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My Testimony to Plastic Waste in Retail

By Harley Wolfgang

I know we’ve talked about flaws in fast fashion and the industry as a whole before. But there’s an entirely different part of fashion and retail I don’t think we’ve mentioned on this blog before that goes largely ignored, especially by those who have never worked a retail job: plastic waste.

Over the last semester, I worked as a sales associate for a store at the Grove City Outlets. Unfortunately, I can’t provide any images of the clothes in their packaging because the retailer doesn’t allow employees to have their cell phones on the floor. This is the first retail job I’ve ever had; before this, I’d always worked in food service. Retail jobs, especially at slower stores like the one I work at, tend to have their employees doing the same things day after day. Unpack the shipment, put censors on clothes, fold clothes, and put the clothes away. Simple. The part of this process I didn’t know about until now was how the manufacturers handle shipments of clothing before the shipments arrive at our doors.

My store receives clothing and accessory shipments on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of every week, with anywhere between 10 and 100 items. The shipments come packaged with anywhere between 1 and 40 items per box. The part that blows my mind here is this: every single item comes wrapped individually in a plastic bag, sometimes multiple plastic bags. That bag gets torn open and thrown into another plastic garbage bag. Some items, like coats or purses, have plastic and/or paper wrappings around accessories like zippers, straps, or clasps. Fragile items like jewelry come wrapped in bubble wrap, then covered again in a layer of plastic, taped, and then placed into the shipping bag. Any item with the company logo engraved into metal has a plastic covering over the logo to prevent it from being scratched. And, of course, everyone knows that purses and bags always come stuffed with practically a whole newspaper inside to help them hold their shape. All these items are then put into the cardboard boxes in which they are shipped. Before you ask, this plastic, paper, or cardboard was never recycled. Almost every store I talked to about this dealt with the same system of plastic, paper, and cardboard waste in their stores.

What makes this almost laughable is that my store, much like many other big retailers right now, is trying to capitalize on Gen Z’s climate and environmental awareness expectations. These brands are fighting tooth and nail to make it look like they are environmentally conscious in the hopes that Gen Z will think more highly of the brand and purchase items believing they are doing something good for the environment. How does my store do this? Attaching a tag to almost all the shirts, jeans, coats, and dresses that say “consciously constructed” with details about how these items are created with recycled materials or organic materials that are better for people and the environment and are overall better for the world. Regardless of what the clothing is sewn together with, none of the plastic or paper used to package those clothing items gets recycled. The outlets I work at don’t have recycling containers for stores.

The most frustrating part is that there’s no reason for it. The clothing isn’t in any better condition because it was wrapped in a million layers of plastic and paper. Stuff still arrives at the store damaged, wrinkled, and sometimes dirty. It’s wasteful on the part of the brand, their manufacturers, and even the stores like the one I worked at, who mindlessly ignore this wastefulness. Why do these brands need to add that their clothes are “consciously constructed” from organic cotton or recycled water bottles? Knowing full well that all the recycling and saving the planet they think they just did goes down the drain with the 20-gallon garbage bag worth of plastic bags and paper I threw out every day after we finish putting away the shipment?

If anyone is interested in learning more from people who know a little more than me on this topic, here are a few helpful articles:

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