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An Aging Population Poses Issues, Just Like the Baby Boom Did

The New York Times had an interesting piece on aging societies in Asia and elsewhere. The piece rightly points out that as the elderly comprise a larger…



The New York Times had an interesting piece on aging societies in Asia and elsewhere. The piece rightly points out that as the elderly comprise a larger share of the population, societies will have to make adjustments to meet their needs. This is not some sort of crisis, as it is often portrayed, by rather a challenge that has to be recognized, similar to other challenge posed by past demographic changes.  

The NYT piece noted that older people are likely to need more medical care than younger adults. Also, many will face chronic conditions like dementia, which will be difficult to deal with, especially for those without children or other family members to help them. It also pointed out that many older people are forced to work late in life because they don’t have a sufficient income on which to retire.

These are real and important problems, but this will not be the first time that demographics has created a burden for the country. Specifically, the baby boomers imposed a major burden on the country when we were young.

The baby boom cohorts flooded the schools in the years from 1950 to 1982, leading to an enormous increase in spending on elementary and secondary education. In 1946, before any baby boomers had entered kindergarten, government at all levels spent less than 1.3 percent of GDP on K-12 education. This figure rose rapidly through the 1950s and 1960s, peaking at 3.8 percent of GDP in 1970. It then leveled off and edged slightly downward in the 1970s and early 1980s as the cohorts that followed the baby boom were somewhat smaller. This pattern is shown below.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis and Statistical Abstract.

This increase in spending on K-12 education of 2.5 percentage points of GDP over 24 years is considerably larger than the 1.8 percentage point projected increase in spending on Social Security in the forty years from 2000 to 2040.  Also, as many began to attend college in the mid-sixties, there was an even larger increase, in own percent, in spending on college education, by both government and households.

Of course, the huge influx of baby boomers into schools created problems. I remember my second grade class in Chicago had fifty kids. They also put mobile classrooms into our playground, since the school had more kids enrolled than the building could accommodate. And, there were tax increases to cover the costs of educating more children.

And, paying for schools was just the start of it. Young children had to be looked after. At the time, formal child care was rare, so this responsibility typically fell to parents (generally mothers) and other relatives.

Responsibility for raising children kept tens of millions of women out of the labor force. In the 1950s, labor force participation rates for women between the ages of 20 to 24 averaged around 45 percent. Currently, they are over 70 percent. For women between the ages of 25 to 34, labor force participation rates rose from the mid-40s in the 1950s to peaks of over 78 percent in recent years. This translated into hundreds of millions of lost work years from the standpoint of the paid labor market.  

In short, the baby boom cohorts imposed a major burden on both the government and families when they were young. Nonetheless, the decades of the 1950s and 1960s were periods of general prosperity, which saw rapid economic growth that was widely shared across the income distribution. Dealing with an enormous growth in a dependent population of young children did not prevent substantial economic progress.


The Burden of An Aging Population

This short discussion of the baby boomers’ youth is helpful in thinking about the burden posed by an aging population. Just as was the case with the young baby boomers, we will have to reallocate resources to meet the needs of aging baby boomers. It is far from an impossible burden if dealt with intelligently, but clearly it will impose costs.

Most immediately we will have to divert a large share of national income to support a growing population of retirees. We are already far along this path. The increase in the share of GDP going to Social Security between 2000 and 2023 is larger than the projected increase between 2023 and 2040, so this is clearly a manageable burden.

There is an issue that the Social Security trust fund is projected to face a shortfall starting in a bit more than a decade. This is a problem of allocation, not a direct drain of resources. The amount of resources needed to support the elderly population is determined by the number of elderly. We have been meeting this burden without major strains for well over a decade. Our economy can continue to do so, however, we have to decide how to allocate money to the Social Security program.

We can do that with designated taxes, as we have done since the program was created, or we can allocate money from general revenue. This is a political choice, but from an economic standpoint we clearly have the resources to pay benefits.

There is also a question of whether the benefits should be raised. The New York Times piece described incidents where elderly people were doing physically demanding jobs, presumably because they could not afford to retire. A modest increase in Social Security benefits (10-20 percent), for lower income retirees, would carry a relatively small price tag. This would make a large difference in the retirement prospects for lower paid workers, and mean that fewer would be forced to continue working late in life or when they are in bad health.

