Clothing industry wakes up to sustainability

Written by: Alan Wheeler | Published:

The amount of clothes we purchase has soared, meaning more sustainable actions by consumers and industry have enormous environmental knock-on effects, such as reducing textile waste to landfill and cutting the carbon and water impacts of production. Alan Wheeler, national liaison manager at the Textile Recycling Association, reports

Around 5% of the UK’s total annual retail expenditure is spent on clothing. Clothing also accounts for 5% of the UK’s total annual carbon and water impacts.

In addition, for every tonne of clothing that is re-used or recycled, about six tonnes of CO2 are saved. With statistics like this, there is considerable potential to make significant economic and environmental savings by making the clothing industry more sustainable.

Our demand for new clothing seems to be insatiable. We are now buying around 1.1 million tonnes annually. This is about five times the amount that we were buying in the 1980s. Furthermore, the Rana Plaza Disaster in Bangladesh in 2013 highlighted the appalling working conditions which many garment workers have to endure when producing clothes for major global brands/retailers. While over-irrigation (for the production of cotton and other crops) has seen the Aral Sea in Central Asia depleted to less than 10% of its size in the 1960s, causing devastating environmental destruction in the region.

Thankfully, members of the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) are leading the way globally in trying to address these issues.

In just two years since the launch of the SCAP agreement, members have reduced water impacts by 12.5% per tonne of clothing, against a 15% reduction target by 2020.

Carbon impacts have been reduced by 3.5% per tonne of clothing. In part this has been realised through deliberately choosing more sustainable fibre in production, but one should bear in mind that the price of cotton has gone up, so some of the switch from cotton to polyester (which has a much lower water impact) has been driven by the markets.

SCAP is also working with its re-use and recycling signatories towards its other key target to reduce textile waste to landfill by 15% by 2020.

Interim results for the work towards this target should be published in 2016. Research published in 2012 estimated that we were collecting about 619,000 tonnes of clothing nationally for re-use and recycling. This is about 56% of the total that we are buying,

This compares favourably with the US, which recycles an estimated 15%.

However, we are still sending around 350,000 tonnes of good-quality re-useable clothing to landfill and a further 80,000 tonnes to incineration each year. In addition, the market failure which has beset the industry since 2013 is having a serious impact on the sector’s ability to collect and process materials.

Twenty-three per cent of all collectors/sorters that were members of the TRA in January 2013 have now gone out of business.

Collection capacity has suffered and warehouses which are normally empty at this time of year remain full. Prices paid to charities and local authorities for used clothing have already dropped by more than 50% since their peak at the end of 2012 and we can expect to see further drops in 2016 before things start to pick up.

Fact file

  • 5% of the UK’s total annual retail expenditure is spent on clothing
  • Clothing accounts for 5% of the UK’s total annual carbon and water impacts
  • 1.1 million tonnes of clothing is bought annually
  • Research published in 2012 showed we were collecting about 619,000 tonnes of clothing nationally for re-use and recycling. This is about 56% of the total that we are buying
  • 350,000 tonnes of good quality re-useable clothing is sent to the UK landfill and a further 80,000 tonnes to incineration each year
  • 23% of all collectors/sorters that were members of the TRA in January 2013 have now gone out of business


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