£30 billion worth of clothes have been unworn for at least 12 months

hanging clothes

UK consumers have around £30 billion worth of clothes that have not been worn for at least 12 months, according to a new report published by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

 ‘Valuing our clothes’, released today (11 July), looks at the whole life cycle of clothes – from raw material, to manufacture, purchase, use and disposal. The report found that there are significant financial and environmental gains to re-using clothes as well as repairing and recycling them.

The findings were unveiled at the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) Steering Group meeting in London, showing that in the last year alone, UK consumers had around 1.7 billion items of clothing hanging unused in their wardrobes. Clothes that over two-thirds of the consumers surveyed would be willing to buy and wear.

LIz GoodwinLiz Goodwin, CEO of WRAP, said: “The way we make and use clothes consumes a huge amount of the earth’s precious resources, and accounts for a major chunk of family spending.  But by increasing the active use of clothing by an extra nine months we could reduce the water, carbon and waste impacts by up to 20-30 per cent each and save £5 billion.”

Goodwin suggested several ways people could improve the life-cycle of clothes: “Consumers can realise the value of clothing by updating existing items for their own use, or selling or donating them for others to use. There are also significant opportunities for industry to capitalise on consumer interest and gain financially.”

The report suggests that if all the 350,000 tonnes of clothing currently sent to landfill instead went to charities, local authorities, or other organisations for recycling, around £140 million of revenue could be generated. This figure could further increase if instead they were reused says the report, which also identifies potential new business models for the industry such as ‘buy-back’ schemes, where customers could sell clothes they bought back to the retailer for processing for re-sale. Of the people surveyed, over half said they would utilise buy-back if it were an option and over two-thirds said they would consider buying returned clothes.

Public awareness of clothing sustainability has increased recently as retailers are increasingly encouraging customers to recycle their old clothes. Marks & Spencers’s ‘Shwopping’ campaign (that asks shoppers to drop off their clothes for recycling in store), saw over 500,000 items of clothing ‘shwopped’ in the first six weeks of the campaign. It is hoped this report will encourage more retailers to adopt reuse and recycling campaigns.

“This research clearly shows there are real financial and environmental benefits to be reaped from valuing our clothes more. By building on and encouraging the innovation already undertaken by collectors, re-processors, charities, retailers, brands, designers, suppliers and local authorities, we can help protect precious resources, and save billions in the process. WRAP will be working with industry to do exactly that,” added Goodwin.

Ministers from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all welcomed the report, along with Defra’s Minister for Environment, Lord Taylor, who commented: “This report shows that there is a huge potential for both businesses and households to save money and the environment by thinking differently about the way we produce, use and dispose of clothes. Used clothing has a massive commercial value, yet over 430,000 tonnes is thrown away in the UK every year.”

Alex Attwood, Northern Ireland’s Environment Minister, called on the public to make urgent changes to their habits, saying: “The results of this research are staggering. £30 billion is an overwhelming amount of money, the fact that in the UK that value of clothing is hanging in our wardrobes shows an urgent need for an attitude shift in this area by all of us.”

Key findings of the report include:

  • The average UK household owns around £4,000 worth of clothes – and around 30 per cent of clothing in wardrobes has not been worn for at least a year;
  • The cost of unworn clothing in wardrobes is around £30 billion;
  • Extending the average life of clothes by just three months of active use would lead to a 5-10 per cent reduction in carbon, water and waste footprints;
  • An estimated £140 million worth (around 350,000 tonnes) of used clothing goes to landfill in the UK every year;
  • The average UK household spends around £1,700 a year on purchasing clothes, second only to food and drink in terms of spending on consumable goods;
  • Around 50 per cent of clothes are currently reused, with two-thirds going overseas.

The ‘Valuing Our Clothes’ report can be found on WRAP’s website.