Clothes recycling gets a dressing down

02 | 2019

Scrutiny of the sustainability of the fashion industry is set to continue this year, with recommendations from the Environmen­tal Audit Committee (EAC) from its inquiry into the issue due for publication in this month.

There was a flurry of activity ahead of Christ­mas on 18 December, when WRAP published the latest progress report from the Sustainable Action Clothing Programme (SCAP). It revealed that a target set to reduce clothing waste arising by the end of 2020 was going to be “extremely challenging” to meet.

Sustainable clothing action programme progress

SCAP is a voluntary agreement by businesses, reuse/recycling organisations and other stakeholders to reduce the use of resources in the clothing sector. Signatories and supporters represent around 60% of UK retail by sales volume. WRAP set up the agreement in 2012, setting targets for signatories to meet by the end of 2020.

The latest reported achievements of SCAP signatories, published in December 2018:

  • 11.9% reduction in the carbon footprint per tonne of garments against target of 15% by end 2020
  • 17.7% reduction in the water footprint per tonne of garments against target of 15% by end 2020
  • 1.1% reduction in waste per tonne against a target of 3.5% by end 2020

The report revealed that, despite good progress against the water and carbon targets, the waste target remains “an area of concern”. Against a target to reduce waste arisings across SCAP signatories by 3.5% by the end of 2020, latest figures showed that only a 1.1% reduction had been achieved.

The report noted data limitations and gaps: “Clothing distributed outside the UK, either directly by the charity or following transfer to another organisation, remains an area where there is not enough information. Additional work could be done to better understand what happens, but this is outside the scope of the SCAP data review.”

An additional target to reduce clothing sent to landfill by 15% by 2020 will be assessed this year. In 2016 signatories had already reduced this by 14%.

A positive was that signatories had already exceeded their water footprint target. Strong progress had also been made on carbon reduction, but this target may not be met without further improvement actions.


 Peter Maddox, director at WRAP, said: “Compared with the wider sector, the signatories continue to set the bar high for improving sustainable practices. And it is 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.

“There is a lot more work to do, and initiatives like SCAP 2020 have an important role to play. The public is getting increasingly concerned about the impact of clothing on the environment.”

The report’s recommendations to cut the carbon footprint of clothing include:

  • More use of recycled fibres, including mechanically recycled polyester and chemically recycled nylon
  • Increasing the number of garments sold directly for second hand in the UK
  • Looking into new business models such as clothing hire, repair services and piloting or implementing these where possible
  • Closed loop recycling of garments either using chemical or mechanical processes.

This was the same day that Defra published its resources and waste strategy, which identi­fied textiles as one of five ‘priority’ waste streams for it to consider putting under an extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime. The strategy said that, by the end of 2025, the Government will have reviewed and consulted on measures such as EPR and product standards for five new waste streams, two of which ”we plan to complete by 2022”.

It added that Whitehall would continue to look at supporting voluntary industry action “as well as the role of wider policy measures to support reuse and closed-loop recycling to reduce the environmental impacts of clothing”. It recognised the impact of so-called fast fash­ion, highlighted by the EAC’s inquiry, and the statistic that, in 2015, 300,000 tonnes of cloth­ing ended up in the UK household residual waste stream, going to landfill or incineration.

The strategy said: “We want to address this, in line with the ‘polluter pays’ principle. As we consider policy proposals for the environmen­tal impacts of clothing, we will give particular attention to fast fashion as we consider an EPR for textiles.”

It added that it would “consider how to boost collections for clothing, including encouraging further charity sector action, as well as explor­ing separate collections by local authorities”.

Also on 18 December, the EAC held a final hearing for its inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry, where it called on wit­nesses including the minister for resources, Therese Coffey.

Picking up on the strategy’s promise to review and consult on an EPR for textiles, MP Kerry McCarthy asked when this work would start and how far up the priority list textiles would be.