It would also help enormously if we could have serious discussions of tax increases, and not just for richest one percent. (We should definitely increase their taxes.) The Social Security tax was increased repeatedly over the five decades following its inception, from 2.0 percent in 1937 to 12.4 percent in 1990. It has not been increased at all in more than thirty years.

Part of the reason it was possible politically to increase taxes so much was that, at least through the first thirty-five years of the program’s existence, real wages were rising at healthy pace. Taxing away a portion of the wage gains workers receive every year is an easier matter than asking workers to give up a portion of paychecks that are stagnant or even declining.

Fortunately, it appears that real wages are back on an upward path. Beginning in the middle of the last decade, real wages were rising at a rate of close to 1.0 percent annually for the typical worker. Pandemic inflation briefly stopped this growth, but it appears that real wages are again rising, especially for those in the bottom portion of the wage ladder. If this trend continues, modest increases in Social Security taxes should be a possibility, if that proves necessary.[1]  

Getting Health Care Costs Under Control

A big part of the story of making the burden of an aging population manageable is getting our health care costs under control. The scare stories of the economy being crushed by a flood of retiring baby boomers were actually more a story of exploding health care costs than an increase in the ratio of retirees to workers. The proponents of the scare stories were simply being dishonest. Unfortunately, because of their standing in policy circles, their scare stories were taken seriously by the media.[2]

Fortunately, health care costs have not risen anywhere near as much as projected. In fact, in the last few years they have actually fallen slightly as a share of GDP. Nonetheless, we still pay more than twice as much per person as the average for other wealthy country countries. If we can get our health care costs closer to OECD average, it will make it far easier to care for a growing elderly population.

The basic story of our health care is that we pay far more for just about everything than people in other wealthy countries. The most glaring difference is with prescription drugs, where we often pay two or three times as much, for the same drug, as people in Europe and Canada.

The reason for this disparity is that we give drug companies patent monopolies, or related protections, and then, unlike any other country, tell the drug companies they can charge whatever they want. Every other wealthy country has some sort of price regulation that goes along with these government-granted monopolies.

We can get our prices down by adopting the same sort of restrictions on patent monopolies that Europe and Canada have. We will spend around $550 billion this year on prescription drugs. This is equal to 2.2 percent of GDP or more than 60 percent of the military budget. If we got our prices down to European levels we would pay around half of this amount. There is a similar story with medical equipment, although we only spend around $200 billion a year there.

Even better than reducing our payments for patent-protected drugs, we can stop relying on patent monopoly financing altogether for the development of new drugs. We can pay for the research upfront, as we did with the development of Moderna’s Covid vaccine. (We also allowed them to maintain a monopoly on the vaccine, in effect paying them twice.)

The government already spends over $50 billion a year on biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health. We could substantially increase the amount of public funding, but add the provision that all the drugs, vaccines, and other products developed must be fully open-source, so that they could be sold as cheap generics from the day they are approved.

We already have a great example of this model. Peter Hotez and Elena Bottazzi, two highly respected researchers at Baylor University and Texas Children’s Hospital, developed a simple to produce, 100 percent open-source Covid vaccine. It uses well-established technologies that are not complicated (unlike mRNA). Their vaccine has been widely used in India and Indonesia, with over 100 million people getting the vaccine to date.

Their vaccine sells for less than $2 a dose in India. If the FDA were to approve it here (it would likely cost around $10 million for the clinical trials needed to get approval) it would probably sell for less than $5 a shot. This compares to $110 to $130 dollars that Pfizer and Moderna want to charge for their boosters. If we got 100,000 people to take the Hotez-Bottazzi vaccine rather than the Pfizer-Moderna shot, it would cover the cost of the trials. If we got 1 million to take their vaccine it would cover the cost ten times over, and if ten million people took their vaccine it would cover the cost one hundred times over.

It is not just money we would save by going this open-source route. The huge markups that drug companies can charge due to patent monopolies give them an enormous incentive to lie about the safety and effectiveness of their drugs. We see this problem all the time, most notably with the opioid crisis where drug companies deceived doctors about the addictiveness of their drugs.

