Sustainability: A new element of the fashion industry?

By Kawser Abdulahi

A crucial part of the UK economy, fashion has more than just an impact on our bank balances.

Rising global demand and changes in consumer behaviour have led to a shift towards more affordable avenues of clothing, with the booming fast fashion industry taking over our high-streets and wardrobes.

In the UK and EU, clothing is the 8th largest sector in terms of a household’s expenditure. However, behind housing, transport and food, it has the fourth largest environmental impact. In 2016, an estimated 1.13 million tonnes of clothing was purchased in the UK.

Yet, around £30bn of the clothes we buy hangs in our wardrobes, collecting dust, because we don’t have the time to wear it or don’t like it anymore. With online clothing sites offering better deals than the high-street AND free delivery, buying clothes is easier than ever (and cheaper for us cash strapped students).

Part of a rapid production system, fast fashion provides on trend and cheap clothes for the masses. No wonder it’s the greatest success story of the 3 trillion-dollar fashion industry. But the environmental cost of this success certainly isn’t cheap.

The 2012 report by the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) looking at the carbon, water, and waste footprints of clothing throughout its life cycle, highlighted the large environmental impact of the fashion industry.

The latest ‘Valuing Our Clothes’ report follows on from the initial findings. WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), a collaborative agreement to reduce the impact by the clothing industry, has over 75 signatories and supporters representing more than 58% of UK retail sales.

Since 2012, SCAP has resulted in a reduction of 10.6% in carbon, 13.5% in water, 0.8% in waste arising across a products life cycle and a 14% reduction in household residual waste. Equivalent to one and a half hot air balloons of carbon, more than 23,000 baths full of water, and 30 pairs of women’s jeans for every tonne of clothing sold!

The effect on the environment is a shared one between consumers and companies. The ‘Love Your Clothes’ Campaign has resulted in consumer behaviour changes leading to reduction of the carbon footprint by 700,000 tonnes of CO2 through washing clothes at lower temperatures and tumble drying and ironing less.

Consumer behaviours to the care, repair and re-use of clothing might have changed but the largest impact arises from the production stage. Sustainable fibre choices are the key to reducing the environmental impact and making fashion greener. Major retailers like Marks and Spencer and Tesco have already committed to 100% sustainable cotton by 2020 but the development of new fibres is long overdue. The last significant one being polyester in 1943.

Eco-fibre start-ups like Orange Fibre, making yarn from citrus waste, and Bolt Thread, brewed spider silk, as well as 3D printing are exciting innovations but still in their infancy.

So, while an apple leather jacket is something to look forward to, simple changes to increase the longevity of our clothes is key to making fashion greener.

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