Why we should be focusing on clothing as well as plastics

26 November 2018

This month, I had the pleasure of attending a conference to hear first-hand from those far-sighted businesses who have signed up to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan. Those who helped kick everything off in 2012 deserve real credit for being the early adopters to a holistic approach which addresses the entire life-cycle of textiles and clothing. They signed up for real change and there’s been good progress so far. But the conference was far from a back-slapping exercise and there was universal acceptance there’s still much to do.

I’m struck by the growing number of media reports on clothing, showing that people are picking up on what we said in 2012. Take the recent BBC programme by Stacey Dooley called Fashion’s Dirty Secret, for example. The effect wasn’t as seismic as David Attenborough’s amazing Blue Planet 2 programmes. But it struck a chord. Stacey reported on the pollution from hazardous chemicals released by the garment industry globally. Some of the footage was pretty shocking and she asked: ‘Do we really need all these new clothes?’ I’d add to that ‘What can we do to make those new clothes more sustainable?”

This really matters. Although clothing is the eighth largest sector in the UK in terms of household spending, it comes fourth in terms of its impact on the environment. Only housing, transport, and food have greater impacts.

At the moment, the general public does not seem to be as concerned about the sustainability of clothing as they are about plastics. And we know that neither plastic nor clothing is inherently bad – they are both essentials of modern society. It’s how we make them and use them, and what we do with them at end-of-life, that is the challenge. 

Clothing and textiles may not have the negative public profile that plastic has at the moment – but that could change. Eighteen months ago, who could have foreseen the groundswell of concern about plastic pollution? Take just one by-product of the sector: could concern over micro-fibres grow to become a headline-grabbing issue for UK clothing? Microfibres came up again and again at the conference amid calls for action. We’re at an early stage in that debate, but I don’t think it’s going to go away, so we will need to include it in our future thinking.

As we pointed out in our recent submission to the Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry, SCAP members are making good progress towards its targets for carbon and water footprints because of collaborative effort. Moreover, our evidence showed MPs that SCAP signatories are out-pacing the UK clothing sector as a whole in reducing these footprints. In other words, SCAP members do sustainability better and that’s a very important point. 

Many spoke at our conference of the critical importance of the SCAP footprint tool and how our data and the SCAP knowledge hub really help businesses to make serious commercial decisions about fibre choice and use of recycled content in their clothes. And there was a clear desire to evolve the tool to deal with the ever-more complex issues emerging such as toxicity in garment production. 

The role of the consumer was another key theme, as was the acknowledgement that tackling it is incredibly difficult. But we can’t just say it is a problem for consumers themselves; business has to take responsibility too.

WRAP has calculated that the amount of clothing in active use in the UK in 2016 was 3.6 million tonnes, up 16% from the 2012 figure. Our consumer research found that, on average, clothing lasted for just over three years before it was discarded or passed on.  Helping consumers to understand the best ways of buying, caring for, and disposing of their clothes is vital if we want to improve these figures. That is why we set up the Love Your Clothes consumer campaign.

We presented our views on the consumer issues to the EAC inquiry. We had two main points. The first concerns the benefit of greater consumer awareness. Improved understanding by shoppers of what their options are, when it comes to sustainable fibre and fabrics, should incentivise fashion brands to offer more choice. Our second point was around the potential benefits of an extended producer responsibility, or EPR, regime for clothing. This could incentivise the design of longer-lasting clothes and also provide support to the used textiles supply chain, for instance by supporting the development of end-markets, such as through fibre-to-fibre recycling. This would help to reduce the impact of discarded clothing. 

Recycling and reuse is also an important element of SCAP. Much of the 14% reduction in clothing waste to landfill between 2012 and 2016 was achieved by reuse or recycling. We need more reuse in the UK and further progress towards fibre-to-fibre recycling.

At its heart, SCAP provides a clear and publicly accessible evidence base, showing which changes deliver the most benefit and where to focus effort. We will continue to bear down on the original 2012 concerns and the 2020 targets, especially making sure the message gets across to overseas suppliers. 

It is now timely to look beyond the end of the current 2020 Commitment. Choices are starting to be made by the fashion houses today in relation to the new clothes of tomorrow. So it’s crucial that – together – we all make a concerted effort to ensure the right business decisions are taken to achieve greater sustainability in the clothing sector.