If a recent report on the Daily Mail website is to be believed, the era of fast fashion appears to be over. It’s a bold claim.
Citing the release by Wrap of the Valuing Our Clothes – The Cost of UK fashion, the Mail’s article highlights that we are throwing away 50,000 tonnes less than we were five years ago, and more of us are shopping in charity shops and buying second hand clothes through online platforms and elsewhere. It also suggests we are adopting a make-do-and-mend attitude.
Of course this is all very welcome news but does it really mark the end of the fast fashion era? We may be getting better at sending our clothes for reuse and recycling and buying second hand, but is there any sign that the British public have suddenly ceased their seemingly insatiable demand for new cheap clothing? Are high street stores really reverting back from an 16 to 20 mini-seasons cycle per year to just four or even two?
I had to ask myself: what does the newly published WRAP report really show?
It is a follow up from the ground breaking Valuing our Clothes report from 2012 and updates WRAP’s and the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan’s (SCAP) evidence base. It also seeks to identify opportunities for stakeholders in the UK clothing supply chain to reduce their environmental impacts.
The key findings, including the 50,000 tonnes figure, certainly highlight the very positive steps that have been taken by SCAP signatories:
- significant improvements, reducing carbon by 10.6%, water by 13.5%, and waste across the product life cycle by 0.8% per tonne of clothing since 2012
- carbon footprint reduced by 700,000 tonnes CO2e through people washing clothes at lower temperatures, and ironing and tumble drying less frequently
- focusing on ‘priority products’ and switching to sustainable cotton
- fibre-to-fibre recycling is a key opportunity
However these significant improvements are at risk of being undermined because of the continued increase in consumption of new clothing. Bang goes the Mail’s claim that the fast fashion era could be coming to an end.
The overall carbon impacts of the clothing in use in the UK have risen. According to the report, in 2012, the sector was responsible for producing about 24 million tonnes of CO2 and by 2016 this hads risen to 26.2 million tonnes. The continued availability of cheap fast fashion clothing and an increase in the population have been cited as the main reasons behind this.
So although SCAP signatories and supporters like the Textile Recycling Association have made some really promising and positive steps over the last five years, there is still a lot more work to be done and we must not rest on our laurels.
We are getting better at looking after our clothes but we are still buying way too much. Some clothes are now designed better, made to last longer, made using more sustainable fibres. We are better at sending them for reuse and/or recycling when we no longer want them. This in part can explain why, despite buying more clothing, the amount ending up in the waste stream is decreasing. But we could also be just storing up our problems.
In designing clothing for longevity, are we just making the clothes last longer but still left sitting unused in the back of the wardrobe or are we increasing the length of time that consumers use their clothing before they send it on for reuse or recycling?
We also need to make sure that the efforts that used clothing/textile collectors/processors make are fully supported. Let us be clear, the abundance of used clothing for sale in some countries in Africa is caused by the massive over consumption of new clothing in the West and, rather than trying to blame used clothing processors for flooding these markets, we need to see a complete change in the mindset of people globally.
Trading used clothing and discouraging further over-production of new clothing must be the way forward. It is perfectly acceptable for us in the UK to have the choice of buying second-hand clothing, so it should be perfectly acceptable for people in all countries of the world to buy second-hand clothing. Indeed I would go further and say that we need to drive forward an expectation that people throughout the world should be buying such clothing.
We should also be looking to maximise the job opportunities that the used clothing and textile recycling industry can bring. Many thousands of jobs equivalent to manufacturing in textile production could be created, particularly through sorting and the development of new fibre recycling technologies.
It should also be recognised that, as well as already providing income generation and employment opportunities in Africa, the sector has given economic empowerment and independence to millions of women across the continent, many of whom set their own used clothing retail business. Should the development of sorting and textile recycling industries be pursued, it is very likely that women would make up a significant chunk of workforce. In a part of the world where it is vital that the empowerment of women is improved significantly, this is a really important factor to consider.
Alan Wheeler is director of the Textile Recycling Association