The textile industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. And Malaysia is no exception when it comes to contributing to this issue.
And a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation states that clothing represents more than 60% of the total fabric used globally, with an estimated amount of 18.6 million tonnes of clothing that will end up in landfills. If this trend continues, more than 150 million tonnes of fashion waste will clog our landfills by 2050.
Here’s what you need to know about the textile industry’s environmental impacts and what you as consumers can do to combat this problem.
Fast Fashion, Fast Pollution
Like many, we Malaysians like to buy new clothes. And the fast fashion industry provides us with all the brand-new clothes we could want.
But there is a dark side to all of this.
Fast fashion is but a part of the textile industry, a contributor to far more environmental problems than most people are aware of.
A simple weighing on the timescale of decomposition and manufacturing will tell us that fabric waste is increasing. – Dr Tan Ching Hong, physical chemist
More than 60% of textiles (including the kind used in clothing) are made out of synthetic materials such as nylon, lycra, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyurethane (PU) and spandex. Such materials will take decades to decompose (releasing harmful greenhouse gases such as methane in the process) and may continue to persist in ecosystems long after that. This is ironic considering the quick turnover; the fashion industry presents new clothing lines every month.
This makes fabric waste as harmful as plastic waste because fabric waste can take up to hundreds of years to decompose. – Nik Suzila Hassan, Kloth Cares co-founder
Even clothes that are 100% cotton or some other organic material are made through a labour-intensive process that more often than not involves the use of toxic chemicals.
Polluted From Start To Finish
The entire textile manufacturing process causes all manner of pollution.
Textile factories use toxic chemicals such as chlorine bleach, formaldehyde, lead and mercury that are released into waterways after fabrics undergo multiple washing and rewashing down the production line. The textile industry, in fact, generates one-fifth of the world’s industrial water pollution.
The textile production process will also emit various harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. Factory boilers used to heat water will release nitrous oxides and sulphur dioxide (both major contributors to acid rain). Fabric bleaching operations release chlorine dioxide, fabric printing releases hydrocarbons and ammonia and fabric-finishing can release formaldehyde.
But not all of this solid waste comes from the factories.
The youth are major consumers of fast fashion and the fashion industry is the second largest polluter after oil and gas. We feel that this news is not cascaded down. – Nik Suzila Hassan, Kloth Cares co-founder
Households are among the largest contributors to fabric waste, resulting from a heavy consumerist mindset.
Some throw away their old clothes once it has become damaged or ill-fitting. Some dispose of their clothes once it’s gone out of style.
Many individuals will thoughtlessly throw away parts of their wardrobe (including shoes, garments and accessories) to make space for new additions.
And they will continue doing this, leading to a destructive cycle of overconsumption that gravely affects both the individual’s wellbeing and that of the environment.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Fighting Against Fabric Waste
In 2013, Nik Suzila Hassan and Sarahan Kedah founded Kloth Cares, the first textile recycling movement in Southeast Asia, its mission being to keep fabrics and plastics away from our landfills via a circular economy business model.
We realise there is no fabric movement. You have the plastic movement but not for textiles. So we want to be the first. – Nik Suzila Hassan, Kloth Cares co-founder
The women, who go by Suzy and Sarah, initially founded this movement to recycle plastic bottles into eco-friendly scarves.
We were both bored with our corporate jobs and one day, while attending a conference, we found out about scarf materials made out of plastics! That was when we started Green Hijab. – Nik Suzila Hassan, Kloth Cares co-founder
Then in February 2017, Kloth Cares began to shift focus toward recycling fabrics, partnering up with the Selangor Youth Community and Life Line Clothing to introduce fabric bins nationwide.
These bins serve as places where people can donate their old or new fabric-based items, including undergarments, clothing accessories, footwear, household textiles, children’s toys, and even costume jewellery.
Since its introduction, Kloth Cares operates between 350 and 400 fabric bins in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Putrajaya, Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, and Johor. Half of these bins are “adopted by corporate citizens” with companies able to choose between adopting a bin for their workplaces or sponsoring bins in other areas.
