Landfill falls out of fashion as UK embraces sustainable clothing

11th July 2017
  • 50,000 tonnes fewer items of clothing disposed of in household bins
  • UK washing clothes at cooler temperatures and ironing less often
  • Industry initiative has designs on reducing the environmental cost of clothing

The way the UK treats its clothes has changed over the past three years, a new study from sustainability not-for-profit organisation WRAP has found, with many changes in the way we treat our clothes helping to lessen the environmental impact of the UK’s wardrobes. Key is the discovery that people are less inclined to put unwanted clothes into the residual bin.

Since WRAP first highlighted the environmental impact of UK clothing in its pioneering 2012 report the amount of clothing discarded in residual waste has fallen by approximately 50,000 tonnes. The current estimate of clothing going into household bins has dropped from 350,000 tonnes (2012) to 300,000 tonnes (2015), a reduction equivalent in weight to more than 300 Jumbo Jets.

WRAP’s new report, Valuing our Clothes: The Cost of UK Fashion, found that the way people care for their clothes is helping the environment.

As a nation, we now tend to launder our clothes at lower temperatures; turning the heat down from 40 to 30 degrees. The regular use of tumble-dryers and ironing has also fallen according to WRAP’s consumer research. These combined changes in behaviour have helped cut approximately 700,000 tonnes CO2e from UK emissions, each year.

WRAP’s report also examines improvements within the clothing sector since the launch of its Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) in 2013, the voluntary agreement designed and brokered by WRAP in partnership with Government and industry.

Since that time WRAP has worked closely with major clothing designers, brands, manufacturers, retailers, fashion houses and re-use & recycling organisations to drive forward more sustainable production and buying practices, and increase textiles re-use and recycling. This has been achieved through a range of SCAP initiatives varying from sustainable fibre procurement, to advice and support for households on caring for clothes and working to increase reuse and recycling. SCAP membership grew quickly and now accounts for more than half of the UK clothing market.

Midway through the agreement, and signatories have made significant improvements; reducing carbon by 10.6%; water by 13.5% and waste across the product lifecycle by 0.8% - per tonne of clothing. These savings represent the equivalent of one-and-a-half hot air balloons worth of carbon saved per tonne of clothing sold by SCAP signatories. Enough water to fill 23,000 bath tubs (or nearly 3 Olympic sized swimming pools) per tonne of clothing, and the equivalent of 30 pairs of women’s jeans saved from waste for every tonne sold.

But while fewer clothes are ending their life in the household bin, the amount purchased over the same period has risen by nearly 200,000 tonnes to 1.13 million tonnes sold.

In total, the environmental footprint of UK clothing (including global and territorial emissions) has risen and now stands at more than 26 million tonnes of CO2e, up 2 million tonnes on 2012. This is due to a combination of relatively low prices, and increased population, and puts clothing fourth after housing, transport and food in terms of its impact on the environment.

WRAP is now calling on retailers and brands to focus on a number of priority garments*’ which it has found to have the highest environmental impacts in terms of their manufacture, and which sell in the largest volumes. Top of the list are women’s dresses, jumpers and jeans, followed by men’s t-shirts and jumpers. Women’s jeans were singled out in terms of the amount of water used during their production, while dresses and jumpers and men’s t-shirts - which are similar high volume products, require work to tackle their carbon and supply chain waste footprints.

Steve Creed, Director Business Programme WRAP, said “I am delighted by how well SCAP signatories are doing. At this stage of the agreement they are not only well on the way to achieving the targets, but continue to outperform the sector as a whole - particularly in sustainable cotton. It’s amazing that twenty percent more cotton is now sustainably-sourced by signatories than when we began. And having high-street names like M&S, Tesco and Sainsbury’s setting ambitious sustainable cotton targets will help ease the pressure on some of the world’s most water-sensitive countries.

“It’s great too that fewer clothes are ending up in the residual waste, but overall our carbon footprint is rising so the next few years are critical in balancing growing demand with supplying clothes more sustainably. I’m confident SCAP will play a big part in helping to make this happen, and make sustainable fashion much more mainstream.”

Ends

Notes to editor 

The full Valuing our Clothes: the Cost of UK Fashion report can be found here

*‘Priority garments’ are those sold in high quantities and which create the highest environmental burden by the way they are produced. WRAP analysed garments which were sold most frequently in the UK in 2015, including their weights and fibre composition. This made it possible to estimate environmental impacts for each garment type. Priority products for individual retailers will vary since average garment volumes, weights, and fibre composition were used.

SCAP is helping the UK contribute towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In particular, SCAP contributes to goal 6: clean water and sanitation; goal 12: responsible consumption and production; goal 13: climate action; and goal 17: revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development 

WRAP has produced a bespoke Sustainable Clothing Guide and How to Measure Guide aimed at designers and product technologists in brands and retailers. Both are available to use on the WRAP website. The Sustainable Clothing Guide is a practical guide that shares simple steps and best practice on how to design, produce, and sell sustainable clothing that lasts longer and that can easily be repaired and re-used. The How to Measure Guide helps achieve consistent clothing measurements in men’s trousers and shirts. 

WRAP has produced a video highlighting the benefits of implementing durability into business. Watch the video here. 

WRAP’s Love Your Clothes campaign has helped raise the issue of clothing waste publically and provides advice and resources for the general public akin to that of the organisation’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign. Last year, Love Your Clothes partnered with the Procter & Gamble Ariel brand on the Know Your Care Labels campaign to highlight the amount of clothing that is no longer in use, due to the lack of consumer knowledge about care symbols on clothing labels. 

First established in 2000, WRAP is a not for profit organisation and registered charity whose vision is a world where resources are used sustainably. WRAP works with governments, businesses and communities to deliver practical solutions to improve resource efficiency.

Our mission is to accelerate the move to a sustainable resource-efficient economy through: 

a. re-inventing how we design, produce and sell products,

b. re-thinking how we use and consume products, and

c. re-defining what is possible through re-use and recycling