The department store John Lewis is set to buy back old clothes from customers — including used socks and underwear — in a bid to cut down the amount of clothing that’s ending up in landfills. 

The scheme is reportedly the first on the British high street that uses technology to give shoppers financial incentive not to chuck their old clothes in the bin. 

In the UK alone, about 300,000 tonnes of clothes are being sent to landfill every year, with an estimated value of £140 million. 

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In total, textile waste makes up around 5% of all rubbish in landfills and, globally, just 1% of clothes are recycled. But John Lewis’ new scheme, which is currently in its trial phase, could be set to help change that. 

“We already take back used sofas, beds, and large electrical items such as washing machines and either donate them to charity or reuse and recycle parts, and want to offer a service for fashion products,” Martyn White, John Lewis’ sustainability manager, told the Guardian.

The scheme, which has been developed with social enterprise Stuffstr, would work through an app that gives customers the chance to choose what they want to sell, and shows them how much money they could receive for each item. 

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Then, once the customer has £50 worth of clothing to sell back, the clothing would be collected from their home. They’d then be paid for every item regardless of what condition it’s in — as long as it was bought from John Lewis. 

The items would then either be resold (although reportedly not in John Lewis stores), mended for resale, or recycled to become new products. 

The customer would be given their money in the form of a John Lewis e-gift card. If the trial is successful, however, customers would reportedly also be given the option to donate the money to charity instead. 

“Every item has value, even old socks, and we want to make it as simple as possible for customers to benefit from their unwanted clothes,” said John Atcheson, Stuffstr CEO. 

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Fast fashion, rapidly changing trends, and the rise of “ultra cheap” clothes have all contributed to a “throwaway” mentality that is leading us to seriously undervalue our clothes. 

The average household in the UK owns about £4,000 worth of clothes, and almost one-third of them haven’t been worn for at least a year. In fact, the unused clothing sitting in people’s wardrobes at home has been estimated at around £30 billion in Britain alone. 

As a whole in the UK, the average lifetime for an item of clothing is about 2.2 years, according to sustainability charity Wrap, while a survey conducted in 2015 reportedly showed that most items of clothing are worn no more than seven times. 

As well as the toll that fast fashion is having on the world’s landfill sites, however, it’s also having a huge impact on the levels of emissions and pollution created by the fashion industry. 

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According to a 2017 report released by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry is on pace to triple global production by 2050 — to more than 160 million tonnes of clothing. The report warned that the impact of this could be catastrophic. 

“Today’s textile industry is built on an outdated, linear take-make-dispose model and is hugely wasteful and polluting,” MacArthur told the Guardian at the time. “We need a new textile economy in which clothes are designed differently, worn longer, and recycled and reused much more often.” 

According to Wrap's "Love Your Clothes" campaign, changes to the way the UK supplies, uses, and disposes of clothing could reduce the carbon, water, and waste footprints of clothing consumption by as much as 20% for each. 

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“As long as fast fashion exists, so will throwaway culture,” said Bruce Bratley, founder of First Mile recycling company. “Brands need to focus on making clothes that will last rather than disposable pieces created for a season.” 

“It also needs to be easier for consumers to recycle their clothes and the industry must play its part in education and innovation to ensure clothes can be and are recycled,” he added. 

Other high street retailers have also taken action to address the issue of disposable fashion. Marks & Spencer’s launched its “schwopping” scheme in 2012, an initiative that has now rescued more than 7.7 million items of clothing from landfill. 

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Meanwhile, according to the Guardian, H&M and Zara have also both boosted their recycling initiatives available in-store. There’s also the possibility, of course, of donating your old clothes to charity and thrift stores rather than throwing them away.

“There is a lack of understanding that clothes, despite their condition, can often be re-used, and the organisations can gain revenue from selling ‘bulk’ textiles for re-use or recycling,” Wrap says on its website. 

Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN’s Global Goals, which include action on creating sustainable cities and communities, as well as encouraging responsible consumption and production. You can join us by taking action on these issues here.


Defend the Planet

This UK Store Will Buy Back Old Clothes to Cut Down on Waste

By Imogen Calderwood