17 November 2020
Perhaps more than any other industry, the clothing and textiles sector is governed by the public’s insatiable appetite for constant change – what’s this season’s colour, cut, look? But one trend that isn’t going to become ‘last year’ is the growing demand from consumers that their love of fashion doesn’t come with a costly environmental price tag.
Only food waste, housing and transport cause more environmental damage than clothing in the UK. Globally it reportedly produces more carbon emissions than international shipping and flights put together. It is a thirsty business – around 79 billion cubic metres of fresh water is consumed every year across the world in growing, producing, manufacturing and washing clothes; decimating communities which had relied on lakes for sustenance now drained dry to produce cotton. And it is wasteful – with billions of pounds worth of potential valuable resources lost. For example, around 330,000 tonnes of textiles are burnt or buried every year in the UK alone or lay dormant in our wardrobes.
So, while it trades in style and beauty, the reality is less attractive. And with concern for the environment at an all-time high, the public is increasingly wakening up to the true cost of clothes and demanding an alternative to the ‘throwaway fashion’ model which is putting so much pressure on our precious natural resources and contributing to climate change. This is strongly reflected in our own research. We have found that more than half of people now view the environmental impact of clothing as severe, with two in three saying clothes made to look good and last longer are now factors which drive their shopping choices. There are encouraging signs that the nation is increasingly receptive to new business models such as clothing exchanges, and pre-loved clothes. Lockdown has only encouraged this with more people repairing clothes and using the time at home to clear out their wardrobes to donate to charity.
Political pressure is growing also, with a recent Environmental Audit Committee report condemning the effects of ‘fast fashion’ and calling for radical change. In the Government’s Resources and Waste Strategy for England, proposals to deal with the negative impact of clothing include introducing the ‘producer pays’ principle to the clothing industry as well as a commitment to explore ways to support the charity sector and boost collections and recycling.
It’s inescapable that clothing retailers and brands must clearly demonstrate their commitment to sustainable, longer-lasting products or risk losing sales and potentially find themselves facing significant financial hits. The fashion and textile industry needs to go back to the drawing board for a major re-design if it is to thrive in the future. The time has come to disrupt the current take-make-dispose model and shift to a circular approach so we can transform the way we produce, buy and use textile products in a way which meets the public’s and investors’ expectations and is kinder to the planet.
Those already committed to that journey have had a head start through being part of our world leading SCAP 2020 voluntary agreement since 2012. Through WRAP’s recognized convening powers, we brought together leading UK fashion and textiles businesses, responsible collectively for nearly half of all UK clothing sold, with academics, industry and research organisations in a unique ‘safe space’. This enabled collaboration on new ways of working and rich learning from both successes and failures. And the rewards for those efforts have been significant, with members consistently outperforming the rest of the industry. The model has been recognized globally, with the influential P4G (Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030) initiative recently announced SCAP 2020 as the sector winner in its State-of-the-Art Partnership Awards. As it comes to a close, we were able to celebrate meeting the ambitious targets we set for tackling carbon and water impacts – the latter as a result of a widespread shift amongst members to more sustainable materials, particularly lower impact cottons. Campaigns aimed at citizens also paid dividends – with more washing less frequently and at lower temperatures making a difference to the clothing carbon footprint.
SCAP 2020 laid strong foundations for UK-focused action in the next 10 years. Today, we are launching the next stage on our journey to transform UK textiles. Our new voluntary agreement, Textiles 2030, is the UK’s most ambitious yet. Modelled on the successful ‘Target-Measure-Act’ approach which underpins all WRAP’s voluntary agreements, it is designed to significantly reduce the contribution clothes and home textiles make to the climate emergency in line with the Paris Agreement 1.5°C trajectory and the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action. It is closely aligned to and designed to generate progress on other global and sector initiatives. This includes our own Circular Clothing Action Plan which has been developed with the Laudes Foundation and the World Resources Institute to deliver the first ‘off the peg’ plan to achieve global circular economy goals through coordinated national action.
Textiles 2030 builds on the success of SCAP 2020 but also explores new frontiers. We aim to broaden the base so we can make a giant leap forward in sector collaboration – bringing on board those new to sustainability and collaborative initiatives as well as those new to WRAP, such as workwear and homeware retailers. Signatories will work together on ambitious carbon, water and circular textile targets. Each will work towards Roadmap Ambitions that in the future all their products will be designed and made to be circular (durable, recyclable, and designing out waste) and that they are using more circular than linear raw material. They also need to contribute to a vision that by 2030 more products are sold for re-use in the UK than new. With Textiles 2030 receiving support from the UK Government, they will have the opportunity to inform key policy initiatives which will affect their business soon, and which will help drive this ambition.
Some actions, such as fibre switching and increased clothing collection, can be taken immediately. Others will take more time, and Textiles 2030 will provide a vehicle for being able to develop and trial potentially game-changing product design and business models which can be scaled up to engineer the system change shift we aim to achieve. A particular focus will be to build on the bank of knowledge and experience SCAP 2020 developed in what proved to be the challenging target to reduce waste, and in particular the still too high amount of clothing which ends up in landfill or incineration. Whilst it is unlikely the target will be met, many signatories had already embarked on repair, re-sale and collection and recycling initiatives which can be taken forward into Textiles 2030.
The potential is enormous, but so is the scale of the challenge. The fashion and textiles industry is complex and labyrinthine and we are well aware of the immediate difficulties facing an industry which has been dramatically hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. But hard-wiring resilience and sustainability into the sector is the best and perhaps only way to ensure it not only survives but thrives in the future as we face further disruptions to supply chains and dwindling natural resources.
Fashion has always been about setting the trend. SCAP 2020 led the way in the shift to sustainable fashion. We need more on board to pick up the baton and to join us in this make or break decade to tackle the biggest challenge of our generation: climate change. Please join us on this journey to transform the textile industry for the good of the economy, and the environment.