A recycling initiative. A project to build playgrounds. A second-hand resell market. On their own, these three ideas seem harmless enough. Positive, even. Innovative ways of recycling old clothing play a huge role in the transformation of the fashion industry, as does a fair and well-managed resell market. But things aren’t always as they seem.
Suspicious of a recycling program introduced by the U.S. petrochemicals giant Dow Inc and the Singapore government, the news agency Reuters hid trackers in the soles of 11 pairs of donated shoes. The program advertised that the footwear would be broken down and turned into playgrounds and running tracks in Singapore. Five months later, as Reuters tracked the various pairs of sneakers, it instead discovered that nearly all the tagged shoes ended up in second-hand markets across Indonesia.
On the face of it, this might not seem too bad. Apart from the obvious lying or deceptive marketing, what’s so wrong about exporting second-hand goods? Well, firstly, it takes away the material that’s needed to create new children’s playgrounds and sports facilities in Singapore. The Nikes and Reeboks donated by the Reuters journalist would have their rubberized soles and midsoles removed, and ground down into the necessary materials.
Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, countries like Indonesia are already at a breaking point when it comes to second-hand goods. In 2015, Indonesia banned the import of clothing and footwear. In scenes similar to those in parts of Africa, wealthy nations continue to ship millions of tons of clothing and footwear to developing ones. It’s not uncommon for items to be discarded when they reach Indonesia because they’re too damaged or of too low quality. When this happens, the waste is thrown into piles that damage local ecosystems, waterways, and public health. It’s also not unusual for textiles to be burned, releasing harmful fumes into the air.
In addition, an oversized and bloated second-hand market undercuts the local textile industry, which could provide safer and more stable work. In short, wealthy nations are exporting their waste under the guise of circularity or recycling. Instead, our waste is overloading developing countries and causing massive damage to both people and the environment.
Dow Inc is no stranger to damage. It is one of the largest producers of chemicals in the world; chemicals that are used to make plastics and other synthetic materials. This recycling scheme is designed to offset, in some small way, the destructive efforts of its business.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Dow has tried and failed at generating a positive impact. In 2021, it was found that a program in Idaho that was supposedly turning plastic waste into clean fuel was actually just burning the trash to fuel a cement plant. In the same year, a project to collect plastic trash from the Ganges river in India had been shut down following regular equipment malfunctions.
While the sample of this investigation was small, the fact that none of these shoes made it to a Singapore recycling facility underscores huge weaknesses in the system. In a statement following the report, Dow said that it has removed the Singaporean exporter, Yok Impex, from the project.
“The project partners do not condone any unauthorized removal or export of shoes collected through this program and remain committed to safeguarding the integrity of the collection and recycle process,” said the statement, which Dow issued on behalf of all the sponsors.
It also claims that progress is being made. It pointed out the Kallang Football Hub, a new soccer complex with tracks made from recycled shoe granules. Dow said that 10,000 kilograms (22,000 pounds) of recycled shoe material will be used in new builds, all sourced from the Singapore recycling project.
Since the Reuters investigation, Indonesia will tighten customs checks at small ports to crack down on the illegal import of second-hand shoes. And whilst that is a step forward, we might need to look at the root of the cause more carefully to resolve this issue.
And what of the kicks donated by the Reuters reporter? He made the same journey from Singapore to Jakarta, Indonesia where he located them to a second-hand stall thanks to the Bluetooth tracker lodged in its sole. He negotiated with the stall owner to buy them back. This is circularity on a whole new level.
In more positive fashion industry news, investment in next-gen materials exceeded $450 million USD in 2022.