Putting waste out of fashion

With people waking up to the scale of waste produced by the fashion industry every year, Imogen Benson takes a closer look at the trends away from ‘fast fashion’ towards a more sustainable clothing industry

Bringing the latest trends from factory to wardrobe in record speed, the ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon has wasted no time in securing its grip on the textile industry, with global clothing consumption more than doubling over the past 15 years. But with nylon dresses and polyester t-shirts costing as little as £5, the price often seems too good to be true – so what’s the hidden cost of our addiction to cheap clothes?

An image of a rail of clothing

It’s a bleak picture. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), textile production uses a staggering 98 million tonnes of non-renewable resources annually, producing 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions – more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

Textile production is also immensely water-intensive – using around 93 billion cubic metres of water each year, mostly during cotton farming – and highly-polluting, releasing toxic chemicals such as dyes and finishing treatments into the environment.

And with UK consumers throwing away around 336,000 tonnes of unwanted clothes each year, the environmental damage continues far beyond the production stage. “We see a huge amount of waste, not only during production but during the use phase,” says Laura Balmond, Project Manager for EMF’s Make Fashion Circular initiative. “Every three seconds, the equivalent of one rubbish truck worth of textiles is going to landfill or being incinerated, so the scale is huge.”

To add insult to injury, waste arises even when clothing is kept in use, with thousands of plastic microfibres released every time synthetic garments are washed. Research from EMF’s 2017 New Textiles Economy report found that around half a million tonnes of microfibres are released into the ocean each year, equivalent to over 50 billion plastic bottles.

“From our perspective, there are two ways to address the issue of microfibres,” says Balmond. “One is to reduce down the amount of microplastics that are escaping into the environment, for example, through microfibre capture devices, and then we need to see a complete redesign of the materials so that from the very beginning those microfibres aren’t coming off the materials and getting lost.”

But simply switching to fibres that seem more sustainable on the face of it is not a guaranteed route to success, as Mark Sumner, Lecturer in Fashion and Sustainability at Leeds University, points out. “It’s very difficult to say which materials are the most sustainable, as the complicating factor is that clothing is not single-use,” Sumner says. He explains that material choice is not a clear cut decision – while cotton has high water and fertiliser usage, it provides a major source of income for many countries in Africa and Asia, and although polyester comes from non-renewable sources, it has a longer life span and is much more durable.

Alan Wheeler, Director of the Textile Recycling Association, adds: “The environmental and social issues of the clothing supply chain are extremely complex, as whenever one attempts to address one issue it seemingly has an impact elsewhere.”

Commenting on WRAP’s position, Sarah Clayton, Head of Citizen Behaviour Change, says: “We strongly support proposals to introduce EPR for clothing, which has the potential to be a game-changer for the industry in the drive towards a more circular economy for clothing – helping to incentivise the design of longer-lasting clothes, and keeping clothing out of landfill.”

But with EPR for textiles a long way off, fashion producers and retailers must wake up to the reality of their waste – an “exciting” moment, says Balmond: “There’s currently a huge opportunity for businesses to explore new ways to meet their customer needs while also keeping their clothes in use, for example through rental platforms or peer-to-peer exchanges.”

Taking responsibility

While the current levels of waste may be disheartening, change is beginning to emerge. “There are actually lots of businesses doing some really excellent things to improve their sustainability,” says Sumner. “Even some companies that you might typically associate with fast fashion.”

Swedish clothing giant H&M is a case in point. Despite its front-runner status in the world of fast fashion, the multinational is taking steps to reduce its footprint – the business runs a takeback scheme where customers earn rewards for dropping off old clothes, and has recently launched a rental platform in its flagship Stockholm store.

In the UK, a number of businesses have signed up to the Waste and Resources Action Programme’s (WRAP) Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) – a voluntary commitment aiming to reduce the carbon, water and waste footprint of clothing by 15 per cent by 2020. SCAP currently has over 90 signatories and supporters including brands, retailers and charities, with Boohoo and Urban Outfitters signing up in 2019.

According to the initiative’s latest progress report, published in December, signatories have exceeded the commitment’s water target by 3.1 per cent, mainly due to the use of lower impact cottons such as those accredited by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), and are well on track to meeting the carbon reduction target. With regards to waste, progress is much slower – SCAP’s signatories have only reduced the amount of clothing sent to landfill or incineration by four per cent, making it unlikely the 15 per cent target will be met by the end of the year.

Sumner, who last year gave evidence for the Environment Audit Committee’s (EAC) inquiry into fast fashion, calls for the government to make signing up to the initiative a mandatory requirement: “Whilst there are several businesses who are doing great things through SCAP, the fundamental problem is that not enough businesses have signed up.”

“The government’s current view of textiles is that it’s not important at all,” he adds, reflecting on how the government rejected the EAC’s proposal for a one pence tax on clothing to fund the collection, recycling and reuse of textiles.

