Fabric of the universe - 22nd September 2011

Jean Paul Gaultier
once said, “It's always the badly dressed people who are the most interesting”.

That's good news for those of us who rifle through the cupboard for inspiration every morning before wriggling into an ancient, floppy cardigan, but doesn't go far to explain our obsession with image and new clobber. In the UK, we buy two million tonnes of clothing each year and, as the branded bags totter through the front door, we're busy creating wardrobe space by cramming half as much again into bin liners bound for charity shops, or the local landfill site. 

As a teenager who clung to charity shop chic, I once leapt at the chance to spend a day helping friends sort textiles bound for Mozambique. Faced with a vast, layered mountain of lumpy woollens and garish T-shirts that jumbled right up to the gloomy warehouse ceiling, our task was to sort items into groups for children, men and women, and grade them in terms of quality and usefulness. Missing the point completely, we added an extra category – FAO Fashion Police!

Sadly, 30 years on and the tussle between looking cool, and the ethical production and disposal of fashion is still ongoing. In August, three major Italian brands were singled out by the Clean Clothes Campaign for continued use of sandblasting, a technique that gives denim its rugged style. Workers producing sandblasted jeans are exposed to excessive amounts of silica dust which has been linked to silicosis, a potentially lethal disease. While a number of fashion houses are said to have taken steps to address the issue, Armani, Cavalli and Dolce and Gabbana have failed to respond.

Closer to home, fast fashion and disposal are getting recyclers hot under the collar. Organisations working to help householders 'trim their bin' tend to focus on high profile waste like packaging, but textiles make up a surprising three per cent of UK residual waste. Some local authorities collect them at kerbside but the task generally falls to charities or commercial collectors to generate supplies via house to house collections, bring banks or charity shop donations. 

The British Heart Foundation recently blew the whistle on deals brokered with private firms who collect textiles using charity logos – the organisation claimed it had lost ï¿¡4.6 million in shop donations in the last two years. Clothing is clearly big business, but we still need to find a solution to the 500,000 tonnes of textile waste that end up in landfill each year. 

Earlier this year I produced a report entitled Making the Most of New Materials. Commissioned by WRAP, it explored the technical potential and likelihood of commercial markets for new material waste streams introduced to material recovery facilities, or MRFs, which separate waste for recycling.

The report, based on data from an earlier two pieces of work produced by WRAP, concluded that textiles currently finding their way into a MRF system often jam equipment, leading to downtime and cost implications. As a result, the positive targeting of textiles, using manual picking methods and avoiding contamination with food waste, results in a net saving.

Of course, the most ethical option involves less consumption and the purchase of quality clothing with a traceable footprint – a route of less waste and less exploitation. However, even Mark Twain, speaking back before the Age of Primark, was aware of the pressures that push us to purchase when he said: “The finest clothing made is a person's skin, but, of course, society demands something more than this.”

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