The UK's fashion industry is moving at a pace to reduce carbon emissions and water waste within its supply chains, although far slower progress is being made on research efficiency, new research from WRAP has concluded.
The organisation has this week published a progress report on its Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), which was founded in 2012 in a bid to help big-name fashion brands minimise their waste, water and carbon footprints while sourcing more sustainable materials.
More than 80 companies have signed up to the plan to date, according to the report, with signatories such as ASOS, Next and Primark having made “significant” progress towards its 2020 goals.
By selecting more sustainably-produced fibres such as cotton and viscose, SCAP signatories have reduced the lifetime water footprint per tonne of clothing they produce by 15%, against a 2011 baseline. This is the equivalent of 42,000 bathtubs full of water per tonne of product, according to WRAP, and means that the group has met its 2020 water savings goal two years early.
As for carbon reductions, the report notes that SCAP signatories have reduced their collective carbon footprint by 11.9%. Per tonne of clothing, this reduction is akin to a regular petrol car driving 24,000 miles, the report states, with signatories on course to overshoot the 2020 goal of a 15% reduction.
Signatories have also made moves to become more resource-efficient, such as redesigning their approach to pattern cutting or donating factory offcuts to be upcycled, the report states. However, the group’s collective waste footprint has fallen by just 3.5% over product life cycles since 2012, making this a key area where higher ambition is required.
“Compared with the wider sector, SCAP signatories 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,” WRAP director Peter Maddox said.
“As the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) inquiry into fast fashion has shown, there’s a lot more work to do on clothing and I believe that initiatives like SCAP have an important role to play.”
In a bid to drive further action on waste among SCAP signatories, WRAP has recommended that participating companies and charities undertake more thorough research into their waste footprints.
It is also urging SCAP signatories to begin developing recycling solutions for clothing and to encourage consumers to buy less, warning that the UK’s charity sector is at capacity for clothing reuse.
Fast fashion footprint
The publication of the progress report comes at a time when the UK Government is carrying out its first full-scale inquiry into the environmental and social impact of the nation’s fast fashion problem, which is beginning to pique public interest following the launch of documentaries such as The True Cost and Stacey Dooley Investigates Fast Fashion.
Carried out by the EAC, the inquiry has heard evidence from designers, academics, garment workers and green campaigners, in addition to representatives from luxury fashion, high-street and online brands.
Evidence heard to date has suggested that the buying practices of some online fashion retailers may be putting British clothing manufacturers in a position where they can only afford to pay garment workers illegally low wages.
Ministers have also heard much evidence surrounding the fashion industry’s waste problem, which has reached such a scale that 300,000 tonnes of clothing is now estimated to be landfilled every year.
The EAC’s own research recently found that UK residents are consuming new clothing at a faster rate than their counterparts in mainland Europe, purchasing an average of 26.7kg every year. The World Wear Project similarly estimates that the average household generates more than 35kg of waste clothing annually, with 85% being sent to landfill.
On a global scale, the fashion industry is now estimated to be producing more than 100 billion garments and 20 billion shoes per year. The sector currently accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions and employs around one in every seven people worldwide, with the majority of employees being women working in garment factories.