There are currently enough clothes on Earth to clothe 6 generations, yet we are consuming at least 400% more than we did just two decades ago. The fashion industry tells us to “shop til we drop”, bombarding us with constant new products and surrounding us with images that tell us if we just buy this new top or that new dress then we’ll finally be happy. 

But this strategy of continuous growth means that the fashion industry emits around 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year; that’s more than the combined emissions from the global airline and shipping industries and about the same as the total emissions of the UK, France, and Germany!

And the worst part? About 40% of these clothes don’t even get worn! The average UK wardrobe contains 152 items, with 57 of them rarely or never worn. We’re all guilty of buying a new dress in the sale then finding it a year later, hidden at the back of the wardrobe with the tags still on! So what’s the answer? Time for a wardrobe clear out? 

Read on to find out more about the environmental impacts of our desire for the latest styles, whether renting our clothes is the future of fashion, and what you can do to green your wardrobe…

“There is no such thing as away. When you throw something away, it must go somewhere.”

Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA and creator of The Story of Stuff

Although up to 95% of all textiles can be reused or recycled, we send around 350,000 tonnes of clothing (worth £140 million) to landfill every year in the UK. And, unfortunately, even for those of us that are doing the responsible thing and donating our unloved items to charity, this isn’t the end of the line – only around 25% of donated clothes actually get sold in the shops. The remaining 75% are either sent for recycling or to landfill, or more often exported to countries in Africa and Asia. The massive amounts of clothing landing on their shores has decimated their native textile industries, and the associated waste is polluting rivers and soil. 

During lockdown, with the high street closed, online sales skyrocketed but this means that returns also increased, and this has hit the headlines as companies have been found to be landfilling and even burning returns rather than processing them for resale. Unfortunately, the realities and the scale of the system means this is often the cheapest and easiest solution. 

“Rental as a means to slowing down customer consumption and industry production is a great solution, but it has to be part of a system overhaul.”

Alice Wilby, Sustainable Fashion consultant

One concept that’s been lauded as a ‘green’ alternative to fast fashion is clothing rental. It offers that new clothes hit we all crave without the guilt of adding to the overconsumption problem. No wonder then, that the Guardian reported a 50% increase in users and posts on apps like By Rotation and My Wardrobe HQ last year. 

However, they have since published other articles questioning whether the rental industry is as sustainable as they would like you to think… A controversial study recently claimed that, due to dry-cleaning, packaging, and delivery, fashion rental companies were actually the least eco-friendly way of consuming clothing. This has since been questioned, with many people highlighting the difference between small-scale peer-to-peer rental services, and the big businesses buying in new stock just for rental. 

The question remains though – can a system that still encourages people not to rewear their clothes, and reinforces the idea that being seen twice in the same outfit is a shameful experience to be avoided at all costs, really be the solution to the fast-fashion crisis? 

But it’s not all bad news! 

Clothing sales dropped by a staggering 25% in 2020, the largest decline on record. At the same time, second-hand sales were on the increase with Depop seeing a 200% rise in traffic and eBay reporting a 1,211% increase in sales of preloved items. And it’s just not consumers who are waking up to the idea of conscious consumerism; Harpers Bazaar recently reported that brands are designing ‘seasonless’ collections and Gucci announced last year that they would be reducing their five annual collections down to two in “a return to the essential and getting rid of the unnecessary”.

“The whole thing of clothes is insane. You can spend a dollar on a jacket in a thrift store. And you can spend a thousand dollars on a jacket in a shop. And if you saw those two jackets walking down the street, you probably wouldn’t know which was which.”

Helen Mirren

And even more good news – Make do and Mend is back! There has been a noticeable increase in interest in mending, sewing, and upcycling – you only have to look on social media or on TV to see it. (Who watched the recent series of the Great British Sewing Bee?). Especially during lockdown, people have turned to sewing and crafts as a way to lift their wellbeing, with the environmental impact of prolonging the life of a garment just an added bonus. Repairing and upcycling is great news for the environment – extending the life of a single item by just 9 months reduces the associated carbon, water, and waste footprints by up to 30%.

Be Curious!

“It’s not about the dress you wear, it’s about the life you lead in the dress.” 

Diana Vreeland, Fashion editor
  • Use the Buyerarchy of Needs: take a second to stop and think before you shop and consider whether you really need the item at all, and before buying new try swapping, renting, buying second-hand or vintage, upcycling or making.
  • If you’re feeling in need of a refresh, try Nuw – the clothes swapping app for peer-to-peer swaps, or why not throw a clothes swap party with your friends and family. 
  • Do an audit of your wardrobe and keep track of what you’re wearing. There are even apps like Whering and Save Your Wardrobe available now that help you digitise your clothes – the perfect way to indulge your Cher from Clueless fantasy! 
  • Check out the Love Your Clothes website and social media for great tips on caring for and mending your clothes. 
  • Read the “A New Textiles Economy” report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation for loads more info on the environmental impacts of the fashion industry. 
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