Another prominent example is the Alzheimer’s drug Adulhelm. Biogen, the manufacturer of the drug, was pushing the FDA for an accelerated approval, in spite of limited evidence of its effectiveness and serious harmful side effects. Their plan was thwarted after the resignation of several members of an FDA advisory committee. Biogen had planned to sell the drug for $56,000 for a year’s treatment. If Adulhelm was developed with open-source funding, and would be sold as a cheap generic upon approval, there would have been little incentive to try to get the FDA to ignore concerns about the drug’s safety and effectiveness.

Open-source drugs would also have a substantial impact on income inequality. The people who benefit from patent monopolies and related protections are almost all in the top 10 percent of the income distribution and many are in the top one percent. Forbes magazine calculated that the Moderna vaccine alone created five billionaires.

Aging Is a Distraction

We should recognize that the aging of the population will pose problems, but these problems are not qualitatively different, and almost certainly smaller in size, than the problems created by the baby boom cohorts when they were young. These problems are dwarfed by the problems created by inequality.

They are also aggravated by inequality. In a less unequal society, tens of millions of people would approach old age in better health. This is not only good for them, but it also means that paying for their health care would require fewer resources than if we continue on our current track.

Obviously, those who benefit from the extreme inequality we see at present would prefer that policy instead be focused on aging, as though this is a crisis. But their interests do not change the reality.

[1] Many economists, most notably former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, have argued that the biggest problem facing an aging society is “secular stagnation.” This is a story where there is not enough demand to keep the economy operating at its potential and to keep workers fully employed. This is 180 degrees at odds with the story that we won’t have the resources needed to support a growing elderly population. If Summers’ secular stagnation view proves correct, then there would be no reason to have tax increases, since the economy is suffering from too little demand, not too much.

[2] The classic work in this vein was Peter Peterson’s mid-nineties gem, Will America Grow Up Before It Grows Old: How the Coming Social Security Crisis Threatens You, Your Family, and Your Country.

The post An Aging Population Poses Issues, Just Like the Baby Boom Did appeared first on Center for Economic and Policy Research.

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What would you take with you? Why possessions matter in times of war and displacement

The things that people are able to bring with them often take on a heightened significance, reflective of both their old and new lives.

Refugees from Ukraine arrive in the Czech Republic. Tomas Vynikal/Shutterstock

In 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine resulted in Europe’s largest refugee crisis since the second world war. By March of that year, about a quarter of the country’s total population had fled to safer locations in Europe.

The speed with which the war has escalated has seen Ukrainian citizens needing to flee, hurriedly and by any means available – including on foot. As is most often the case for those who find themselves displaced, most Ukrainian refugees could only take with them what they could carry.

The things that people are able to bring with them, therefore, often take on a heightened significance, reflecting their old and new lives following the severe interruption of war. The collection, display and engagement with these objects can transform otherwise unremarkable artefacts into sacred symbols, demonstrative of resistance and survival.

I spoke to Anna, a young Ukrainian currently living and working in Warsaw, Poland. She shared the items that she’d brought from her last visit to her family, who still live in Ukraine:

I have Ukrainian symbols – a magnet that says ‘Ukraine is my home’ and another with a sunken Russian ship as a reminder that the Russian state will go down, like its ship. Everything connected with my country is important to me, because it is my heart and soul.

In 2022, a Ukrainian culture magazine Bird in Flight produced a feature entitled Unnecessary Necessities, which documented the things taken by those evacuating their homes. Similar initiatives have emerged from the Syrian refugee crisis, and Tom Kiefer, who worked as a janitor at Customs and Border Protection, photographed the discarded objects of those attempting to cross from Mexico into the US.

Objects and memory

The notion of objects associated with war and genocide assuming the role of symbols or talismans has been widely researched. For several years, my own research has focused on material memories of the Holocaust. I am deeply moved by the items that survivors or descendants were able to carry or save, recover or reclaim, in order to provide a tangible bridge between the past and the present.

For instance, a gold wedding band unearthed close to the gas chamber area of the former Sobibor death camp in eastern Poland, inscribed with the Hebrew message: “With this ring, you are bound to me.” These items, so significant of the Jewish faith and of the loving relationships that the victims enjoyed before their murders, stand in place of their owners who lay silently in mass graves.

