Sarah Ditty is the global policy director of Fashion Revolution, a non-profit that aims to create a fairer clothing industry.
The environmental cost of the fashion industry has been widely reported. We can all see how harmful it is: according to research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, 19 pieces of clothing are made for each of the 7.8 billion people on the planet every year. But what's less well known is how clothes produce emissions during their life cycle. The Fashion on Climate report from management consultant McKinsey shows that about 20% of these emissions come from the way we wash, dry and care for our clothes. Research in the Marine Pollution Bulletin found that every wash load of synthetic garments can shed up to 700,000 microplastics into our waterways. Synthetic textile microfibers have even been found in the deepest parts of the sea.
Despite all this, four in five people own clothes they've never worn because they don't fit or need altering. UK charity Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) reports that some 350,000 tons of used clothing go to landfill each year in Britain. Yet, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, less than1% of textiles are recycled into new clothes. With so much environmentally damaging clothing being unnecessarily produced and discarded, the message is clear – the most sustainable garment is the one you already own. Wearing your clothes longer, washing them more mindfully and repairing them is a crucial way to address the climate crisis. WRAP says that keeping 50% of the clothes in the UK in use for just nine extra months reduces the combined carbon, water and waste footprint by 22% per ton of clothing.
Thankfully, as an antidote to fast fashion, there are a growing number of companies helping us make the most of our existing wardrobes. My favorite is Whering, an app that lets you catalog your wardrobe, plan outfits and track how much you wear items. I also love the Sojo app – it connects you with local tailors in London, books repairs in minutes, and collects and delivers your alterations. The Restory is similar but specializes in luxury shoes and handbags, while The Seam offers made-to-measure and customized clothing delivered to your doorstep. And more repair cafes are popping up in big cities.
The most commonly used solvent in dry-cleaning is perchloroethylene. It is a toxic air-pollutant that can irritate people's airways. Until recently, there were few options for environmentally friendly laundry products, but this is changing: both Attirecare's and Clothes Doctor's products are made with natural essential oils and come in reusable, zero-plastic bottles.
The clothing repair and reuse movement is gaining momentum. The UK's Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) surveyed people in 2020 and found that 28% were recycling or reusing more clothes than normal and that 35% of women intended to buy fewer clothes in future. I believe we will start to see even more fashion companies shift the focus of their marketing away from short-lived trends to the aesthetics of durability, longevity, quality and care. Not only is this the right thing to do in the face of the accelerating climate crisis, but considering that the market is clearly moving in this direction, it makes good business sense, too.