Evaluating The Environmental Costs of UK Fashion: What Do the Reports Say?

Have you ever considered of the environmental impact of your closet? Not just the cost of manufacturing, but the entire environmental footprint from raw materials and manufacturing all the way to use and disposal?
Well, WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) is keen to find out the true environmental cost of the UK’s collective closet.  In 2012, WRAP published the first in depth report ‘Valuing our Clothes’ to better understand the environmental impact of UK fashion.  Now five years later, WRAP has released a second report to document its progress. After reading the lengthy report, here are our main findings:
Key Facts:
  • Clothing manufacturing and sales is the fourth largest pressure on UK natural resources (only coming after housing, transport, and food)
  • UK closets accounted for 3.6 million tonnes of clothing in 2016 (to put this into perspective, the Titanic only weighed 52,310 tonnes or roughly 1.4% of this!)
  • The total carbon footprint of UK clothing in 2016 is estimated at 26.2 million tonnes (up from 24 million tonnes in 2012)
  • The majority of the environmental footprint of our clothing comes from the actual creation of the fibre. (however, the way we care for our clothing after purchase makes a big difference too!)
SCAP Members Have Successfully Increased Resource Efficiency:
The 2012 report led to the creation of the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan 2020 (SCAP).  Signatories such as Asos, Ted Baker, Whistles, and M&S all agreed to specific targets aimed at reducing their environmental impact. Since signing in 2012, SCAP signatories successfully reduced the following per tonne of clothing:
  • Carbon emissions by 10.6%. Equivalent to one and a half hot air balloons of carbon.
  • Water use by 13.5%. Equivalent to 23 thousand baths full of water.
  • Waste creation by 0.8%. Equivalent to 30 pairs of women’s jeans.
SCAP is proof that collective accountability and goal setting can be an effective tool to motivate better business practices.  
Consumption is On the Rise:
The report noted that there is a significant increase in the amount UK consumers are purchasing. Compared to 2012, shoppers bought an extra 200,000 tonnes of clothing in 2016. That is the weight of 20 Eiffel Towers!!
So despite improvements in resource efficiency, in order to truly reduce the total environmental cost of the fashion industry we need to start buying LESS, and taking care of the things we already own. Consumer surveys suggest that people are indeed keeping their clothes longer. On average, survey respondents in 2012 noted that they kept their clothes for 2.2 years before discarding. In 2016, this figure rose to 3.3 years. However, based on consumption trends, it appears UK closets are simply getting bigger.
How We Care for Our Clothes Makes A Big Difference
According to the report, clothes washing and care accounts for roughly 30% of the total carbon footprint of our clothing. Since the initial report in 2012, trends suggest that UK consumers are washing their clothes less, and at lower temperatures. This has reduced the overall carbon footprint of clothing in the UK  by 700,000 tonnes!
The report also notes the importance of repairing and fixing old clothes instead of throwing them away and buying something new. When you are done with a piece of clothing, try to recycle the material or donate it to a second-hand shop. An increase of 10% in second-hand sales (as opposed to buying new) could reduce water usage by 4%, carbon output by 3%, and overall waste by 1%.  
Overall, the WRAP Report suggests that the environmental impact of Clothing in the UK is going to rise unless active steps are taken to mitigate it. The report provides significant insight into the main ways we can reduce the impacts of production, and points out potential opportunities for change. To learn more, read the full WRAP report!