Last reviewed 8 August 2017

Caroline Hand looks at the progress being made towards sustainability in the fashion and clothing industries.

As August arrives, many of us might confess that we have been indulging in a bit of “fast fashion” for our holiday wardrobes. The good news is that high-volume retailers like Primark, H&M and New Look have been taking sustainability to heart and have some encouraging progress to report. This summer has also seen the publication of two helpful documents from WRAP. The first is an updated edition of Valuing Our Clothes, celebrating the progress made by the clothing industry in reducing its overall environmental impact and signposting the opportunities for further improvements. Chief among these opportunities is making clothing more durable, and WRAP’s second report, the Sustainable Clothing Guide, gives detailed and practical advice to manufacturers and retailers on extending the life of a range of garment types.

Progress so far

Five years ago in 2012, WRAP published the first edition of Valuing Our Clothes (see Croner-i article Fashion — fast, foul or fabulous?). This was followed a year later by the launch of the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), which challenged the clothing industry with four targets to achieve by 2020. These were to reduce the following.

  1. Carbon footprint by 15%.

  2. Water footprint by 15%.

  3. Tonnage of waste to landfill by 15%.

  4. Waste arising over the product lifecycle by 3.5%.

Thirty-one clothing suppliers have signed up to the SCAP, with a larger number joining as supporters. As well as the renowned sustainability leaders such as M&S, there are several higher-volume retailers on the list including Primark, F&F (Tesco) and George (ASDA).

With three years still to go, progress so far is encouraging. The 2017 edition of Valuing Our Clothes reports that the signatories have reduced their:

  • carbon footprint by 10.6%

  • water footprint by 13.5%

  • waste to landfill by 14%.

Lifecycle waste has proved more of a challenge with only a 0.8% reduction achieved.

The biggest impact

According to WRAP, “extending the life of clothes offers the greatest overall potential across carbon, water and waste targets”. The good news is that people are keeping their clothes longer than they did in 2012 — but this has been offset by increased purchases of new items. As our washing flutters on the line in the summer sunshine, we can thank WRAP’s highly successful Love Your Clothes campaign for reducing the amount of tumble drying and encouraging people to wash at 30°C. Improved clothes care is one of the reasons for the longer life of today’s clothes.

Great-grandma knew best when it came to making clothing that will last; the most durable designs are traditional, quality tailored items with detachable linings, collars, etc. Made of hard-wearing woven fabrics, these keep their shape and colour and are worth the effort of mending. But the priority products for WRAP are those everyday fashion garments which are more likely to end up in landfill: women’s dresses, jumpers and jeans, and men’s T-shirts. For example, women’s jeans have a very high water footprint.

WRAP’s guidance shows manufacturers how they can give everyday clothing a longer life: this primarily comes down to quality management. Fibre and fabric specification, choice of dyes and finishes, and quality attachments such as buttons are all part of the solution. Manufacturers report significant improvements through the common sense strategy of conducting test washes and wears prior to placing a garment on the market. For the more classic ranges, old-fashioned features such as adjustable waist bands and growth allowance (in children’s clothes) will enable people to wear their favourite clothes for longer. Most of us struggle with clothing repairs, so initiatives like that of John Lewis, which directs fashion customers to the haberdashery department and helps them with sewing tasks, could well make a difference.

Sustainable cotton

Fibre production — whether through agriculture or polymer extrusion — is the chief contributor to the carbon and water footprint of clothes. The worst fibres in this respect are cotton and viscose, both of which require immense quantities of water in their production. Producing the cotton to make one shirt and one pair of jeans will use between 10,000 and 20,000 litres of water. It follows that switching to sustainable cotton is a priority for the fashion industry. This May, 13 of the world’s biggest fashion and textile brands committed to using 100% sustainable cotton by 2025 and some, like M&S, are on track to achieve this much sooner. Switching to sustainable cotton, without any other actions, could achieve the SCAP water footprint target, and would also reduce carbon emissions and chemical consumption.

Recycling and reuse

The other way of reducing this impact is to use more recycled fibre; polyester is easily recyclable and can be included in many fabrics. The list of SCAP signatories includes organisations which collect unwanted clothing, including charities and waste companies. Some retailers, including M&S and H&M, encourage customers to bring unwanted items to the stores through their incentive schemes. Even if these are not in good enough condition for direct reuse, the fibres can be recycled, sometimes in a closed loop system.

And returning to “slow fashion” …

WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Guide also showcases retailers who have improved the durability of their longer-lasting products such as suits. Hoodies might normally be regarded as short-lived items, but Flint and Tinder have introduced one which is designed to last at least 10 years. It uses reinforced stitching and heavyweight lycra to retain its shape. The hoodie even comes with a free mending service. While the price tag of £75 is likely to discourage the average customer, this might be an ideal gift for the man who hates clothes shopping.

Your sustainable summer wardrobe

Finally, a selection from the sustainable High Street fashion parade …

BIONIC dress from H&M. The Swedish clothing retailer has pioneered a new recycled polyester fabric made from shoreline waste. The fabric has been used to create a beautiful fluid, pleated dress which forms part of its ethical Conscious Exclusive range.

Black jeans from F&F. Customer feedback had identified a problem with black jeans which lost their colour over time. F&F worked with Kipas and Huntsman to develop Stay Black denim. With the help of Huntsman’s special black dye, they successfully developed a fabric which stays black even after 20 home laundry washes. All this was achieved without the need for a price increase. As people will often throw items of clothing away once the colour has faded, this is an important way of increasing product life.

Stretch jeans from New Look. Customers were returning their jeans after the fabric failed around the main waist button. Working with WRAP, they found that the failure was caused by stress at the button attachment area. New Look is now working with its suppliers to improve product testing and eliminate the problem.

Cotton T-shirts from Primark. Primark has teamed up with agricultural experts CottonConnect and the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) to create the Primark Sustainable Cotton Programme, which is training over 10,000 female farmers in India. This has enabled the farmers to use less water, reduce consumption of fertilisers and pesticides and improve their yield. For example, one farmer has reduced the amount of fertiliser she uses by 50% by using buffalo dung. The increase in income from her cotton has been invested in her children’s education.

However, before heading off to the High Street, bear in mind that we have a way to go: according to WRAP, 6% of our unwanted clothing still ends up landfill. Perhaps more of us need to stop off at the haberdashery department and learn how to make those simple repairs!