What do you do with your old clothes? You might donate them or maybe even swap them, but the truth is that many times we just throw them away. In the U.K. alone, approximately 500,000 tons or 1 billion items of clothing are sent to landfill each year – that’s 114,000 items per hour. Now, the British are still not as bad as Americans (almost 11 million tons per year), but the situation is bad enough to get Marks & Spencer (M&S) to launch a new campaign, entitled the shwopping revolution. As part of this campaign, all M&S stores (except Simply Food) will now accept unwanted clothing of any brand, all year round.
The new campaign has an ambitious goal – reusing or recycling as many clothes as M&S sells – that’s around 350 million items annually. All-in-all the shwopping campaign sounds like a good idea, as it transforms hundreds of M&S stores into drop off points for old clothes, making it easier for the British to keep their clothes out of landfills. Still, it is not clear if M&S’s new campaign can actually succeed in changing people’s behavior or if this is the best way to keep clothes from landfills.
This is not the first time that M&S has attempted to address textile waste. As part of Plan A, the program that aims to make M&S the world’s most sustainable major retailer by 2015 through 180 commitments, the British retailer has committed to help customers recycle over 20 million items of clothing a year by 2015. This initiative encouraged customers to donate unwanted M&S clothing to Oxfam. In addition, M&S ran major national ‘One Day Wardrobe Clear-out’ events in September 2010 and March 2011, which were both a big success. In total, since the launch of the M&S and Oxfam Clothes Exchange initiative, over 10 million items were donated.
Apparently M&S felt that this initiative wasn’t enough although it was on the way to meet its 2015 goal. The retailer explains that “our customers have told us that their main ethical concern for retailers is waste. So we want to turn the tide on waste, and to start the journey towards making our fashion business truly sustainable. Our eventual aim is to help to recycle as many clothes as we sell – that’s hundreds of millions of items each year!” It makes sense – after all, the 10 million items of clothing M&S and Oxfam managed to collect in 3 years equals less than 4 days of clothes trashing in the U.K.
But is the new campaign really going to change the status quo and “turn the tide on waste”? I’m not sure about that. The advantages of the shwopping initiative are clear – hundreds of dropping points make it easier to recycle. On the other hand, it doesn’t provide people with any real incentives to do the right thing. Actually, customers can enter the weekly prize draw of £100 ($162) M&S gift cards when they shwop in stores, but it’s really quite meaningless, especially given that those who still bring their old clothes to Oxfam get a £5 ($8)-off £35 ($57)discount voucher.
The message of the campaign is that all consumers need to do is drop off their old clothes. Unfortunately, that will do little to stem the tide of wasted resources. To truly be progressive M&S should also focus on educating consumers about the environmental impact of over consumption.
On one hand, it’s true that M&S tries to close the loop as all clothes shwopped at M&S are given to Oxfam, which will resell, reuse (sell to designers) or recycle them. On the other hand, this initiative is about becoming less bad, and as Bill McDonough said, “being less bad is not being good; it’s being bad, just less so – by definition.” It means that shwopping, unlike swapping for example, doesn’t take a holistic approach of the problem and avoid the questions concerning the excessive consumption of garments, which might be the main problem in the first place.
The problem with shwopping is that it doesn’t have meaningful incentives like Recyclebank nor the excitement and fun of clothes swapping. It looks more like another form of philanthropy, which no matter how you look at it doesn’t seem like the best way to turn the tide on waste.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.