has ‘Let’s close the loop’, and The North Face has ‘Let’s complete the circle’. Despite the slogans, Changing Markets said that 16 out of 21 (76%) of the items were either destroyed, left in warehouses or exported to Africa, where, it notes, up to half of used clothing is quickly shredded for other uses or dumped.

The investigation found that:

·        A pair of trousers donated to M&S were scrapped within a week.

·        A pair of jogging trousers donated to C&A were burned in a cement kiln.

·        A skirt donated to H&M travelled 24,800 kilometres from London to waste ground in Mali, where it appears to be dumped.

·        Three items ended up in Ukraine, where import rules have been relaxed due to the war.

·        Only five items, around a quarter of the original 21, were reused in Europe or ended up in a resale shop.

Changing Markets noted that “most of the schemes explicitly promise not to scrap usable clothing. But none of the named brands keep public records of the fate of the clothing donated to them. Instead they pass them to companies that specialise in reuse, recycling and final disposal.”2

The report raises fresh questions not only about whether brands are using greenwashing to convince consumers their old clothes will be reused or recycled but also how the industry can best manage the vast amounts of waste it creates. According to the European Commission, the EU generates 12.6 million tonnes of textile waste per year, with clothing and footwear alone accounting for 5.2 million tonnes of waste, equivalent to 12 kg of waste per person every year. It notes that currently, only 22% of post-consumer textile waste is collected separately for reuse or recycling, while the remainder is often incinerated or landfilled.3

The Changing Markets report was published less than three weeks after the Commission proposed new rules under which fashion brands will, for the first time, be obliged to cover the costs of managing their textile waste.4 The EU body is proposing to introduce mandatory Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for textiles in all EU member states. Brands’ contributions will be used to finance investments into separate collection, sorting, re-use and recycling capacities, which the Commission claims will accelerate the development of this sector for textiles in line with the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles.5

How much brands will pay into the EPR scheme will be adjusted based on the environmental performance of textiles. The Commission notes that EPR schemes have also been used to improve the management of waste from other products, such as packaging, batteries and electric and electronic equipment. “The proposed rules on waste management aim to ensure that used textiles are sorted for reuse, and what cannot be reused is directed to recycling as a priority,” it states. It claims the scheme will incentivise producers “to reduce waste and increase the circularity of textile products – designing better products from the start” and that it will also make it easier for member states to implement the requirement to collect textiles separately from 2025 in line with current legislation.

The Commission adds that the proposal addresses the issue of “illegal exports of textile waste to countries ill-equipped to manage it,” declaring that “the new law would clarify what constitutes waste and what is considered reusable textiles, to stop the practice of exports of waste disguised as being done for reuse.” However, Changing Markets has questioned the likely efficacy of the proposed EPR schemes, claiming that “the draft legal text would allow the same mistreatment of used clothing as exposed in the Changing Markets investigation.” The NGO added: “To solve the problem, regulators need to include mandatory reuse and recycling targets, a tax on synthetic textiles and standards to make clothing more sustainable by design, among legal measures.”

Doubts over the proposed legislation have also been raised by other environmental groups, including Zero Waste Europe and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation6, as well as Lutz Walter, a textile innovation expert and influential industry figure.7 The Commission said the proposed new rules – which are a revision of the EU’s Waste Framework Directive8 – will now be considered by the European Parliament and the Council. The proposed legislation comes as new developments continue to emerge from across the fashion and textile industry designed to help address its challenges around waste.

Just within the past few months, for instance, global materials science and digital identification solutions company Avery Dennison announced that it will be working with TEXAID, a European firm specialising in the collection, sorting, repair, reselling and recycling of used textiles.9 Through piloting digital identification technologies, TEXAID aims to improve its textile sorting process with the potential for garments to be automatically directed to relevant resale or recycling streams.

Elsewhere, activewear brand Lululemon has begun a multi-year collaboration with Australian enviro-tech startup, Samsara Eco, to scale circularity through textile-to-textile recycling10, while researchers at Cornell University in the US have developed a new method that breaks old clothing down chemically so that the polyester compounds can be used to create fire-resistant, anti-bacterial or wrinkle-free coatings for clothes and fabrics.11

As EU policymakers continue to grapple with the enormity of the challenge in front of them when it comes to textile waste, industry innovations and collaborations such as these could be vital in addressing many of the issues highlighted by the Changing Markets report.


1 Take-back Trickery - Changing Markets

2 CM-tracking-PR-all-other-countries.docx (

3 Circular economy for textiles (

4 the separate collected textile,while the rest is exported.

5 Textiles strategy (

6 More work needed on EU’s textile waste reduction plan, campaigners say –

7 (1) The EU Textile Waste Proposal – Rushed policies built on a poor understanding of reality | LinkedIn

8 Waste Framework Directive (

9 Transforming textile recycling: Avery Dennison and TEXAID unveil innovative collaboration | Avery Dennison | RFID

10 Samsara Eco partners with lululemon to tackle textile recycling — Samsara Eco

11 Upcycling method turns textile trash to functional coatings | Cornell Chronicle

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Jonathan Dyson

Jonathan's work on the sports industry has been published by The Times, The Observer, The Independent and The Sun, as well as Sport Business, Off The Pitch, FC Business and Zero Carbon Academy.

He has also contributed to BBC Radio 5 Live, Middle East Eye, The Scotsman,, World Soccer, When Saturday Comes, Wisden Cricket Monthly and School Sport.

Away from sports, he has held full-time and freelance roles at a number of global B2B publishers. He was the Founding Editor of Twist - a magazine covering the latest developments across the fashion industry supply chain. The title is published by World Textile Information Network (WTiN). Following the success of the launch of Twist, Jonathan was promoted to Head of Content at WTiN. In this newly-created role, he was responsible for developing WTiN's digital content and social media presence as the company evolved from being a magazine publisher to a market-leading media company across all platforms.

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