• Christine Schams
  • 25 February 2013

Do we care what we wear?

Fashion Week has just finished. Most of us do not take much notice of what is paraded on the catwalk but we generally do care about the clothes we wear, be it for work, fashion, function or status.

What about our clothes’ impacts on the environment? Do we care? Even if we did, it all seems too complicated with little reliable information available. 

Clothing constitutes a significant global industry, with high levels of consumption and long complex supply chains. Recent reports put consumption of clothing in the UK between 1 and 1.4 tonnes per year and estimate that 11% of an average UK household’s CO2 emissions are attributable to clothing and footwear. 

When discarded, most items end up in landfill, with only a small proportion re-used or recycled. However, the textile waste is not the only part of the environmental story. There are major impacts throughout the lifecycle – from the production of raw materials, through the often complex preparation and production processes to the consumer phase when we wash, dry and iron our clothes. 

The significant environmental impacts of clothing can vary a great deal with the material but include resource depletion, especially water and fossil fuels, climate change through emissions from high energy consumption throughout the whole lifecycle, toxicity through the use of chemicals (raw materials, production, washing), as well as the solid waste at the end of their life. 

In 2009 Levis commissioned the lifecycle assessment of a pair of jeans. The results indicated that for energy use and climate change the impact was largest in the consumer use phase. For water uptake, the impact was almost evenly split between the cotton production (49%) and the use phase (45%). Washing and drying of the jeans uses a large amount of energy, contributing significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. This is also true for the production of the cotton with the additional requirement of up to 29,000 litres of water per kilo of fibres. 

The impact of toxic chemicals in clothing production, particularly in the preparation and dying stages, is being highlighted by Greenpeace with its Detox campaign. The organisation is applying pressure on global clothing brands to eliminate the use of all toxic chemicals from the manufacturing processes in their supply chains. Nike, Adidas, Puma, M&S, H&M, C&A, Zara, Mango, Levi’s and Esprit have already signed up to the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals commitment. 

So what can we do? 

A first simple step towards achieving a large reduction of our clothes’ impact can be a reduction in the levels of consumption, thus stopping the negative environmental impacts occurring in the first place. Buying fewer but better quality products, wearing them for longer, and improving their care and maintenance reduce the impact by decreasing the demand for new items. Re-use and recycling also to some degree replace the need for virgin clothing. 

This approach can be applied to work uniforms in the same way as personal clothing. Decisions on the design, material, and quality of the uniforms will have an effect on how long they last and if they can be reused or recycled at the end. 

Bearing in mind Patagonia’s "don't buy this jacket" advertising campaign just before Christmas last year, it is simple to buy less and keep items for longer, letting them be re-used at the end. So if we care what we wear, it is possible to take some simple steps to substantially reduce the environmental impact of our clothes.