Used yarn is big business because fast fashion pollutes the planet

Clothing recycling company Yuchang Trading processes 28 tons of used clothing per day. [JANG JIN-YOUNG]

The second-hand clothing market is growing rapidly as global fashion houses, including Chanel, embrace sustainability.

The amount of wasted clothing is still immense, although efforts are being made globally to recycle clothing.

Yuchang Trading, a textile company based in Gwangju, Gyeonggi, which collects and exports used clothes, processes around 28 tons of used clothes daily.

Piles of clothing up to 7 meters high are excavated by backhoes at its two facilities, and approximately 100 employees sort the clothing into 80 categories.

Once sorted, 99% of recyclable clothing is exported, the rest being destined for the national second-hand market.

“Although these clothes were discarded, they are not worn out or obsolete,” said Yu Jong-sang, CEO of Yuchang Trading. “Most of the clothes are from fast fashion brands.”

Fast fashion, one of the most resource-intensive industries in the world, takes advantage of rapidly changing fashion trends by mass-producing clothing at affordable prices to maximize profitability.

100 billion pieces of clothing per year

Fast fashion generates an immense amount of pollution every year.

According to a report by the Korea Institute of Industrial Economics and Trade released last November, global clothing consumption stands at 62 million tons per year. The number is estimated at 102 million tons by 2030 at the current rate, mainly due to fast fashion.

A 2017 Ellen MacArthur Foundation report found that the average American buys a new fashion item every 5.5 days. Clothing consumption has increased by 40% between 1996 and 2021 in Europe, and the average person living in Britain buys 25.7 kilograms of clothing per year.

“Most of the clothes that are recycled are recycled rather than recycled,” said Hong Su-yeol of Resource Recycle Consulting, “and every piece of clothing ends up as trash in terms of overall resource circulation.”



When a material is recycled, it is converted into something of equal or greater quality. Thanks to downcycling, the quality of the product decreases.

“Fast fashion mass-produces and quickly throws away clothes, which creates a serious environmental problem,” Hong said.

Fashion United reported that the global fashion and textile market is worth $3 trillion, with a total of 7 million people working in the industry.

The fast fashion industry is growing rapidly, along with its environmental impact.

According to a report by the United Nations Environment Program published in 2018, the global fashion industry produces around 400 to 500 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year, or 8 to 10% of total emissions, and is also responsible for a fifth, or some 79 trillion liters of industrial water pollution worldwide.

“There are a number of issues that need to be addressed in the clothing recycling process, but voices for change are often not heard by the government,” said Jeong Seok-gi, director of Korea Clothing. Textile Recycling Association.

The fashion industry at a crossroads

Major fashion brands such as Chanel and Sweden’s H&M have come forward, pledging to make their businesses more sustainable.

Last November, around 130 clothing manufacturers, including LVMH and Nike, signed the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action proposed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, during the 26th Conference of the United Nations Parties on climate change (COP 26). The fashion industry’s updated charter for climate action aims to cut emissions by 50% by 2030.

According to a survey by McKinsey & Company and outlet Business of Fashion, 43% of industry leaders said they planned to reduce inventory levels, and 61% said they would reduce the number of products to avoid oversupply.

“The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has drawn attention to sustainability,” said Ko Eun-ju, professor of fashion marketing at Yonsei University.

The number of consumers making eco-friendly choices when shopping is growing, she explained.

“Sustainable fashion is also on the rise in terms of results,” Ko said.

Second-hand fashion boom

The significant growth of the second-hand fashion market also shows the change in consumer behavior.

Customers browse the sweater section of the Million Archive second-hand clothing store in eastern Seoul on Dec. 21. [LIM HYUN-DONG]

Customers browse the sweater section of the Million Archive second-hand clothing store in eastern Seoul on Dec. 21. [LIM HYUN-DONG]

On December 21, the Million Archive second-hand clothing store in eastern Seoul was packed with visitors, even on a Tuesday afternoon. The 80 square meter store is known for its vintage items, such as sweaters and cardigans.

“As vintage items range from 1950s to early 2000s styles, a wide variety of choices are available,” said store manager Jung Eun-sol, adding that vintage could be “the new black.”

A growing number of second-hand clothing stores are popping up all over the country.

“Unlike older people who grew up in relatively difficult social conditions, young people raised in a wealthy society tend to be less materialistic and less self-aware, making them the main consumers of second-hand clothes” , said Yang Yoon, a professor of consumer psychology at Ewha Womans’ University.

Oakland’s ThredUP sells an average of over 100,000 garments per day. It posted quarterly revenue of $63.3 million in the third quarter of 2021, a 35% year-on-year increase.

According to a 2020 Boston Consulting Group report, the size of the second-hand market is estimated at $40 billion and will almost double in 5 years to reach $77 billion by 2025, overtaking the fast fashion industry in terms of revenue by 2027. Second-hand sales are also booming. in Korea, in particular via e-commerce sites such as Danggeun Market and Bungaejangter.

BY JEON YOUNG-SUN, BAE JUNG-WON, KIM YEON-JOO [[email protected]]

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