When you purchase an item of clothing from a fast fashion brand, the likelihood is that you’ll wear it just seven times before throwing it away. This is a problem—a very serious one with wide-reaching repercussions—and fast fashion brands say they recognize it, too.
In response, some retailers have launched take-back schemes, which they claim will help prolong the life cycle of clothes. The idea is that customers can drop off their unwanted items in-store for brands to then reuse, repurpose, and recycle—turning what would otherwise have been considered “waste” into new products. Fast fashion retailer H&M was one of the first major brands to launch a take-back scheme 10 years ago, and reports that it has since received over 155,000 tonnes of textiles. Primark, Uniqlo, and Zara are among the brands that have followed suit.
It is not unreasonable, then, to assume that when a garment is returned to a store as part of a take-back program that it either be used to make another item or, if it’s in bad condition, shredded into textile fibers and used for insulation. The reality, however, is complicated—and can be far more insidious.
When a green skirt was returned to an H&M store on Oxford Street in central London in 2022, the hope was, as a sign on the shop floor read, “to close the loop” and contribute to a circular fashion system. Instead, that same skirt traveled 24,892 kilometers (15,467 miles) across the world through the United Arab Emirates SOEX processing facility only to be dumped in a vacant lot in Bamako, Mali, five months later, according to research by the Changing Markets Foundation.
The skirt was not an anomaly. Between August 2022 and July 2023, Changing Markets Foundation worked with Zero Waste France and Zero Waste Alliance Ukraine on the report, titled Take-Back Trickery, to track the journeys of garments submitted to take-back schemes at retailers like Zara, Nike, New Look, Uniqlo, Primark, and The North Face. The location of each item was recorded on a daily basis using AirTags throughout the course of the 12 months that the study was ongoing.
A pair of blue trousers brought to a C&A store in Germany traveled 464 km (288 miles), and were eventually burned for fuel at a cement plant. A gray hoodie that was returned to Primark traveled 2,346 km (1,457 miles) within the UK and was then dumped in a skip in an industrial estate. Meanwhile, a navy puffer jacket handed into a Zara store in the UK was shipped to Lithuania, traveling 2,224 km (1,381 miles), and has since been stuck in a warehouse. And finally, a white zip-up cardigan that was returned to H&M to “close the loop” was sent to a market in Bamako, Mali, 24,892 km (15,467 miles) away. Some brands contested Changing Markets’ findings, including Primark, which claimed the hoodie was resold in Budapest.