Despite the government currently favouring voluntary initiatives such as SCAP, an extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime for textiles, with producers taking responsibility for the costs of managing their products once they become waste, could one day become reality – the 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy stated that the prospect will be ‘considered’ as the government seeks to address the environmental impacts of fast fashion.

Changing behaviour

At the consumer level, extravagant shopping habits must come to an end – but changing deep-rooted mindsets is never easy. For Andrea Speranza, Head of Campaigns at textile reuse charity TRAID, the solution is twofold: “The first thing we need is more awareness of the negative impacts that fast fashion is having on the planet, and secondly we need to make the other alternatives, such as second-hand clothing and clothes hiring, as simple and as appealing as possible.”

A social norming approach may well be the way forward. “Education is key,” she explains. “By this, I don’t just mean imparting information, but also normalising second-hand clothing. It’s very difficult to change behaviour when something is socially acceptable – on social media it mightbe seen as socially unacceptable to post a picture wearingthe same outfit twice, so how do we change that narrative?

“We need to redefine the word ‘fashionable’ to mean taking care of the planet, and we can do this by being proud of second-hand clothing. As humans, we are social animals, so we tend to see what our friends and families are doing and follow them. So we need to change the ‘fast fashion’ influencer trend and ensure that our heroes and fashion icons are the ones that are dressing sustainably.”

TRAID carefully curates its 11 London charity shops to maximise the appeal of its second-hand clothing: “The shopping experience is incredibly important,” says Speranza. “Not because we’re not proud of selling second- hand clothes, but because we want to break down the barrier for people that think that second-hand clothes are dirty or scruffy, or they  think they won’t be able to find what they’re looking for. So if you go to one of our shops, you can see that we have a very uplifting aesthetic.”

Over in Sweden, a more accusatory trend is emerging from the nation’s growing appetite for sustainability. Following on from the ‘flygskam’ (flight-shaming) movement, ‘köpskam’ – which translates as ‘shaming the shopper’ – is seeking to discourage consumer spending by establishing a stigma around buying something new.

Speranza disagrees with this approach: “We would never want to shame anyone. We put the public in very high regard and believe that people have the right to think what they want,and we have to accept some people don’t care.”

Although many remain stuck in their excessive spending habits, it’s still possible for sustainable dressing to offer ‘retail therapy’ experience associated with shopping for a brand new outfit. Swapping items with friends, or at an organised clothes-swap ‘swishing event’, can replicate the thrill of buying new, while rental sites such as HURR Collective allow you to wear designer pieces without breaking the bank.

Recognising value

The popularity of second-hand and rented clothing may be on the rise, but with over 40 per cent of adults buying new clothes at least once a month – according to research from recycling company First Mile – wardrobes up and down the country are bursting with mountains of unworn garments.

“Quite often clothes that are thrown away are in a state where they could still be worn or they could be repaired,” says Balmond. “If clothes were simply used much more, we’d be able to find ways to avoid a lot of the waste.”

While ‘shaming the shopper’ may not be the answer, TRAID is seeking to build recognition of the value of textiles, encouraging consumers to take their unwanted clothes to a charity shop to keep the items in use for as long as possible.

After discovering that 23 per cent of Londoners’ clothes are unworn, the charity launched a campaign – aptly named the ‘23 per cent’ campaign – to call on Londoners to pass on their clothes to be reused. Over the course of one year, the campaign has helped to put one million garments, over 258 tonnes of clothes, back into use, whilst simultaneously educating the public on the value of their unwanted clothes.

Speranza explains: “One of the great things about the 23 per cent campaign was that it was the first campaign of its kind to also educate the public. So when people book a home collection and we come and collect the clothing, we will let you know approximately the water and carbon savings of keeping that item in use.”

This article was taken from Issue 99

Similarly, WRAP’s Love Your Clothes campaign is aiming to stimulate behaviour change by raising awareness of the value of textiles, and has recently launched ‘Donation Generation’, which encourages people to donate unwanted clothes and share the experience on social media.

“Our Donation Generation campaign is live across the Love Your Clothes social media platforms promoting the benefits of donating clothes to charities, and outlining the many easy ways to do so. This is a key message that we need to hit home – whatever the clothes, however old they may be, they should be donated to either a textile recycling bank or through the charity sector where they can be sorted for either recycling, or reuse.”

Wheeler explains that there’s no excuse for the public to throw their unwanted clothes in the bin: “There are plenty of opportunities for just about everyone to donate second-hand clothing. There are around 20,000 clothing and textile collection banks up and down the country, around 9,000 charity shops as well as local authority kerbside collections in some areas, and retail takeback schemes operated nationally by a number of retailers.

There are also online exchanges or resale platforms and clothing can also be exchanged via boot fairs or jumble sales.” We’re still waiting for fast fashion to have its own ‘Blue Planet moment’, but as the global environmental movement gains traction, and with rental schemes and second-hand shopping growing in popularity, it seems that the tide may finally be turning.