The big brands take back the clothes they no longer want. Where are they going?

On a cloudy day last November, George Harding-Rolls walked into H&M’s giant Oxford Circus flagship in London wearing an olive green skirt for the label’s take-back program.

The scheme, which H&M says is the largest of its kind, promises to ensure a responsible end of life for unwanted old clothes. Wearables are sent for resale. If they can’t be sold, they’re recycled or turned into cleaning rags, while anything that can’t be reused is shredded for insulation and other uses, according to the company’s website.

But that’s not what happened to the olive green skirt, according to an investigation by environmental campaign group Changing Markets Foundation, where Harding-Rolls works as a campaign manager.

Instead, it appears to have been dumped in a wasteland on the outskirts of the city of Bamako in Mali, where it was shipped after months bouncing around in warehouses, depots and sorting facilities in the UK and the United Arab Emirates, according to the investigation.

These apparel take-back programs are becoming increasingly popular among brands looking for ways to address growing concerns about increasing waste volumes. They’re touted as a way for consumers to responsibly ensure unwanted clothes are worn again or recycled, but what exactly happens to clothes once they’re returned is murky.

Over the past year, Changing Markets has used Bluetooth trackers to track the journey of 21 garments returned to take-back programs run by brands including H&M, Zara, Primark and Belgian-German retailer C&A (Harding-Rolls’ skirt among them). The clothes were bought second-hand, but all were in good condition and some still had their sales tags, Changing Markets said.

Only five of the garments were resold in Europe. The rest was destroyed, recycled, stored in warehouses or shipped to second-hand markets in Africa, already inundated with scrap from Europe, the United States and Asia that often simply ends up in landfill, according to the report.

A pair of joggers returned to C&A in Germany showed up at a facility where clothes are shredded to produce a material called “down”, which is used as fuel in a nearby cement kiln, according to the organization’s trackers. The location tag for a gray hoodie donated to Primark was last sent from a metal container to vacant land in Poland, satellite imagery shows. A set of black polyester pajamas covered in bold pink flowers returned to a Zara store in Paris were still in a warehouse outside the city when the investigation ended.

“[Brands] paint these patterns so brazenly as part of the solution,” Harding-Rolls said. “It contributes to the illusion that once you’re done with the clothes, there’s something quite useful to do with them at the end of their life. And that just doesn’t happen in most cases.

Brands said they had procedures in place to ensure garments returned through their take-back programs were handled appropriately, and some disputed Changing Markets’ findings. Primark said it believed the hoodie returned by investigators ended up at a clothing retailer in Budapest. C&A had no comment.

But H&M has acknowledged that ensuring old clothes are disposed of responsibly is a challenge.

“It is a major problem in our industry and others that discarded products are not disposed of properly and become waste in different countries,” the brand said in an emailed statement. In response to the Changing Markets survey, the company said it had failed to meet its own standards, adding that it had changed partners for its collection program in January and was working to create solutions to ensure responsible management of used textiles.

One of the big challenges is that tracking and tracing garments once they start going through the complex sorting and waste management system is tricky. Most fashion companies outsource this process to other companies, who are responsible for sorting and disposing of products according to brand guidelines.

The product sorting infrastructure is still largely manual and relies on judgments about what can be resold and where. Textile-to-textile recycling options that would turn clothing into raw materials for the fashion market are still nascent, with a handful of factories just beginning to develop.

This is an issue that is moving up the agenda due to increasing regulatory attention. The EU, which estimates that its citizens throw away around 12 kilograms of textile products every year, is tackling the problem with proposed new rules that would force brands to pay to cover the cost of managing textile waste.

But with limited textile-to-textile recycling options and large gaps in sorting infrastructure, fixing the system so that unwanted clothes are truly disposed of in the most responsible way possible will require substantial investment.

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