Changing fashion behaviours – Covid-19 and beyond

24 August 2020

I’m sure we can all agree that it has been a strange year. Before lockdown, I spent most weekends visiting family and friends, and my evenings were generally busy too. When the country locked down, I was able to take some time to reflect and, never one to sit still too long, I picked up a number of interests that I hadn’t had the time to pursue before. One of these was sewing, my newfound love of which has taken me on a new sustainability journey looking at how we can minimise the environmental impact of the clothes we buy. And interestingly, this has happened alongside significant changes in the fashion industry.

I am very new to sewing, having been gifted a machine and a beginner’s guide after developing an interest during sewing classes last winter. During those early days of lockdown, I found it the perfect pastime – challenging enough to occupy my hands and mind, with a true sense of achievement at the end of each project. The instructions for each garment include suggestions for fabric types, and as I tried to understand the difference between cotton lawn and double gauze, it occurred to me that I really didn’t know much about the relative sustainability of different fabrics. On the rare occasion that I bought clothes, the factors I based my choices on were price and fit. Often, I would return home after buying an item and only then realise that it was made from polyester and be disappointed with myself for purchasing an item that would release microplastics. However, as I began making (and fitting) my own clothes, restricted to shopping for fabric online, the sustainability of the fabric was top of my list of concerns.

Working in the waste management sector, my initial reaction was to stick with cotton, wishing to use a fabric which does not contribute to microplastic pollution and which would be compostable at end of life. But which fabrics are the most sustainable? My experience thus far has shown me that the answer to this question is not a simple one! In fact, as the table below shows, cotton has a larger carbon, water, and waste footprint per tonne of fibre than polyester when it comes to clothing. Traditional cotton production also accounts for one sixth of pesticides used globally, impacting both environmental and human health.

Variations in environmental footprint by fibre type – modelling estimates
 Source: Wrap – Valuing our clothes

At risk of feeling disillusioned by my choices, I spoke to some of my colleagues who pointed me towards the UK’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), a voluntary initiative for eco-conscious brands to minimise the environmental impact of their clothes – helping to reduce the carbon, water and waste footprint of the UK’s textile industry. SCAP has several improvement targets and suggested actions for its signatories, a number of which are focused on fibre substitution, such as:

These changes will reduce water use, pollution and overall greenhouse gas emissions. They can even utilise recovered materials such as fishing nets, which are often made from high-quality nylon and are already used by forward-thinking brands such as Patagonia in their products.

Between 2012 and 2018, substituting conventional cotton for ‘Better Cotton Initiative’ (BCI) cotton has had the greatest impact on reducing water consumption in the industry, and substitutions across all fibres listed above had the largest impact on reducing the industry’s carbon and waste footprint – as illustrated in the graph below.

Contribution analysis of the effects of improvement actions and changes to the fibre mix of garments sold by SCAP retailers
Source: Sustainable clothing action plan 2020 commitment: progress report

I decided that, if this guidance is good enough for our £26 billion fashion industry, it’s good enough for me, and will be informing all my future makes!

While I’ve been on this personal journey, the global fashion industry has faced an upheaval. As Covid-19 stopped international fashion shows and forced high street stores to close their doors, companies such as Gucci announced a move from five fashion shows per year to two – distancing itself from seasonal collections which designate the lifespan of a garment. Gucci is the largest and most influential brand to come out in support of a less wasteful, more sustainable fashion system, and has the ability to push this conversation forwards.

Resource Futures has had the pleasure of working with TeX in the Community who has created a circular economy model for textiles, ensuring recycling, reuse and re-purposing of textiles. High Street giant H&M has also been working on this for a number of years, and recently announced that it had reached its clothing take-back target early, collecting 29,000 tonnes of used garments. Primark has now followed suit, installing take-back boxes for clothing, textiles, footwear and bags in all its UK stores.

Unfortunately, only 50-60% of clothing deposited at these in-store clothing banks is reused. As recycling solutions for low quality garments, particularly those utilising textile blends, are not yet commercially viable, and without an EPR system for clothing as they have in France, a proportion of the garments collected are destroyed. With this in mind, the launch of Selfridges ‘Project Earth’ is an exciting development as it moves towards a circular economy for textiles. Selfridges will host repair, resale and rental services for fashion – having recently launched as ‘Resellfridges’ – where people will be able to buy and sell garments from Selfridges’ own-brand labels. A day later, luxury fashion brand Ganni released its rental only denim collection.

The key benefit of these schemes is the movement away from ‘disposable’ garments. It seems that we are beginning to realise that the most sustainable clothes are the ones worn most, and longest. So, I’ll keep on making things I love and see if I can discover any more, old favourites in the back of the wardrobe!