Coffey replied: “There is that risk [that tex­tiles would be the fifth waste stream it looks at] but…my feeling is that I would like to be able to at least start the work before the end of 2019. I am not a great believer in announcing that you are going to do something and then not do it for another 10 years, but we need to keep on with the work that is doing well, on things like more retailers joining SCAP.

“There are a number of things such as the way that manufacturers start to design their products. When we consider that and how we then extract resources from existing textile material, then we will be able to start to, in effect, make it more worthwhile to get those products, take the fibres and put them back into circulation for future production.”

McCarthy asked if looking at a ban on tex­tiles going to landfill would be part of the forth­coming consultation, something she pointed out was promised in the 2011 waste strategy as an area of review but never materialised. Coffey said she had no knowledge that such a review ever took place, and referred to the more general pledge made by the current Govern­ment for zero avoidable waste going to landfill by 2030.

She added that textiles would be included within the wider work on improving provision for householders to recycle materials via kerb­side and recycling centres, and that there would be funding available to facilitate this.

Coffey explained that textiles is a complex waste stream, and there is currently not good enough data to understand what people do with their clothing once they are finished with it, whether it accumulates in homes or is sold, recycled or thrown away – she said that sam­pling surveys gave only an indication.

She revealed that WRAP was also investigat­ing “what more we can do to treat the products we have in slightly different ways, so that we can bring the fibres out and put them into recy­cling. It may not be recycling directly back into clothes but getting out valuable materials”.

Previous witnesses to the inquiry from within the fashion sector had suggested using the tax system to incentivise reuse – such as VAT relief for repairs. But Coffey batted away such suggestions as being a matter for the Treasury, adding that she was not aware of any discussions within the Government to use tax incentives in this way.

Oral evidence given to the EAC inquiry

paul smith

Paul Smith, head of product quality and supply, Missguided

On producing ‘disposable’ clothing: “We do not encourage and we do not promote the use of our clothing as a one-off wear. There is a longevity and a quality built into our product that we have invested in.”

On take-back: “We have four stores in the UK, two fully owned, and we have just signed off [the use of] recycling points in those stores, so we will be able to take back clothing from any retailer and forward that on to [reuse and repurpose charity] Newlife.”

On fibres: “It is a lot easier to repurpose and recycle single fabrics from a natural origin. When you move to synthetics and blends, and throw some elastane in there, it becomes more complex. Definitely more research needs to be done into that area and that cannot be done by any one body. I think that is a collaborative approach.”

carol kane

Carol Kane, joint chief executive, Group

On influencing behaviour: “What we have been doing, and we have been doing this since the start of Boohoo, is ‘how to wear’ videos, demonstrating to customers how to wear things lots of times in lots of ways.”

On encouraging recycling and reuse: “We push downloading of the reGAIN app [offering discounts with recycling] from our site. It has 20,000 drop-off points in the UK, and we encourage our customers who have unwanted clothing to take them to one of these drop-off points. In return for that they get vouchers – it could be for clothing, holidays, household or whatever it happens to be.”

On driving more sustainability in fashion: “I see it from two [points of view], education and research: educating the consumer to be more sustainable. Post-WW2, I do not know of many new fibres that have come into the market. I would say initiatives [are needed] for us to go back to the research labs and develop new fibres that are more sustainable for the future.”

nick beighton

Nick Beighton, chief executive, Asos

On recycled fibre supply and demand: “I would take far more reusable fibre if I could; 5% of our garments are currently from recycled fibre. It is all right to have a take-back [scheme], but then dealing with it is quite hard. We have found two organisations that help us, but the scale of getting recycled fibre at the right quality is missing.”

On influencing consumer behaviour: “We use the power of social media to help guide and educate. Telling does not normally get the best response for our 20-something audience but guiding, education and informing do. We aim to use our social media to make people feel great about their purchases and know how to deal with them, care for the garments and also how to recycle their garments if they choose.”

On SCAP: “It has been useful for us, giving us a benchmark. I think that is something that needs a bit more traction.”


Article by Andrea Lockibie for MRW Magazine

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