Are our bath towel and bedding binges becoming our new fashion fix?

22 June 2021

Apparently, as a nation we spent lockdown bingeing on TV box sets and re-furnishing our homes.

And not surprisingly this led to a fair bit of life imitating art with the nation on the hunt for ‘It’s A Sin’-inspired pink cushions or heavy brocade curtains like those hanging in the bedrooms of Bridgerton (although I can bet that “I don’t know what they’re up to, but I just adore that bedding” wasn’t a phrase that was uttered too many times by fans of that show).

I can certainly understand why. This unexpected and surreal chapter in our lives meant that we have spent more time confined in our homes than ever before. They were our sanctuary; the place we felt safe, and we wanted to make them beautiful as an antidote to the troubles of the outside world. They also had to become increasingly multi-functional – offices, classrooms, exercise spaces, and this may continue even beyond the end of lockdown. With remote working looking set to stay, suddenly our homes are more visible to strangers, more an extension of ourselves and our personalities than ever before.

So, it’s not surprising that sales of homeware, including textiles, has been one of the few success stories in an otherwise very challenging period for the retail sector. A recent survey from suggested that around 40% of consumers had invested in their homes during lockdown. In fact, lockdown accelerated a trend which had actually begun pre-Covid. More and more high street fashion stores had been branching out into homeware. They had locked onto the Instagram era where every facet of our lifestyle is snapped and shared. It was also perhaps to appeal to the millennial generation of younger shoppers living transient lives in rented properties who find homeware textiles are a relatively cheap and more practical way of stamping their individuality on their living spaces.

The challenge in all of this, though, is the risk that home textiles could become the new ‘fast fashion’ where rapid turnover and quickly changing fashion trends means increasing pressure on resources, on climate change, and the production of harmful waste. In the UK, only food, housing and transport are more harmful to the environment than clothing and textiles combined. The industry accounts for about 8% of global greenhouse gases – the equivalent of the annual GHG emissions of the UK, France and Germany put together. Around 79 billion cubic metres of fresh water are guzzled up every year in the production and washing of clothes: and the treatment of textiles is responsible for around 17-20% of global industrial water pollution.

The make-take-dispose model which has driven the industry for so long means that in the UK alone, around 900,000 tonnes of textile products are burnt or buried every year, of which around 390,000 tonnes are non-clothing – a shocking waste of valuable resources. From WRAP’s own insights we know that, on average, around a quarter of UK householders say they put duvets, cushions, and rugs in the bin. While many wash their items such as bedding on high temperatures in washing machines because they believe it is vital for hygiene, which uses more energy and produces more carbon emissions than a cooler wash.

There is a goldmine of valuable home textiles sitting in cupboards around the country, forgotten, unused and unloved.

The fact is, though, that home textiles can be the perfect candidates for circularity. There is a goldmine of valuable home textiles sitting in cupboards around the country, forgotten, unused and unloved. These items are perfect for reuse, swapping with friends and family or upcycling, we could all take some inspiration from Maria von Trapp and get our next summer dress made from our old curtains. There are also a whole host of inspiring designers getting creative with second-hand homewares to make gorgeous new clothing and giving them a new lease of life. There could also be opportunities for customers to ‘rent a look’ for their rental homes, this already happens for furniture and is popular in the US. Home textiles are in fact amongst the easiest items to recycle, due to the simplicity in their construction and fibre compositions, and as fibre-to-fibre reprocessing takes off, they will become an even more useful commodity.

This is why, when developing Textiles 2030, our voluntary agreement designed to accelerate the shift to a sustainable and circular textiles industry, we decided to widen the base beyond clothing to include home textiles, in recognition of this growing sector. Textiles 2030 builds on the success of its predecessor, SCAP 2020 and aims to radically reduce the sector’s contribution to the climate emergency to bring it in line with the Paris Agreement 1.5-degree trajectory. This will be achieved by working towards ambitious carbon and water reduction targets, and transforming the industry from its linear take, make, dispose model to a circular one where products are produced using more sustainably and recycled material, used for longer, reused through new business models and finally recycled back into the system at the end of their useful life. So it’s important that the whole of the textiles industry is on board.

I wish I could have had access to all this knowledge when I was working as a designer for numerous high street brands.

Signatories will benefit from WRAP and Textile 2030’s vast knowledge base and practical tools to make their products and business models more circular – durable, recyclable and designing out waste. I wish I could have had access to all this knowledge when I was working as a designer for numerous high street brands. I had little or no exposure to the environmental issues surrounding the industry or how to design more sustainably during my training. But over the years I began to become more aware of the external debate, and conscious of the toll the textiles industry was having environmentally. I wanted to source more sustainable cotton, for example, but was often frustrated by the lack of knowledge on where and how to even begin to source these materials, the lack of strategy from the brands I was working for and ultimately trying to convince team members the increased cost was the right thing to do. Certainly, those companies I worked for, where there was a top-down sustainability strategy, hard-wired into everything we did, and instilled at every department level, was where I saw real and positive change.

This is the richness for me of being involved in Textiles 2030. Here you have high street brands working alongside smaller companies in a precompetitive space to share knowledge and level out the playing field so that sustainability becomes a realisable goal for all. We are welcoming businesses who are new to sustainability, and those with an established record, so that they can all benefit from support and established good practice. And we are also building a knowledge bank of innovators, ground-breakers and academics to share their expertise. We know that only through collaborative working, transparency and real change across the supply chain can we achieve our common goal.

I can see though how much the landscape has changed since I first came into the industry. This has certainly been galvanised by a much more environmentally conscious consumer voting with their wallet when it comes to their buying choices and brand preferences. And this is matched by potentially big changes on the policy side, with the proposals for extended producer responsibility, and eco-design standards in the pipeline having a potentially huge impact on the industry. Being part of Textiles 2030 is the best way to get businesses in shape for that overhaul.

Textiles will always be part of our lives. They play an important part in creating homes we want to live in, and clothes we want to express ourselves in. But climate change is upon us and something we can all no longer ignore in the pursuit of fashion. Sustainability is the new black.

If you are interested to learn more about Textiles 2030, watch our webinar Our homes, our havens: Sustainability for the home textiles sector.

Find out more here.