Material disaster: the fast fashion stitch-up


From production waste to microplastics, water use and impending cotton crisis, it’s time we started to look at the impact of fashion.

UK shoppers splash out on more new clothes than any other country in Europe, and our thirst for replacing outfits with niftier threads results in 300,000 tonnes of textiles being burned or buried in landfill each year. As the government considers the introduction of extended producer responsibility (EPR) for textiles, cross-party MPs are calling for more immediate and drastic action.

Given our weakness for new clobber, it’s not surprising that fashion is big business. Annual global clothing production uses 98 million tonnes of raw materials, with growth in consumption expected to drive this figure to 300 million tonnes by 2050. In the UK, it accounts for 5% of UK consumer spending, with each of us, on average, paying out around £838 on clothing per year. You might be forgiven for wondering aloud why, as a nation, we aren’t better-dressed.

The problem isn’t just waste. All this window dressing hides a multitude of potential environmental issues. The Environmental Audit Commission’s (EAC) recent report, Fixing Fashion, found that textile production contributes more emissions than international aviation and shipping put together. It consumes lake-sized volumes of fresh water and, if that’s not enough, also creates microplastic pollution.

Add in the waste produced during manufacture, issues with microplastics released into water systems when we wash clothes at home, and the huge volumes of waste created when clothing is no longer fit to wear or deemed out of fashion, and it’s no surprise that attention is turning to production methods and spending habits.

The EAC is calling for a ban on the landfilling or incineration of clothing which can be reused or recycled, and for a 1p charge to be placed on each new garment. The levy would raise £35 million a year for better collection and sorting.

More than two thirds of brands surveyed support the levy, but point the finger at consumers, saying that shoppers’ reluctance to pay higher costs is the main barrier to improvement. In other words, our compulsion for fast, cheap clothing is blocking the way to a more sustainable fashion industry. But can this really be the case, or is business just passing the buck?

The extended producer responsibility model, which is commonly used across Europe to fund the recycling of packaging waste, places an onus on producers – retailers and brands – to pay for the collection and recycling of their products when they become waste. In its recent Resources and Waste Strategy for England, the government announced the intention to fast-track producer responsibility for two of five suggested materials; textiles has been widely-tipped for inclusion.

However, recycling of textiles comes with a unique set of complications. While the UK enjoys a thriving charity shop network, export still plays a central role. The volume of UK textile waste has fallen by 50,000 tonnes in the last three years, but large quantities are still bundled up and sent to overseas markets. African nations in particular are finding it difficult – or choosing not to – absorb these shipments.

Annual global clothing production uses 98 million tonnes of raw materials, with growth in consumption expected to drive this figure to 300 million tonnes by 2050

As with so many transformations within waste markets, the growth of China’s middle class is making its mark. While Chinese exports to East Africa swell, the UK’s market share has fallen to 20 per cent. Countries such as Rwanda are regulating the influx of used garments in an attempt to bolster the market for locally-produced clothing. The message is clear: ­they no longer wish to play the role of needy ‘third-world’ dependent.

If reuse markets stall, we need to find more innovative solutions. WRAP’s 2018 report into fibre to fibre recycling found that moves such as greater automation and work to foster demand for recycled products may help the viability of cotton and polyester recycling. A predicted five million-tonne cotton deficit by 2020 may also help to jump-start the market. In its 2030 fibre strategy, Levi’s® identified cotton as the most significant risk.

Meanwhile, household names and even local micro-projects are driving new initiatives. Gucci and Prada have both signed up to design products using Econyl – a recycled fibre made from waste products such as abandoned fishing nets – while in the small Gloucestershire market town of Wotton under Edge, a team of seamstresses from the Heritage Centre are transforming donated material into cloth bags, which are handed out free of charge to visitors.

Reusing and recycling close to home may prove to be the key to building resilience into the market but, unless we tackle the root of the problem – infatuation with fast fashion – our efforts will be little more than scraps.


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