Last reviewed 26 March 2019

Disposing of unwanted clothing and textiles has a huge, and growing, impact on the environment.Caroline Hand takes a closer look.

While most people are aware that single use plastics are having a devastating impact on marine life, they may not realise that microfibres from textiles contribute 16 times more microplastics to the ocean than do microbeads from personal care products. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the washing of textiles causes half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres to enter the oceans each year. We release these microfibres whenever we wash clothes made from synthetic fibres. Back on land, 92 million tonnes of clothing are landfilled worldwide every year. Clothing and textile production is responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions than aviation and shipping combined.

As the global population rises and more people aspire to a middle-class lifestyle, our demand for fashionable, new clothing grows. The worst offenders for throwing away their clothes are the Americans: in the USA the average garment only gets worn around 40 times.

Recycling clothing

Most manufacturers are now seeking to reduce the environmental impact of their products, for example by sourcing sustainable cotton or trying to eliminate hazardous chemicals — but these worthwhile initiatives do not tackle the problem of waste. Going further, fashion retailers such as H&M, seeking to adopt a more circular model, have adopted return and recycling schemes for unwanted clothes (see article Sustainable summer shopping). The British public can take pride in the fact that they are the world’s best clothing recyclers: we donate an average of 16kg of used clothing and textiles per person per year to charity shops and recycling banks. Of this, half is reused (worn by other people either in the UK or overseas) and half is recycled.

Most textile recycling consists of shredding or pulling the textile to create insulation, stuffing or padding. While this is a better option than sending the textiles to landfill, there is not much scope for expansion. Alan Wheeler, Director of the Textile Recycling Association, revealed in the CIWM’s Circular journal that the recycling element of collected textile has virtually no value to the recycling industry — at most, the items are sold on at cost price. According to Wheeler, “demand for the recycling grade is just enough to cope with levels of supply”. While it is possible to recover fibres for remanufacture into new fabric, this is a costly and difficult procedure and the recycled fabric will generally be of poor quality unless some virgin fibre is included. In fact, it is more economic to make polyester fleece from plastic bottles than from old garments, which have zips and other fittings to remove. In future there may be more scope for recycling as new technologies come on stream.

As anyone familiar with the waste hierarchy will know, reuse is a more sustainable option than recycling, and this is certainly true for clothing. Sinead Murphy, of WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, says “Making garments that are worn for longer is the single biggest action that can be taken to reduce the environmental impact of clothing.”

Four ways to wear clothes for longer

A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future, a detailed report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, identifies four options to extend the life of clothes.

  1. Make garments more durable, by using quality materials and perhaps also offering a repair service, eg Patagonia (see article Sustainable business models).

  2. Resale — the sale of second-hand clothing through charity shops or online platforms, eg Asos.

  3. Rental — hiring out garments on a one-off basis, for example a suit or dress for a wedding.

  4. Subscription — likened to “Netflix for clothes”, whereby subscribers pay a monthly fee to borrow, and then return, a selection of clothes. This is the newest and most innovative of the options.

Our “clothing personality type” will determine which option we are likely to choose the:

  • bargain hunter is most likely to look for second-hand clothes to buy

  • person who hates clothes shopping will seek out the most durable garment

  • celebrity followers, and those for whom clothing is a key part of their identity, may choose either a rental or upmarket subscription service

  • person who likes to fit in with the crowd will benefit from a mid-market subscription service.

The option to borrow clothes on subscription has been made possible by the rise of online shopping with its smartphone apps and associated reverse logistics. Alongside this is the willingness of millennials to pay for a service or experience, in preference to outright ownership of goods. Clothing subscription services are springing up across the world: for example, Rent the Runway in America and Danish babywear company Vigga. China, however, seems to be the place where this trend has really taken off, and large numbers of ordinary shoppers are choosing to share, rather than own, their everyday wardrobe.

The Chinese experience

Fashion has been getting a lot faster in China. 15 years ago, the average number of “wears” for a new garment was 200, the world average, but today it is just 62. The growth of the urban middle class has generated a rising demand for fashion, and with it an increasing environmental impact as more clothes are manufactured and discarded.

China has a range of clothing subscription services, aiming at different sectors of the market. The first to come online (in 2014), and the one with the largest wardrobe, is Ms Paris. For a monthly subscription of US$50, subscribers can borrow an unlimited number of clothes. Since December 2018, subscribers also have the option of renting brand new clothes. Ms Paris offers both occasion wear and everyday clothing.

Y-Closet was featured in the New Textiles Economy report and is slightly more expensive than Ms Paris, charging $75 per month. Many subscribers take up the option of buying the clothes after a period of borrowing. Both Ms Paris and Y-Closet have their own dry-cleaning facilities: impeccable standards of cleanliness and hygiene are non-negotiable if customers are to trust the service.

Other Chinese platforms offer accessories such as jewellery and bags. DouBaoBao offers top quality bags for a modest rental starting at $15. The bags on offer are already owned by subscribers who are willing to lend them to others for a fee.

“Clothing on subscription” brings benefits for customers and businesses alike. The customers can enjoy a varied wardrobe of quality clothing — particularly helpful for Chinese city workers on modest salaries who are still expected to keep up appearances. Businesses gain valuable information about their customers and receive feedback about their products: for example, French Connection revised its sizing on the basis of subscribers’ feedback. On a warning note, several Chinese subscription startups, including Dora’s Dream which was cited in A New Textiles Economy, have already gone out of business, so the scope for expansion is not infinite!

Here in the UK, the subscription market is less well developed but opportunities to borrow and share clothing online are starting to appear, for example through MyWardrobe HQ, a platform which enables subscribers to rent out their own clothes. The potential of these services was picked up by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee in its report, published on 19 February 2019, Fixing fashion: clothing and sustainability. This report asserts strongly that the Government must end the era of throwaway fashion: “fashion on subscription” may well prove an effective way of achieving this goal.