UK consumers are recycling more of their unwanted clothes but 300,000 tonnes still end up in landfill and fashion’s carbon footprint is increasing as a result of relatively low clothing prices and a growing population.
According to the latest Valuing our Clothes: The Cost of UK Fashion report by not-for-profit sustainability organisation WRAP, we are throwing away 50,000 tonnes less clothing than we were in 2012 when the figure was 350,000 tonnes, as the message on recycling is beginning to penetrate.
Consumers are also washing their clothes at lower temperatures and using their tumble dryers and irons less, which has also had a beneficial impact and has helped to cut approximately 700,000 tonnes CO2e (carbon dioxide emissions) from UK emissions each year.
However despite these improvements, UK fashion’s carbon footprint (including global and territorial emissions) has risen and now stands at more than 26m tonnes of CO2e, up 2m tonnes on 2012. This rise is down to a number of factors including the availability of relatively cheap fashion and a growing population.
Since WRAP published the first edition of its ground-breaking Valuing our Clothes report in 2012, the amount of clothing purchased has risen by nearly 200,000 tonnes to 1.13m tonnes in 2016. This has resulted in 26m tonnes of CO2e from production to disposal and as such places clothing fourth after housing, transport and food in terms of its impact on the environment.
WRAP’s latest report also examines the 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 now accounts for more than half of the UK clothing market.
Midway through the agreement the signatories have made significant improvements, says WRAP, including; reducing carbon by 10.6%; water by 13.5% and waste across the product lifecycle by 0.8% – per tonne of clothing.
But WRAP is now calling on brands and retailers to focus on a number of “priority” garments, which have been 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.
WRAP Director Business Programme Steve Creed said SCAP signatories were not only well on the way to achieving their targets but continue to outperform the sector as a whole, particularly in sustainable cotton. “It’s amazing that 20% 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,” he said.
“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,” Creed added.