Off the Rack and Into the Trash: The UK Tries to Turn the Tide of Clothes

Of all the things we consume, clothing seems among the most environmentally benign. But given the frequency with which trends change and the low costs of many fashions–the ultra-cheap frocks from stores such as Forever 21 and H&M are often referred to as “disposable fashion”–it’s not surprising that garments represent a growing percentage of the waste stream.
In mid-December, UK’s The Times reported that of the two million tons of clothes purchased in that country each year, about 74 percent end up in landfills. The article goes on to explain how the proliferation of cheap clothing is impacting charities such as Salvation Army and Oxfam that rely on second-hand clothing sales but are now drowning in cheap togs because they can no longer compete on price with fast-food-like fashions sold in malls. It also discusses how the flood of quickly-disposed-of garments are changing business dynamics of the clothing textile recycling industry in the UK (which sells used clothes into developing countries but is now competing with cheap, new clothes from China). The article also noted that the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) was developing a “sustainable clothing roadmap” to try to reduce the environmental impact of clothing production. The agency introduced this roadmap this week during London’s Fashion Week.
It’s a little early, of course, to know if the roadmap can actually push the fashion industry stakeholders to transform the industry, but its scope is comprehensive in that is addresses the industry’s environmental, social and ethical impacts.

The research materials that DEFRA has released based on the research it has conducted thus far are in-depth and available for download here.
While the increased amount of clothes in the waste stream is what has helped shed light on the unsustainable nature of the industry and the trend toward binge-like clothes consumption, the way clothes are made and transported has a major direct environmental impact. In its research, DEFRA analyzed the energy and resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions related to producing natural and synthetic fibers (including the use of water, fertilizers, dyes and other chemicals), as well as those related to clothing assembly, packaging and distribution. The agency also outlines the main ethical and social concerns related to clothing production – mainly poor working conditions, especially in developing countries, the use of child labor (especially for cotton picking and hand sewing), low wages poor safety regulations and few opportunities for workers to develop skills needed to attain better jobs.
DEFRA is working with a group of 300 different stakeholders (such as retailers, producers and industry groups) on the roadmap, which has three steps: fact-gathering, project development and action. DEFRA’s plan is to rev up the engines behind all these efforts until this time next year, at which point it’ll be up to those stakeholders to pursue the goals independently.
In order for that to happen, the stakeholders need business incentives. The market for eco-friendly specialty items is strong and growing, with companies such as Patagonia is leading the charge in the US by being highly transparent about its supply chain practices and making some of its products out of recycled fabrics. And among the high-end fashion lines shown during the Fashion Weeks in London and New York, eco-chic is all the rage. Plus, Tesco, which is Britain’s largest grocery and department store chain, and Marks & Spencer, its biggest clothing retailer, have both made significant commitments, including selling more organic clothing, supporting fair-trade vendors and banning cotton fabrics from countries known to use child labor.
Oxfam is finding a way to deal with the loss of good-quality donations by developing boutiques in which the products sold have been “reinvented” from recycled materials (from used clothing or fabrics scraps). Check out this video for a look at one of these boutiques.
All that said, glaringly absent from the list of companies with actions planned for the roadmap are the likes of H&M or Primark (a high-volume, low-cost seller of basics in Britain and Ireland). These chains, as well as those such as Zara and Forever 21, are leading the trend in high-volume, low-cost clothing emporiums. In fact, the growth in disposable wardrobes is known in the UK as “the Primark effect.” Even if all of the suppliers to these high-volume retailers were completely ethical and used only the best, organic and recycled source material, the sheer volume of clothes in the waste stream is likely to remain a problem.
Selling less stuff of higher quality would be the quickest fix. But that’s not the business model these retailers use. And as long as their stores are packed with trend-hunters, why will they change?

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to

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