Read more: Ukraine refugees: six practical steps to rise to the challenge

My participation in archaeological excavations at former killing sites also emphasised the importance of objects in restoring memory to the victims of political and historical brutality.

While much attention has been paid to the memorial culture of the second world war, lesser-acknowledged genocides still demand our attention. The crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing campaign throughout areas controlled by the army of Republika Srpska during the Bosnian War of 1992–95, for example, are often overlooked.

During the invasion of the town of Srebrenica, around 8,000 Muslim men, and boys over 12 years old, were murdered, resulting in one of the largest incidences of genocide in Europe. Over the course of the war, 100,000 people were killed, countless women and girls were raped and more than 2 million people were displaced.

One of those displaced people was Smajo Bešo. He was eight in 1993, and had already lived in the middle of a war zone for over a year. Between June 1992 and March 1993, the Bešo family fled their home village of Barane, moving back and forth between 14 locations in an attempt to stay safe.

As the violence against Muslims progressed towards genocide, Smajo’s father became targeted by Bosnian-Croat soldiers and was arrested. A number of Smajo’s closest relatives were killed, and, after several life-threatening situations, Smajo was eventually reunited with his father, who had survived in a concentration camp.

In 1994, his family arrived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne as refugees and Smajo has continued to share his story, recently receiving an OBE award for services to genocide education.

As part of my wider research into the material memories of genocide, Smajo informed me:

We didn’t bring many things with us, we pretty much had to leave everything behind. We had one photo album, with some of the most precious photographs, our house key and my mam kept her watch that my father gave her when they got engaged. The home is the most personal part of your life, where you feel safe, so having any trace of that was really important. It’s proof that your previous life was real, especially when there is denial. We existed, and our previous life existed, and it’s part of the healing process too. We left a part of us in Bosnia and this is how I connect to my past, but also how I rebuild myself.

Ultimately, Smajo’s story, in addition to those who suffered during the Holocaust or in the current war on Ukraine, serves as a reminder of why seemingly ordinary things matter in the context of war and displacement.

Not only are objects evidence of an event, but they facilitate activism and contribute towards memory making, both for the people who experienced it and those who seek to learn from them. As Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor and author Primo Levi concluded in his 1959 memoir, If This is a Man: “These things are part of us, almost like limbs of our body.”

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Hannah Wilson receives funding from Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah.

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How air pollution is making life tougher for bugs

We’re making life tough for insects – and not just by swatting them away with a newspaper.




Air pollution is the latest threat facing our insects. Robbie Girling/Inka Lusebrink, CC BY-NC-SA

Whether you love them or loathe them, we all depend on bugs. Insects help to pollinate three-quarters of the world’s crop varieties, making them a treasured resource.

But we’re making the lives of insects tough – and not just by swatting them away with a newspaper. Insect populations worldwide are in sharp decline as they battle against climate change, habitat loss and pesticides.

Now, we can add air pollution to the list of threats. Our research from 2022 revealed that when exposed to two common air pollutants at concentrations within EU air quality limits, the visits of pollinating insects to flowers plummeted by as much as 90%.

Over a span of two years, we artificially elevated the levels of either ozone or diesel exhaust fumes around plots of flowering black mustard plants, all within fields of non-flowering wheat. We carefully monitored and controlled the release of pollutants using rings constructed around each plot.

This method allowed us to monitor the number of pollinating insects visiting the flowers in polluted plots and draw comparisons with plots devoid of pollutants.

We were surprised by what we found. In the rings where we released ozone or diesel exhaust fumes, the number of pollinating insects decreased by 70% and overall pollination success rates decreased by up to 31%.

It wasn’t just bees and butterflies that were affected. Ground-dwelling insects suffered too, with exposure to these pollutants causing their numbers to decrease by as much as 36%.

A fenced off ring in the middle of a field.
Eight rings were used to elevate pollution levels around flowering black mustard plants. Neil Mullinger, CC BY-NC-SA

Why air pollution makes life so hard

Many insects rely on their sense of smell to locate flowers. When they feed on nectar, they quickly connect the flower’s scent with its sugary reward. Consequently, when they come across the same scent later on, they track its trail in pursuit of another tasty treat.

