In September 2018, the World Bank revealed that the entire population of Earth – 7.6 billion of us – is currently producing up to two billion tonnes of waste per year, and unless we do something about it, we will be looking at a 70% rise in global waste production by the year 2050.
Based on research done by the Indian Journal of Education and Information Management in October 2015, as of 2007, it was expected that the solid waste generation in Malaysia will reach 900,000 tonnes per month by the year 2020.
Well, here we are, in the year of our Lord 2020. While we have produced close to three million tonnes of waste (an average of 236,000 tonnes per month), some seven million lesser than the predicted number back in the 2000s, the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp) has recorded that only 0.06% were recycled with the rest sent to landfills.
The dated term for tuberculosis may have taken a new meaning in more modern times, but it is still what it was back in ancient times: a disease. While the historically-termed consumption can be countered with the bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine, it is waste minimisation or reduction that can cure the current global consumption.
The International Proceedings of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering (IPCBEE) has come to the conclusion in 2016 that ideally, “waste minimisation has higher preferences with more embedded energy conservations followed by reuse and recycling.” However, “landfill disposal is located at the lower level of the waste management hierarchy [most practised] followed by energy recovery, recycle, reuse and waste minimisation [least practised], by most Asian developing countries.”
IPCBEE has also noted that in Malaysia, 95% of waste from industrial activities are sent to landfill disposal, while only the remaining 5% are minimised.
We have only to open up the doors of our wardrobe to get an idea of how the waste management hierarchy is, especially after you are done Marie Kondo-ing clothes that don’t “spark joy” anymore.
At this point, you may be prone to wish-cycling, donating these clothes to charities, and perhaps even bringing them back to the store in exchange for a shopping voucher to get ones that spark joy for a change.
Recently, political stand-up comedian Hasan Minhaj has debunked the sustainability claims made by a couple of fast fashion brands out there in his Netflix show, Patriot Act, showing the public how when fast fashion and greenwashing shake hands, it’s a deathly grip.
In the November 2019 episode, The Ugly Truth of Fast Fashion, he revealed that 90% of the garments H&M collected from its Garment Collecting Program end up trashed or burned. Before that, Danish TV program Operation X has uncovered in 2013 that H&M has also been setting fire to 12 tonnes of unsold garments per year in Denmark alone due to production errors.
Although the brand denied the allegations at first, when confronted by Greenpeace, it caved and admitted that “this is not an isolated case, but the incineration of rejected clothes is a common practice worldwide.”
While literally fanning the flames on the one hand, on the other, H&M is allowed to thrive with its act of “greenwashing” via its sustainable collection, H&M Conscious. Launched in 2010 and marketed as the more eco-friendly range of the brand, it may seem like a dream come true at face value: fashionable items made from sustainable materials at affordable prices but barely – big yes!
It didn’t take long for environmental organisations to call H&M out on its own bullsh*t. According to Fast Company’s 2019 reporting, H&M (as well as Zara) has been getting away with using the word “sustainable” loosely, during a time when there is no industry standard for what it means.
Elizabeth Segran writes: “In the brand’s 2017 annual report, it said that the clothes were ‘made with sustainable materials such as organic cotton and recycled polyester.’ H&M lumps two very different materials in the same ‘sustainable’ category, when there’s an ocean of difference between the environmental footprint of organic cotton, which will decompose, and recycled polyester, which will never biodegrade.”
When H&M dropped its collaborative collection with singer Billie Ellish in January, founder of Eco-Stylist Garik Himebaugh disclosed that: “87.5% of the Billie Eilish collection is made from cotton, polyester, and acrylic. Polyester and acrylic are both derived from oil, making them among the least sustainable materials to use in clothing. As for cotton, it’s a thirsty crop that uses more chemical pesticides than any other crop.”
At the end of the day, a win-win situation turns into a lose-lose situation for the consumers in the face of capitalism: not only are we overconsuming at the rate fast fashion is going by contributing to landfills, we are not saving the environment at all.
Minhaj did, however, cap off the episode with a silver lining, when he included snippets from NBC News and KRON4 that respectively acknowledged that just by wearing what you have for an extra nine months, you’re already reducing the carbon footprint for that garment by 30%; and if everyone bands together and buy one used item instead of a new one every year, we are already knocking off nearly six pounds of CO2 emissions that is equivalent to removing half a million cars off the road per year.
This article was first published in the August Man Malaysia April 2020 issue