House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (Fixing Fashion)

Peter Maddox

Today’s report from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (Fixing Fashion) is a welcome appraisal of the situation regarding clothing; how we make and use our clothes. The report makes damning reading from a social and environmental perspective, focussing on fashion’s contribution towards climate change and plastic pollution, and it should serve as a wake-up call to every consumer. In the UK, you’ll be surprised to learn, we buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe, and that is a large part of the problem.

While the messages are hard hitting, we are grateful this lack of sustainability is being given such prominence by the EAC. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, as they say, and given the fact that only housing, transport and food have greater environmental impacts than clothing, it’s vital these issues are tackled

Improving the sustainability of the UK clothing sector is one of WRAP’s main priorities. We have worked extensively in this area since 2012 when we published the first Valuing our Clothes report, and launched our Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP 2020) - a voluntary agreement designed to help big brands reduce their carbon, waste and water footprints by 15 per cent by 2020.

The largest clothing retailers and brands have signed up, and SCAP 2020 members continue to outperform industry in terms of reducing water, carbon and waste. However, there is much more to do. To meet future demand for clothing, and to minimise the environmental impacts in the supply chain, there is a need for lower impact and alternative sources of fibre, including recycled fibres.

The simple fact is, the growing global population requiring more clothing is being compounded by a shortfall in virgin material. In its 2030 fibre strategy, global denim brand Levi’s® identified cotton as the most significant risk and predicted a deficit of five million tonnes globally by 2020. It is expected that demand for alternative materials will rise significantly, including materials produced through fibre2fibre reprocessing of post-consumer textiles.

The viability of taking textiles and recycling them into new fibre is at an early stage of development, and our recent report into the economic viability of fibre2fibre chemical and mechanical recycling informs the potential for larger scale production. The research suggests chemical F2F recycling of polycotton blends has the greater opportunity to be financially viable.

This is a new area of research WRAP has undertaken, and we are excited about the potential it offers the UK. Needless-to-say, fibre to fibre recycling is not without its challenges and significant barriers will need to be overcome to close the loop on discarded clothing. But there are several ways this might be done - including an extended producer responsibility regime to support the required investment in new infrastructure.

WRAP told the EAC that introducing an EPR regime for clothing could incentivise the design of longer-lasting clothes, and provide support to the used textiles recycling sector for instance by supporting the development of end-markets and fibre-to-fibre recycling. And yesterday government announced consultations exploring EPR schemes for items that can be harder or costly to recycle, including textiles.

The EAC commended our work to document the impact of fashion consumption and bring businesses together to share best practice and facilitate change. It recognised the impacts SCAP 2020 has made, but also pointed out the frustration of having only eleven of the leading retailers and brands on board and suggested a mandatory participation may be necessary. The fashion industry is undoubtedly a significant stress on the natural world, but with the strategic programme like SCAP 2020 we have the potential to dress greener. We hope the wider industry will follow the example of SCAP 2020 members and recognise that environmental sustainability is not a passing fad.