We offer bin adoption programs to corporates, higher learning institutions, NGOs, mosques and churches. Currently, over 300 bins are stationed all over the Klang Valley. – Nik Suzila Hassan, Kloth Cares co-founder
The goods deposited in these bins are then collected and sent to Life Line Clothing Malaysia, a fabric-recycling factory, where they are segregated into 400 different categories.
Those that are of good quality are either exported or given away to charities, while the rest are upcycled or turned into things like industrial wiping cloths and processed engineered fuel, a type of biofuel. – Nik Suzila Hassan, Kloth Cares co-founder
Kloth Cares has collected over 2.5 million kgs of fabric since 2018. Today, they collect up to 30,000 kilograms of fabric monthly through partnerships with organisations like Bursa Malaysia, Sime Darby Plantations, Sunway Putra Mall and Bioeconomy Corporations.
For us, waste is wealth. People don’t see this as a viable business. Many people see recycling fabric as ‘clothes going to orphanages ’. But you can earn up to thousands of ringgit a month from this business. – Nik Suzila Hassan, Kloth Cares co-founder
And they continue to make more positive impacts with the “Woman Up” programme launched in July 2020, helping women from marginalised communities earn a livelihood by making merchandise using donated fabric. Since its launch, Woman Up has produced more than 19,000 pieces of merchandise from upcycled fabrics and helped women in B40 communities earn more than RM90,000.
Suzy and Sarah are not the only ones who are fighting the fabric problem.
Turning Waste Into Art
Multidisciplinary artist Dhan Illiani Yusof, who was raised in a thrifty household, helped raise awareness of fashion waste through her big art installation piece entitled “The Big Waste”, inspired by the Dung Beetle and the Big Bang accompanied by a large pile of clothes resembling a landfill.
For the installation, Fashion Revolution wanted something that had an impact on people so what better to do that than a landfill itself, because that is the most visually impacting image that we can think of when it comes to textile waste, which has to in the mountainous volumes of clothing just discarded in like natural landscapes. – Dhan Illiani Yusof, multidisciplinary artist
This piece was designed with the idea of “origin” in a “universal” multi-layered lens, highlighting and questioning society’s roles in waste and consumption.
From my perspective, I also wanted to add an element of how we needed to start questioning, what are we buying, what are we spending on what’s in our clothes as well, so that we can have a more universal view of how textile is not just specific to everyday wear, but also in terms of the value of our producers. – Dhan Illiani Yusof, multidisciplinary artist
Be Part Of The Solution
Want to help Kloth Cares with its mission? Follow its 5R Principles and do your part in combating fabric waste:
- Rethink: Always rethink whether you need that piece of clothing. And whether you should throw out any old clothes you are no longer wearing.
- Reduce: Keep fabrics out of our landfills by reusing, repurposing or recycling old clothes and other textiles.
- Reuse: Now that you bought a new garment, consider how many times you can wear it and how durable it is.
- Repurpose: Instead of throwing away old and worn-out clothes, extend their life span by changing their purpose. Turn it into a cleaning rag, blanket or shopping bag.
- Recycle: Alternatively, you can donate well-loved clothes to charity or drop them off at your nearest fabric recycling bin.
Also, check out this interactive map to find the nearest Kloth bin to you.
iCYCLE also provides bins for you to drop off old clothes and textiles. Additionally, iCYCLE runs a recycling-for-points programme where you can earn points for checking in and dropping off recyclables and redeem them for shopping vouchers and other rewards – all via a mobile app.
Explore our sources
- Reducing textile waste is everyone’s responsibility (2021) New Straits Times. Link.
- M.M. Chu (2019) Huge amount of fabric waste dumped. The Star. Link.
- A. Azuar (2022) The Big Waste – one artist’s mission to reduce fashion waste. The Malaysian Reserve. Links.
- K. Rogers (n.d.) What Kinds of Pollution Do Textile Factories Give Off? CHRON. Link.
- Encourage Textile Manufacturers to Reduce Pollution (n.d.) NRDC. Link.
- D. Zainuddin (2020) The Fabric Movement: Why dump when you can recycle… and make money?. Astro Awani. Link.
- S. Jay (2022) Kloth Cares: keeping fabric out of Malaysian landfills. FMT. Link.