Sustainable fashion

Recycle Logo from used old denim fabric on old grey wooden background — Photo by HappyCity

If you care about the environment, think before you buy that next item of clothing - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Life in the WIs with GFWI chairman Janice Cole

There has been a lot of focus recently on climate change and the impact of single-use and other plastic on the environment. How many of you actually consider that the clothes on your back might be playing a part in these issues? You may realise that microplastics are shred into our waste water every time we wash anything made of polyester.  

Unfortunately, this is not the whole story; how relatively simple it would be if that were the case. Clothes have a great deal to answer for in terms of pollution. Firstly, whilst the high end of the fashion industry may pay good wages, the vast majority of clothes are made at the cheapest possible price. There is a middle road, but at all levels some parts of the manufacture may well involve processes that pay poorly. I am not going to spend any more time here on sweatshops and slave labour, though; I want on this occasion to concentrate on textile waste. 

Globally, it is estimated that 92 million tonnes of textile waste is created each year; this equates to a rubbish truck full of clothes ending on landfill sites every second, and this is increasing. At current rates, by 2030 we will be discarding more than 134 million tonnes of textile every year. 

Last year, in Britain alone, we discarded clothes worth £12.5 billion, as on average each of us put eight items in the bin equivalent to £500 in value. Survey results show that at least half of these were perfectly wearable clothes that could have been passed on to others. One in ten did this because of the cheap price of clothes, and one in 20 admitted to ditching items because they had never got round to returning them. Some wasted clothes never reach the bin, but remain unworn in wardrobes because they are out of fashion or no longer fit. 

Let’s look at it another way: instead of binning clothes, you recycle them by sending direct to charity shops or putting in the big recycling bins in car parks. You probably assume they will be hung up and sold. But, no, this only applies to about 10% as we are very choosy about what we buy, even from a charity shop. There is a process known as material-to-material recycling, with waste clothes either turned into new clothes or other textile items. Cashmere can be turned into suits or smaller garments; old wool jumpers can be turned into carpets. Good, you may say, but currently only about 1% of used clothing follows this path. Some polyester is recycled into garments, but most of the plastic-based recycled clothes comes from plastic bottles not old clothes. A large percentage of clothes sent to charity ends up going to the third world to increase their huge landfill sites, this is just sending the problem elsewhere and using fuel to do it. 

Recycling is also complicated by the fact that garments are very rarely made of a single textile, but a mixture of natural and other synthetic materials which cannot be used. 

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Something needs to happen to reduce our current consumption of clothing. A difficult conundrum. If you opened your wardrobe door, can you honestly say you wear regularly all that is hanging there? Most of us have favourites, and researchers have found that about 12% of the average wardrobe is inactive. 

If you care about the environment, think before you buy: is it made of totally recyclable material, and will I get a lot of wear out of it or will I be tired of it in a few weeks or months? Lastly, do I really need it?

For more information contact: WI House, Brunswick Square, Gloucester, tel: 01452 523966; thewi.org.uk