Thus, flowers serve a dual purpose. They are not just pretty to look at but also function as beacons that release a specific blend of fragrant chemicals designed to attract pollinators.

But these signals are under threat. Air pollutants like ozone are highly reactive and can degrade the signals by destroying the chemicals that make up a flower’s scent.

In our more recent research, we simulated a floral scent in a 20-metre long wind tunnel and then mapped out how the levels of each of the chemicals that made up the scent changed in response to increasing ozone pollution. We found that ozone quickly ate away at the edges of the plume, reducing both its width and length.

Essentially, the chemical signal could travel only a shorter distance, which limited the number of insects it could reach.

Adding ozone also changes the smell of each of the chemicals that make up a flower’s scent. By observing these changes in a wind tunnel, we could measure the speed at which these chemical changes occur.

Some chemicals degraded within seconds, whereas others were not affected at all. How far away you are from the scent’s source appears to change how the scent smells.

Pavlov’s Bees

To understand how changes to the floral scent might affect pollinators, we taught honeybees to recognise the same floral scent that we released into the wind tunnel. Much like Pavlov’s dogs drooling at the sound of a dinner bell, bees stick out their proboscis (tube-like tongue) when they sniff an odour they have learned to associate with a sugary reward. This allowed us to see how many bees could still recognise the floral scent once it had been exposed to ozone pollution.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, bees can be trained to respond to a dinner bell – or in their case, the scent of a flower.

We first tested the honeybees with scent blends replicating those observed at the plume centre when ozone levels were elevated. At a distance of six metres from the flower, 52% of bees recognised the scent. This fell to only 38% at a distance of 12 metres.

We then tested the response of honeybees to the more degraded plume edges. Only 32% of the bees responded at six metres, falling to just 10% at 12 metres.

These results help to explain the significant decline in the number and diversity of insect visits and pollination rates observed in our field trials. Put simply, ozone pollution limits the reach of chemical signals and changes their meaning, leaving insects confused.

Two diagrams showing how ozone disrupts a flower's scent.
Ozone makes it difficult for insects to sniff out flowers. Ben Langford, CC BY-NC-SA

But this is unlikely to be the full story. Although we replicated the effects of ozone pollution on floral scents, we never exposed the bees directly to ozone. Separate research carried out in France suggests that direct exposure to ozone might also impair the ability of bees to detect floral scents.

The full extent to which air pollution is impacting the insects we all depend on is only just beginning to be revealed. So, the next time you lift your newspaper to swat a bug, take a second and ask yourself – don’t they have it tough enough already?

Ben Langford receives funding from the Natural Environmental Research Council

James Ryalls has received funding from The Leverhulme Trust and The Royal Society to conduct research on this topic.

Robbie Girling has received funding to conduct research on this topic from the Natural Environment Research Council, the Leverhulme Trust and the Gerald Kerkut Charitable Trust.

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Fast fashion’s waste problem could be solved by recycled textiles but brands need to help boost production

Brands like Zara and H&M are teaming up with recycled textile producers but more collaboration is needed.





Earlier this year, fast fashion retailer Zara released its first womenswear collection made of recycled poly-cotton textile waste. The collection is available for sale in 11 countries, helping clothing made of blended textile waste reach the mass market.

The collection came about after Zara’s parent company Inditex invested in textile recycler Circ. This follows a €100 million (£87 million) deal between Inditex and Finnish textile recycler Infinited Fiber Company for 30% of its recycled output. Zara’s fast fashion rival H&M has also entered a five-year contract with Swedish textile recycler Renewcell to acquire 9,072 tonnes of recycled fibre – equivalent to 50 million T-shirts.

There is a growing appetite among some fashion retailers to turn old clothes into high-quality fibres, and then into new clothes. But even though well-known brands are developing lines using recycled textiles, this movement has not yet reached the scale needed to have a truly global impact.

Before this recent growth in interest in textile recycling, fast fashion’s efforts to tackle throwaway attitudes towards affordable clothing often simply added to the global textile waste mountain – especially in developing countries, say campaigners like Greenpeace.

