Sustainable cotton is turning Britain’s clothes green

18 December 2019

  • Changes in the fibres used by signatories to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP 2020) commitment have saved as much water, per tonne of clothes sold, as a family of four each taking a bath every day for twenty-nine years would use.
  • Changes since 2012 under SCAP 2020 have reduced the amount of greenhouse gases emissions, per tonne of UK clothes sold by signatories, equivalent to a car travelling around Britain’s coastline six-times*.
  • Waste reduction activities by SCAP 2020 signatories has saved the equivalent to 900,000 pairs of jeans (by weight) – enough for one pair each for everyone working on Christmas Day.

Changes in the fibre composition of clothing sold in the UK by retailer and brand signatories to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan 2020 (SCAP 2020), and the purchasing of more sustainably-produced fibres (notably from the Better Cotton Initiative), are two of the main reasons for the improved footprint of UK clothing, WRAP’s latest clothing report concludes.

For five years, leading retailers, brands and organisations from the re-use and recycling sectors have been measuring their progress towards targets under SCAP 2020; the voluntary agreement managed by WRAP to reduce the environmental impact of the UK’s clothing sector. WRAP’s latest progress report for SCAP 2020 measures the impact of changes made by members against the four targets. These show significant impacts in reducing the Water and Carbon footprints by SCAP 2020 members.

Selecting more sustainably-produced fibres from enterprises like the Better Cotton Initiative is significantly reducing the volume of water used in clothing sold by SCAP 2020 members. Water demand is a huge factor in the production of clothing from crop irrigation, manufacturing fibres through to dyeing. WRAP found that the total reduction in water-use during the lifetime of garments sold by SCAP 2020 members has saved the equivalent of 42,000 baths of water per tonne of clothing sold. Enough water for a family of four to each take a bath every day for twenty-nine years.

The other significant saving is in carbon, i.e. greenhouse gases emissions (GHGs) over the lifetime of garments sold by SCAP 2020 signatories. Here the reduction per tonne of clothes sold is estimated to be the same as the amount of GHGs produced on a car journey of 24,000 miles; akin to driving six times around Great Britain by the coastal roads*.

Despite the good progress against the water and carbon targets, the Waste Target remains an area of concern ahead of the final two years of SCAP 2020, and WRAP has set out a series of recommendations** that signatories need to address. Peter Maddox, Director WRAP explains; “I am delighted by what SCAP 2020 signatories have achieved. Compared with the wider sector they continue to set the bar high for improving sustainable practices. And it’s important that they do because while clothing might only be the eighth largest sector in terms of household spend, it has the fourth largest environmental impact behind housing, transport and food. As the Environmental Audit Committee into fast fashion has shown, there’s a lot more work to do on clothing and I believe that initiatives like SCAP 2020 have an important role to play. The public is getting increasingly concerned about the impact of clothing on the environment, just like it has in relation to plastics following Blue Planet II.”

WRAP established SCAP 2020 in 2012 and today its members number eighty signatories and supporters, including eleven retailers and brands who are responsible for selling more than half of all UK clothing by volume. Based on data from the business signatories, WRAP has calculated the following improvements by SCAP 2020 signatories between 2012-2017:

  • Carbon Target: 15% reduction in carbon footprint 
    • 2017 shows an 11.9% reduction in the carbon footprint per tonne of garments.
  • Water Target: 15% reduction in water footprint 
    • 2017 shows a 17.7% reduction in the water footprint per tonne of garments, exceeding the target at this time. 
  • Waste Target: 3.5% reduction in waste arising over product life-cycle
    • 2017 shows a 1.1% reduction in waste per tonne. 
  • Landfill Target: 15% reduction in waste to landfill
    • Progress against the UK landfill targets was reported in 2016 as a 14% reduction. It will be re-assessed in 2019 using local authority data.

WRAP has gauged the waste target by measuring re-use by signatories working in recycling and re-use, comparing progress from 2015 to 2017. It found a 1.1% increase in the proportion of clothing handled by these organisations that is now going to re-use. In terms of items of clothing, this small percentage rise is nevertheless the equivalent to 900,000 pairs of jeans getting a second life.

Switching to sustainable cotton has delivered more of the water and carbon improvements than any other actions, but WRAP found a wide range of improvements demonstrated by signatories. These total 46 separate actions included implementing improved fibres, better production techniques and actions to increase re-use in 2017. While focused primarily on production and retail, WRAP is also engaged with consumers through Love Your Clothes. Peter Maddox“WRAP presented its views on consumer issues to the EAC and had two main points. Firstly, if shoppers improve their awareness and understanding of what sustainable clothing and fashion is this will incentivise fashion brands to offer more choice. Secondly, Governments should explore the benefits of an extended producer responsibility regime for clothing. This could incentivise the design of longer-lasting clothes and provide support to the used textiles supply chain.”

Details of SCAP 2020 achievements were shared with members at the annual SCAP 2020 meeting held in London in November and come ahead of several forthcoming guidance documents WRAP will publish in 2019.


Notes to Editor

  • Link to SCAP 2020 Progress Report 
  • *The coastline of Great Britain is 11,000 miles however it is not possible to follow the exact coastline. We have estimated a journey of 4,000 miles as a median distance. 
  • **WRAP has issued six key recommendations for signatories to further reduce the carbon footprint of garments sold in the UK:
    1. More retailers adopting a greater proportion of improved fibres, particularly improved cotton and recycled polyester.
    2. More retailers adopting improved dyeing techniques and more efficient supply chain practices.
    3. Achieve and capture evidence of reductions in waste in the supply chain.
    4. Achieve and capture evidence of greater repair, resale and reuse of clothing in the UK.
    5. Maintain or improve low temperature laundry behaviours.  
    6. Ensure that clothing is kept out of the black bag.
  • Meeting the SCAP 2020 targets could save:
    • More than 1.2 million tonnes CO2e per year: the equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions of 250,000 cars.
    • 420 million m3 of water per year – equivalent to more than 160,000 Olympic sized swimming pools. 
    • Over 16,000 tonnes of waste arising from the whole product life cycle.
  • SCAP 2020 signatories have replaced at least 27% of their conventionally produced cotton with Better Cotton Initiative cotton. That 27% of improved cotton would make the equivalent of more than 300 million pairs of jeans.
  • SCAP 2020 currently has 80 signatories and supporters representing more than half of UK retail sales by volume and includes a number of collectors, recyclers and charities. The following companies have signed up as signatories of the SCAP 2020 Commitment.
  • First established in 2000, WRAP is a not for profit organisation which works with governments, businesses and citizens to create a world in which we source and use resources sustainably. Our impact spans the entire life-cycle of the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the products we buy, from production to consumption and beyond.