Have you got your new season staples? Every day millions of people are bombarded with advertising trying to sell them new clothes and pushing promotional offers. Whilst this relentless marketing ensures fast fashion remains the status quo, there is a hint of revolution within the fashion industry.
Fashion designer Tom Cridland has launched two extremely successful crowdfunding campaigns to make and sell a limited number of t-shirts and sweatshirts guaranteed to last 30 years. The first garments have recently been dispatched, but could such initiatives really change consumer behaviour and help to reduce the fashion industry’s environmental impacts?
If you take a moment to consider the environmental impacts of your clothing, from material production to disposal, the number of potential environmental pitfalls can be overwhelming. For just a simple t-shirt the impacts soon start to stack up:
- Globally, it is estimated that cotton farming occupies 5% of arable land and is responsible for 16% of insecticide and 6.8% of herbicide global use.
- Cotton production for one t-shirt uses approximately 2,000 of litres of water.
- 17-20% of industrial water pollution is due to textile dyeing and treatment.
- It’s estimated that the average garment is composed of parts from at least three difference countries, requiring transportation – and thus causing emissions – on an international scale.
Then there is the end of life of a product. A recent BBC documentary revealed that in the UK seven tonnes of clothing are thrown away every 10 minutes. Fashion retailer H&M has estimated that as much as 95% of clothing which is thrown away could be re-used. Meanwhile, a WRAP study has estimated that the average UK household owns around £4,000 worth of clothes of which 30% have not been worn in the last year; this suggests there is a wider issue of consumers feeling compelled to buy new clothes that is disproportionate to personal need.
WRAP also found that extending the average life of clothing from 2.2 to 2.5 years per item would lead to a 5-10% reduction in the associated carbon, water and waste footprints. Therefore, if a product’s lifecycle can be extended to 30 years, it may just be conceivable that this would displace enough sort-lived t-shirts to offset the greater environmental impacts of producing a higher quality product.
Losing one’s shirt?
In 2014, the British Fashion Council calculated that the direct value of fashion to the UK economy was £26 billion, approximately 1% of UK GDP. If we assume each of the c.36 million people in the UK between 18 and 65 buys two staple t-shirts a year at £10 each, that’s £720 million a year. Imagine if this year, everyone instead bought a pair of 30-year t-shirts at a total cost of £45, taking the place of all their staple t-shirt purchases for the following 29 years. The result would be reduction in spending over the 30 years of £20 billion – an annual average of £670 million, more than 2.5% of the direct value of fashion retail.
However compelling the environmental case, that isn’t a result likely to appeal to a high street retailer, especially if it was extended out across other staple items such as jeans and jumpers. Nor would it appeal to many politicians, who see GDP growth as the principal measure of economic health.
While widely accepted as common sense, the mantra that growth is good is increasingly being scrutinised, in part driven by recognition of the paradoxes – like the economic undesirability of a 30-year t-shirt – that it brings. The New Economics Foundation has highlighted the failure of growth to deliver poverty reduction, while psychologist Oliver James’ book Affluenza argues that striving to keep up with the Joneses makes us miserable, even when we succeed. There is also a growing body of evidence to suggest that a simpler, less materialistic approach to life can improve wellbeing.
While mainstream economists may still be attached to growth, some of those focused on the pressures consumption places on the environment think we may already be transitioning to a new model. In a 2012 paper, academic and Green Party spokesperson Rupert Read notes that Japan has seen almost no growth for a decade, and many other economies are moving in the same direction. As yet, though, no nation has openly embraced zero growth as a national economic policy.
A change of clothes
Whilst the environmental benefits and the savings to consumers of switching to the 30 year t-shirt are undisputable, the level of behaviour change required for people to own a piece of clothing for more than a few years – perhaps sending it to be fixed if it becomes damaged – is a big leap. People now demand a degree of novelty in their clothing, and love the excitement of trying on something new. So if we don’t want to own clothes for their whole life, could other ownership models work?
In some areas, they already do. For example, small children rapidly grow out of their clothes, which many parents then pass on to family, friends or charity shops. The rise of swishing shows there’s potential for this approach to be reapplied elsewhere. We’re also perfectly happy to rent certain clothes – fancy dress, or suits for special occasions. Could a rental model work more widely?
That might take a degree of social transformation, especially in the UK, where fashion consumption has become a major means of displaying affluence and social standing. In contrast to most of Europe, in the UK renting is viewed as the poor relation of ownership: and if we feel this way about houses, cars and electrical appliances, it’s an attitude that might well extend to the prospect of renting clothing.
However, there are real benefits to flexible rental over ownership. Imagine an arrangement whereby you pay a monthly fee to be provided with access to two pairs of jeans and half a dozen t-shirts. If the product fails, the provider replaces it. If you tire of a particular item, you can trade it in for a different one, rather than having it sit in a drawer. Lengthening the relationship between user and provider, and between provider and garment could also enhance the incentives to create durable products, to make sure that their fabric assets were used to the full, and make it easier to enforce responsible disposal once an item was no longer suitable for use.
It’s easy to see Tom Cridland as a pioneer of this model: he doesn’t guarantee that a particular piece of cotton will last 30 years; but if your t-shirt needs repairing (I expect this doesn’t include removal of curry stains), you can send it back for refurbishment or even replacement. Increasing durability and repairability is central to making our economy more circular, and Eunomia has recently been working closely with WRAP esap (electricals sustainability action plan) signatories to help improve the lifespan of electrical and electronic products – including washing machines. It would be good to see those lasting as long as one of Cridland’s t-shirts.
In recent years, some large fashion retailers have started taking their environmental impact more seriously. The WRAP-led Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) now provides information and advice on improving the sustainability of clothing across its lifecycle. In its first two years of operation since being launched in June 2013, SCAP has reported respective reductions of 12.5% and 3.5% in the water and carbon impacts associated with products sold.
In December 2015 WRAP released a Sustainable Clothing Guide providing advice to the fashion industry on how to increase the durability of clothing through garment design and material selection, as well as how fit adjustments can be incorporated into garments to allow the customer to adapt the item’s size and style. The guide also proposes a series of instructions that should be issued to customers to help them to identify high quality and durable clothes. If successful, such guides could help to reform the industry’s obsession with the marketing and sale of short-life clothing.
As long as clothing is used as a means of defining identity, it is safe to assume that there will always be space for seasonal fashion. However, there are steps consumers and industry can take to start the transition to more sustainable fashion. Firstly, consumers can start to take increasing responsibility for the impacts of their clothing, from their purchasing habits through to the care and final disposal of items. Secondly, fashion retailers could take a leaf out of Tom Cridland’s book and start designing clothes – and business models – to allow fashion staples to last more than a couple of years. If progress can be made on both fronts, maybe fashion could even pioneer a transition to a steady state economic model.