Worth over £1.2 trillion and employing over 75 million people worldwide, the global clothing industry represents a huge opportunity to enhance sustainability. Despite the positives, it’s clear that the industry is a key contributor to global carbon, water and waste footprints, as well as having significant influence over the lives of many workers in the sector.
Not so long ago, our understanding of the sustainability impacts of clothing was limited and somewhat vague. In particular, concrete assessments of the resource impacts of the sector were patchy, unquantified or not publicly available. However, that has changed substantially over the last five years. More detailed data has become available, and collaborative initiatives have enabled useful aggregation of this data to establish overall impacts.
Understanding the environmental impacts of the clothing sector
Importantly amongst these initiatives, WRAP recently released their report on the state of the industry “Valuing Our Clothes: The Cost of UK Fashion”. The report provides an update on the original ‘Valuing Our Clothes’ report WRAP published back in 2012, which was pioneering at the time as the first really substantial assessment of the UK clothing sector’s environmental impacts.
Since then, a lot has happened.
The Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) 2020 commitment has provided a platform for organisations across the UK clothing sector to work together to establish industry good practice and improve sustainability performance. The evidence base provided in the initial Valuing Our Clothes report has also been used extensively through industry to pave the way for further research and to make the business case for change.
The new report was released in July 2018 but has received significant press over recent weeks following Lucy Siegle’s recent BBC radio 4 documentary “Costing the Earth” and accompanying article on green fashion.
More recently, the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee sent a letter to the UK’s top 10 fashion retailers asking for disclosure on their environmental and social impacts. The focus in particular on fast fashion is not letting up.
Valuing Our Clothes report – key findings
This newer, slicker update to ‘Valuing Our Clothes’ provides an overview of the progress that has been made since 2012, along with identifying key ways the industry can further reduce environmental impacts. Key findings include:
- A 10.6% reduction in carbon, a 13.5% reduction in waste, and a 0.8% reduction in waste per tonne of clothing since 2012
- 13 million tonnes of clothing was purchased in the UK in 2016
- On average, an item of clothing lasts for 3.3 years before it is discarded or passed on
- The carbon footprint of clothing in use is 23.2 tCO2e per tonne
- The water footprint of clothing in use is 7,060m3 per tonne
- The waste footprint of clothing in use is 1.7t per tonne
- Households are putting less clothing into their residual waste, reducing this by 50,000 tonnes since 2012
- Changes in laundry practices (such as lower wash temperatures) have resulted in a reduction in the carbon footprint by 700,000 tonnes CO2e
Opportunities to improve clothing sustainability
The report also identifies opportunities for brands and retailers to improve sustainability. The biggest opportunities identified in the report are:
- Increasing the adoption of sustainable fibre to reduce the water footprint
- Using lower-impact processes in the production of garments
- Focusing on specific garments that will deliver the largest reductions in carbon, water and waste footprints (women’s dresses, jumpers and jeans, and men’s t-shirts)
- Informing and enabling customers to improve clothing care, repair, and re-use.
For the 2012 report, WRAP published the detailed evidence base that underpinned the report, and it became a useful, publicly available resource. It is hoped they may do the same for this report. To find out more, go to http://www.wrap.org.uk/sustainable-textiles/valuing-our-clothes.
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