The demand curve and the supply curve for waste

Do we realise that demand for goods, and often services too, comes with a supply of waste? So, if we take a normal, negatively sloped, demand curve, and trace the price down the curve, quantity demanded is increasing, and so is waste. This gave me the idea that for every demand curve, there is a complementary supply curve of waste. How much waste is produced in a given period of time, depends on how much of the goods we owe are replaced and therefore discarded. But eventually everything is either recycled or ends up in a landfill.

The slope of the supply curve of waste is negative too, since the lower the price, the more waste is produced. However, there is no, or little, demand for it.

Let us focus on the textile industry to delve deeper into this. The textile industry is the second most polluting industry after oil and before the livestock industry1. Waste is not the only issue, but that is what we focus on here:

  • Clothing makers toss out around 10%-12% of garments with simple flaws such as broken zippers.2
  • In 2017, consumers in the UK were expected to get rid of 680 million pieces of clothing as they spring-clean their wardrobes. People would dispose of an average of 19 items, with seven going straight in the bin. This boils down to a staggering 235 million of garments expected to end up in landfill.3
  • UK shoppers own on average £200 worth of clothes they do not wear.4 For comparison, UK shoppers spent on average just over £900 in one year.5

Clothes that do not end up in landfill, but are donated to charities, do not all end up in charity stores. There is a demand for second hand clothes, and the UK is the world’s third exporter, after the USA and Germany6. Thus, worn clothing yields revenue for UK’s charities, and it gets re-used. However, it also crowds out local textiles industries in destination countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa7. In some of these countries, like Ghana and Tanzania, it might not be obvious that UK shoppers throw out clothes, since they refer to the imported second hand clothes with ‘clothes of the dead whites’, indicating that in these cultures you only part with your clothes when you are dead.

When we look at this from the perspective of the economic problem, a market that produces a lot of waste does not make any sense, neither do garments that end up in one’s closet – unused. Visualising the disposal of clothes once bought with the doughnut model, the discarded garments either go through the ecological ceiling or we tip them over the social boundary – maybe thinking that people in the hole can tie them together to climb over.

But from a demand perspective, what can we do? The most significant opportunity for reducing the environmental impact of clothing lies in increasing the active life of the clothes we wear. We could buy better quality clothes that lasts us longer, or buy good quality second hand clothing. We could improve our wardrobe planning to make sure all items match, thus needing less items. Clothes we already have, we should take good care of, reading the washing label carefully. Actually, it is a good idea to read it before we buy an item, since this can prevent us from being frustrated with the care of a garment. Last but not least, we should brush up our sewing skills, so we can do little repairs ourselves.8

How can you use this in the classroom?

To start with, does every student know how to sew on a button, because there might be an opportunity.9

Home economics, or planetary economics, they both have to deal with the same problem, the allocation of resources – within the boundaries of the doughnut. You could look closer at any market, from the demand side like I have done in this post, and find out how much waste it supplies:

  • Food: the packaging, how much is thrown away before or after it has been prepared.
  • Digital appliances: the materials used in the product, the battery.
  • Heating: the amount of heat that gets lost because of low insulation.

Try to find anything you can on the subject of waste supply in a market and have a discussion where the most significant opportunity lies for the reduction of waste in that market. You could collect some data and assemble a dashboard you can refer to should you want to do the same assignment with next year’s class.

  1. According to the London Sustainability Exchange
  2. According to a 2006 estimate from the book, Apparel Manufacturing: Sewn Product Analysis, source: Would you buy patched up clothes to tackle textile waste?, The Guardian, 7 August 2016
  3. Source: Britons expected to send 235m items of clothing to landfill this spring, The Guardian, 6 April 2017
  4. Source: Why are our wardrobes full of unworn clothes?, The Guardian, 2 January 2018. These clothes did likely end up on the pile of 19 items during spring clean this year.
  5. Sources: Expenditure on clothing in the UK in 2017, Statistica, and size of the population of the UK in 2017, Office of National Statistics
  6. Source: UNdata, trade of goods, worn clothing, 2017 data
  7. Source: Where do your old clothes go?, BBC News, 11 February 2015, this article quotes Dr Andrew Brooks, author of Clothing Poverty
  8. I am not the first one to think of this. The Love Your Clothes campaign that started in 2014 in the UK has a website with guides on things like wardrobe planning, how to assess the quality of clothes, care & repair and more.
  9. According to the article Are you one of the 60% who can’t sew a button? in The Guardian, from 13 June 2017, 60% of the British do not know how to sew on a button. You could say, sewing on a button is a home economics skill, and rightly so, because you extend the life of a clothing item,  thus making better use of your resources.