But it doesn’t have to be this way, according to French designer Roland Mouret. At London Fashion Week in September, he teamed up with Amsterdam-based startup Arch & Hook to debut Blue, a hanger composed of 80 percent plastic litter harvested from rivers.
Mouret will exclusively employ the Blue hanger, which is designed to be reclaimed and reused, and he’s actively urging his fellow designers to switch as well. While the single-use plastic hanger amounts to a fraction of the plastic-waste issue, it’s a symbol the fashion industry can rally around. “Single-use plastic is not luxury,” he said. “And that is why we need a change.”
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the planet produces 300 million tonnes of plastic every year. The fashion industry itself is awash in plastic garment covers, wrapping and other forms of disposable packaging.
Most hangers are made to keep clothes crease-free as they make their way from factories to distribution centres and then on to stores. This mode of fulfilment is known as “garment-on-hanger,” as store clerks can hang up garments straight from the box, saving time. It’s not just high street stores with razor-thin margins who use them; luxury retailers may switch out the factory’s hangers for fancier ones, often made of wood, before the clothing goes on display to the consumer.
Temporary hangers are made from lightweight plastics such as polystyrene and are so cheap to produce that it’s often more cost-effective to make a new one than set up a recycling system. Some 85 percent end up in a landfill, according to Arch & Hook, where they can take centuries to break down. If the hangers escape collection, the plastic may end up polluting waterways and poisoning marine life. Already, 8 million metric tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year, estimates the World Economic Forum. "Already, 8 million metric tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year." Mouret isn’t the first to look for a solution to plastic hangers. Many retailers are addressing the problem as well.
Target, an early adopter of the reuse concept, has reclaimed plastic hangers from clothing, towels and curtains for recirculation, repair or recycling since 1994. A spokesperson said the retailer reused enough hangers in 2018 to circle the globe five times. Similarly, Marks & Spencer has reused or recycled more than 1 billion plastic hangers over the past 12 years.
Zara is rolling out a “single hanger project” to replace temporary ones with branded alternatives made from recycled plastic. The hangers are then shipped back to the retailer’s suppliers to be outfitted with a new garment and redeployed. “Our Zara hangers are continuously reused while in good condition, and if one breaks, it is recycled to create [a] new Zara hanger,” a company spokesperson said. "According to Zara estimates, by the end of 2020, the system will be “fully implemented” worldwide, no small feat considering the company churns out some 450 million new items every year."
Other retailers are looking to reduce the number of single-use plastic hangers. H&M says it is researching reusable hanger models as part of its goal to reduce overall packaging material by 2025. Burberry is testing compostable hangers made from bioplastics, while Stella McCartney is exploring paper and cardboard alternatives.
Consumers are increasingly troubled by fashion’s environmental footprint. A recent Boston Consulting Group survey of consumers in five countries (Brazil, China, France, the UK and the US) found that 75 percent viewed sustainability as “extremely” or “very” important. Over one-third said they had switched loyalties from one brand to another over environmental or social practices.
Plastics pollution is a particular source of unease. A study conducted by the Shelton Group in June found that 65 percent of Americans are “very concerned” or “extremely concerned” about plastics in the ocean — more than the 58 percent who feel that way about climate change.
“Consumers, especially millennials and Gen-Z, are becoming more aware of the issue of a single-use plastics,” said Luna Atamian Hahn-Petersen, senior manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers. For fashion companies, the message is clear: get on the same page or lose customers.
As more brands address their hanger problems, companies are springing up to offer solutions. London-based recycling firm First Mile has begun accepting broken and unwanted plastic and metal hangers from retail businesses for shredding and repurposing by its partner, Endurmeta, in Wales.
Braiform, which supplies more than 2 billion hangers each year to retailers such as J.C. Penney, Kohl’s, Primark and Walmart, operates several distribution centres in the UK and the US for sorting and redelivering used hangers to garment suppliers. It reuses 1 billion hangers a year with damaged hangers ground up, compounded and reformed into fresh ones.
And in October, retail solution provider SML Group debuted the EcoHanger, which combines recycled fibreboard arms with a polypropylene hook. The plastic component pops off and can be shipped back to the garment supplier for reuse. If it breaks, polypropylene - the kind you find in yogurt tubs, is widely accepted for recycling.
Other hanger manufacturers eschew plastic altogether. Collection and reuse systems, they say, only work if the hangers don’t return home with the customers. And they frequently do.
“We have noticed a shift to circular systems, but hangers still wind up with the end consumer,” said Caroline Hughes, senior product line manager of sustainable packaging at Avery Dennison, which offers a hanger made with compressed natural kraft board and water-based glue. It’s reusable but can also easily be recycled with other paper products at the end of its life.
UK brand Normn makes hangers out of sturdy cardboard but will soon debut a version with a metal hook to better complement factory-to-store shipping. “This is where we can have a lot of impact in terms of numbers and single-use hangers,” said Carine Middeldorp, the company’s business development manager. Normn works mostly with retailers, brands and hotels but it’s also in talks with dry cleaners.
Paper hangers can cost more upfront, about 60 percent in the case of US manufacturer Ditto, because “there's nothing cheaper than plastic,” said Gary Barker, the company’s founder and CEO.
Still, their return on investment can manifest in other ways. Ditto’s recycled paper hangers, which work with most garment-on-hanger schemes, are 20 percent thinner and lighter than their plastic counterparts, meaning suppliers can pack more garments in every carton. While plastic hangers require expensive moulds, paper is easily cut into various shapes.
Because the paper is highly compressed, “almost like masonite,” per Barker - they’re no less sturdy, either. Ditto boasts 100 designs to support garments from flimsy lingerie to hockey gear weighing up to 40 pounds. Plus, you can print on them, which Ditto frequently does with soy-based inks. “We can foil stamp, we can print logos and patterns, we can print QR codes,” he said.
Arch & Hook also two other hangers on offer: one made with Forestry Stewardship Council-certified wood and the other a higher-grade, 100 percent recyclable form of thermoplastic. Different retailers have different needs, Rick Gartner, Arch & Hook's chief financial officer said, and hanger-makers must tailor their products accordingly.
But such is the scope and scale of the fashion industry’s plastic problem that no one company, or single effort, can solve it alone.
“When you think about fashion, it's all about the clothes, the factories, the labour; we tend to overlook things like hangers,” Hahn-Petersen said. “But sustainability is such a big issue, it’ll take accumulative action and solutions to address it.”