For example, a skirt deposited at a London chain store under a take-back scheme was reportedly found in a landfill in Bamako, Mali. This is not an isolated incident, it’s a sector-wide problem that sees old clothes being collected but not disposed of properly. An estimated 15 million used clothing items are shipped to Ghana each week from around the world and many end up in the country’s landfills. This is often referred to as waste colonialism.

The fast fashion industry needs greater access to recycled textiles to address this problem. But this means having the means to track “thrown-away” garments to collect those suitable for recycling. The industry also needs facilities that are big enough to turn this waste into new materials for clothing at the scale needed to meet mass market demand.

This is particularly important as these firms prepare for an EU crackdown on the region’s own waste mountain. Following the EU strategy for Sustainable and Circular textiles 2022, the European Commission is drafting new legislation over the next five years to make the fashion industry pay for the cost of processing discarded clothing.

Under the new EU rules, companies will be expected to collect waste equivalent to a certain percentage of their production. While the exact amount has not yet been confirmed yet, European commissioner for the environment Virginijus Sinkevičius has said it will “definitely” be more than 5% of production. Companies may have to pay a fee (reportedly equivalent to €0.12 per T-shirt) towards local authorities’ waste collection work.

White store background with sales display of grey coat, tree and light behind white clothing collection bin.
Many stores offer collection bins for old clothes. Inditex

But fast fashion brands must ensure that this doesn’t just dump the problem of textile waste into other countries’ landfills. Instead, developing lines out of recycled textiles could give these old clothes a new lease of life.

A Fashion Pact signed by more than 160 brands (a third of the sector by volume) commits companies to ensure that, by 2025, 25% of the raw materials such as textiles that they use have a low impact on the environment – recycled fibre is considered a low-impact material. Some brands have set more ambitious targets, including Adidas, which has committed to using 100% recycled plastics by 2024, and Zara-owner Inditex, which pledged to source 40% of its fibres from recycling processes by 2030.

These impending deadlines, plus the EU legislation, should motivate brands to use more recycled fibres. While the supply of such material is currently limited, an influx of recycling start-ups are finding ways to turn old clothes into new fibres that replicate the look and feel of virgin materials.

Start-ups like Spinnova, Renewcell and Infinited Fibre have developed chemical recycling technologies to create new fibres from cotton-rich clothing. And while cheap low-cost blended materials like poly-cotton are difficult to separate and recycle, firms like Worn Again, Envrnu, and Circ are tackling this problem, too.

Worn Again plans to build a new recycling demo plant in Switzerland, paving the way for 40 licensed plants by 2040, which would be capable of processing 1.8 million tonnes of textile waste per year.

Taking textile recycling from hype to reality

Up to 26% of Europe’s textile waste could be recycled by 2030, according to some estimates, according to a 2022 McKinsey report. This would generate €3.5-€4.5 billion in economic output for the EU, create 15,000 new jobs, and save 3.6 million tonnes of CO². But only 1% of textiles are currently being recycled globally into new clothes – the recycling technology needed for this shift is still in its infancy.

Part of the challenge in scaling up textile recycling to this degree is the lack of information available about what happens to clothes that are thrown away. Sharing data on the volume, locations and compositions of waste generated in the supply chain and collected post-consumption would help evaluate the full potential of textile recycling. Companies like Reverse Resources already provide online databases of information on textile waste – in this case for a global network of 70 recyclers, 44 waste handlers and 1,287 manufacturers in 24 countries.

Bales of clothes stacked in piles in a warehouse.
A textile recycling centre. Martin de Jong/Shutterstock

Increasing textile recycling will require a collaborative approach, as will the development of the technology needed to create high-quality recycled textiles. Brands, investors, suppliers, recyclers, technology providers and local governments must come together to find ways to grow the textile recycling industry. The recent New Cotton Project that involves 12 brands (including H&M group and Adidas), manufacturers, suppliers and research institutes is a first step towards increasing textile recycling.

More money is also needed from all of these groups. To reach the recycling rate of 18%-26% by 2030, it will take billions in infrastructure investment for collecting, sorting and processing textile waste.

Textile recycling is no longer for a few “sustainable” fashion firms – it is quickly becoming a reality that no fast fashion firm can ignore. Shoppers must demand that the brands they love show their commitment to textile recycling beyond marketing campaigns and low-volume fashion collections.

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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