Clothing returned to H&M and Primark for recycling is being dumped or burnt

Used clothing being returned to major retailers including H&M, Primark, Boohoo and Nike for recycling is instead being shipped across the world and either sent to landfill or burnt.

The year-long investigation – which used concealed electronic tags to track the clothing – was carried out by NGO The Changing Markets Foundation, who found that less than a quarter of the 21 items handed back to fashion retailers were resold or repurposed as intended.

Changing Markets tracked the journey of clothes donated to the recycling schemes of 10 fashion brands, including H&M, Zara, C&A, Primark, Nike, The North Face, Uniqlo and M&S. Items were either donated instore or posted to a Boohoo scheme.

More than 75% of the items being tracked were either destroyed,  dumped or downcycled, left in warehouses or exported to Africa, where up to half of used clothing is dumped or burnt. Only five items, around a quarter of the original 21, were either reused as intended or ended up in a resale shop.

A pair of trousers donated to M&S were scrapped within a week, while a hoody donated to Primark was dumped in a skip in an industrial estate, despite the items being in good condition.

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A green skirt and a beige top dropped off at the H&M store in Oxford Street were traced to the United Arab Emirates, then Senegal and then Mali – some 24,800 kilometres from London – where the skirt was later tracked to a wasteland on the outskirts of Bamako.

Commenting on the investigation, Changing Markets Foundation highlighted that “for 13 out of 21 items tracked, some form of discount voucher is provided by the fashion brands. In this way they are perpetuating the very model of fast fashion that drives excessive consumption and waste”.

“It is clear that the fashion industry needs a wake-up call to start aligning with the upcoming regulatory storm, which will for the first time require the industry to take responsibility for the cost of end-of-life treatment of clothes and sorting of textiles before shipment abroad.”

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, more than half of fast fashion produced is disposed of in under one year and that almost all of it – a staggering 87% – eventually ends up in landfill. Just 2% of fashion produced each year is recycled into new clothing.

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