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Undressing the problem: Wastage in the fashion industry

Emily Hare
Feb 26, 2019

Throughout the life cycle of textiles wastage occurs in the form of material off cuts, unwanted returns, or items a consumer no longer wants. And of all textiles produced, clothing accounts for around 60% of textile waste.

Last year 235 million items of clothing were sent to landfill, only 13% of unwanted clothes were recycled and less than 1% of post-production and post-consumer clothing items were recycled back into new clothing. The estimated cost, when combined with all other textiles, was around £82 million!

Due to the visible nature of this waste stream the industry is aware of the scale of the problem, which has led to the emergence of various commitments to reduce quantities produced.

However, a “new” waste problem has recently emerged in the form of microfibres. These are tiny particles that are released into our water supplies every time clothes are washed. Studies have found there are 16 times more microfibres in our water supplies than microbeads, which is contributing to ocean pollution. Microfibres found in freshwater crustaceans are found to cause more damage than microbeads!

Companies such as Patagonia and The North Face are looking into new clothing tests to help identify the amount of microfibres released during washing; however, these tests are in early development stages and currently there is no international intention to produce a standard for all textile producers to meet.

This is certainly needed, as Ellen MacArthur Foundation (“New Textiles Economy’s 2050”) report projections highlight that, if nothing changes, clothing sales will more than triple from 2015 to 2050. Consequently, the environmental impact will be even greater, with 22 million tonnes of microfibres released into the oceans during this time. Textile production of this scale would account for 26% of the world carbon budget, when following the International Energy Agency’s 2°C pathway.

What's happening globally?

Several goals and targets are now in place, which can help the fashion industry produce more sustainable products. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide businesses with a range of targets across a number of areas to cover equality and social impacts as well as environmental.

The key environmental SDG goals are as follows:

Goal

Target

Detail

6 3 & 6 Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Both targets look to address impact on waterways, pollution prevention and restoration of water-related environments. Clothing has a large impact on water ecosystems at all stages of their life cycle.

11 6 Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Target six aims to reduce the impact cities have on the environment with waste management being one focus.

12 8 Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
This target focuses on a consumer’s right to be informed of sustainable development issues. Few retailers look to improve consumer knowledge of the impact their purchases have on the environment.

13 Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
This goal aims to reduce impact on climate change. The textiles industry currently produces more greenhouse gases emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined (12 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent).

14 1 Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Looks to address the impact on marine environments and prevent pollution. Microfibres will be a focus for the fashion industry


In 2017 the Ellen MacArthur Foundation produced a detailed report on how the fashion industry can systemically change from the current linear model to a circular model. It recommends four key stages:

    1. Phase out substances of concern and microfibre release
    2. Increase clothing utilisation
    3. Radically improve recycling
    4. Make effective use of resources and move to renewable inputs

Each stage provides clear actions that organisations can implement to ensure sustainable growth. These actions align with the UN’s SDGs; therefore, making it easier for companies that have already committed to these goals to meet Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) objectives.

What’s happening in the UK?

The Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), led by WRAP, is a voluntary group of clothing companies that are working to reduce their carbon, water and waste impacts.

Members currently include M&S, Primark, Next and ASOS, and SCAP’s latest report outlines how signatories have reduced carbon by 10.6%, water by 13.5%, waste to landfill by 14% and waste across the product life cycle by 0.8%. Although progress in terms of meeting the targets looks good, it is unlikely, without significant change in activity, that the reduction of waste throughout the life cycle target will be met.

The Environmental Audit Committee started their investigation into the fashion industry’s social and environmental impact in June 2018, and the findings and recommendations  of this work have been published this week. They recognise that voluntary schemes haven’t yet achieved enough of an impact on waste and that many in the industry have not contributed at all. This isn’t to say that the few companies involved haven’t made progress.

The two main recommendations are to impose a 1p tax per garment under extended producer responsibility and for the government to consider linking the proposed recycled content plastic tax with the clothing industry, to increase the demand for recycled fibres. These are well timed with the government consulting on the plastic tax, also released this week, and the Resources & Waste Strategy, which was released December 2018, that commits to investigate a textile extended producer responsibility scheme.

What’s next?

In my next blog I will go one step further and will outline ways individual business can reduce their impact while helping consumers. If you are looking for immediate support, please contact one of our experts today:

03450 682 572

wastemanager@valpak.co.uk

 

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this weblog represent those of the individual authors and not those of Valpak Limited or any other organisation.