From the landfill to the wardrobe: Wasted textiles find a new home

Fashion designer, Ngwane Liz poses while wearing one of her garments.

Fashion designer, Ngwane Liz poses at Down Beach Limbe wearing an up-cycled dress from her "NWF" collection. (No Waste Factory)

Related Topics:
Oceans, Pollution, Recycling & Upcycling, Sustainability

Do you know where the clothes in your wardrobe come from? Before you throw away that favorite summer dress, it might be wise to give it new meaning. Wasting away in closets and drawers are attires that no longer fit, many that have never been worn, and others that are out of fashion. In fact, research reveals that on average, 12% of clothes in women’s wardrobes could be considered “inactive.” Yet, there could be several ways of repurposing these garments. From rainbow patches to fabric blending, mending pieces of clothes can breathe new life into garments. 

Textiles can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, clothing is a necessity. And on the other hand, textile production and disposal processes are highly problematic. We often calculate how much our clothes cost by just totaling the amounts on the receipts upon purchase. However, there is a hidden, hardly voiced cost — the cost on the environment. According to figures published by the United Nations Environment Program and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, and figure might surge to more than 50% by 2030 if we continue at the same pace. 

Wasted textiles wash up on a littered shore.
Wasted textiles wash up on the shore of Down Beach, Limbe. (Photos courtesy Ngwane Liz/No Waste Factory)

Is it possible to flatten fast fashion’s carbon curve? 

“As a fashion designer, I took a walk around Down Beach, Limbe and it was sad to see how the tidal waves offload our garments at the shores. Since then, I have produced my designs more intentionally with fashion and the planet in mind,” says Ngwane Liz, environmental engineer and sustainable fashion designer as she launches the No Waste Factory collection, an arm of her main fashion brand, Margo’s Mode.

A man poses while wearing a bright orange shirt and pants by fashion designer, Ngwane Liz..
(No Waste Factory)

The fashion industry enormously strains essential resources and leaves environmental footprints all through the production and distribution chain. For instance, it takes about 3,781 liters of water (or, approximately 1,000 gallons) to produce a single pair of jeans, and 33.4 kg of carbon equivalent emitted for the process. This shows that the true cost of looking fashionable is a lot more than just a price tag.

“When dyes and other chemicals are used in manufacturing and clothes get released into waterways, they pollute the entire water system. Wastewater from textile factories contain toxic chemicals that endanger plant life, wildlife, and communities that depend on these water sources for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Fast fashion has a massive impact on water resources worldwide,” Ngwane says.

She explains that at No Waste Factory, “we redirect textile waste from landfills and oceans by combining patches of left-over fabrics into clothes. We also train women and people with disabilities to transform these leftovers into chair cushions and other income-generating art works.”

A tote bag made of recycled patches hangs from a coat hanger.
(No Waste Factory)

She also designs signature pieces crafted with accompanying stories that showcase the unique history of Cameroonians and Africans to be passed down from one generation to another.

“We are creating garments with functional art and symbolic artifacts that speak to the bonds we have built as a nation and the history we are reimagining as a continent. I engrave on my designs a strong African influence that makes the consumer want to reuse even for a different purpose, rather than get rid of in a hurry.” 

What’s the way forward?

Although it has only an average yearly growth of 3-4%, the fashion industry charter for climate action has a mission to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions no later than 2050. As world leaders gear up for COP27, the cost of transportation will not only be measured in U.S. dollars, but in carbon emissions, too. 

Considering that Cameroon spent 101.71 billion Central African Francs (about $150 million) to import 121,935 tons of textiles in 2019, Ngwane believes the consumption of locally made products should be encouraged. This is why she ensures her production materials are locally sourced and locally stitched. She says: “My commitment to stand out as a creative sustainable fashion designer recently earned me an ambassadorial deal with Guinness Cameroon for their “Black Shines Brightest” campaign

Two women pose in colorful dresses.
(No Waste Factory)

According to Ngwane, “We need to rethink the cost of fast fashion and continue to find alternative ways of handling these tossed clothes. I believe the fashion industry has just begun tapping into the massive potential it has to drive change in sustainable fashion”

UNEP also suggests that the nascent nature of the textile industry in developing countries presents a huge opportunity to set the pace for the rest of the world by quickly transitioning to circular operating models. There is a need to radically rethink how we produce and use clothing if we aim for sustainable fashion going forward. Today, as you wake up and look into your wardrobe, what you decide to wear or do with your clothes can help change the face of the planet.

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