Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability Contents

4Textile waste and collection

104.Our fashion consumption is causing a waste problem in the UK and other countries. The sector is becoming more resource efficient, as we discussed in Chapter two, but it still operates on a linear model of ‘make, use, dispose’.231 We buy more clothes per person in the UK than any other country in Europe,232 five times what we bought in the 1980s, according to some estimates.233 UK citizens discard around a million tonnes of textiles per year.234 Charity shop donation rates are high, but around three hundred thousand tonnes of clothing still ends up in household bins every year with around 20% of this going to landfill and 80% incinerated.235 Clothing that enters the municipal waste stream generally becomes contaminated or damaged, losing its reuse or recycling value.236

Key facts & figures on textile consumption and waste

Consumption of new clothing is estimated to be higher in the UK than any other European country–26.7kg per capita. This compares to 16.7kg in Germany, 16kg in Denmark, 14.5kg in Italy, 14kg in the Netherlands and 12.6kg in Sweden.237

Using HMRC figures, it has been estimated that 1,130,000 tonnes of clothing was purchased in the UK in 2016, an increase of almost 200,000 tonnes since 2012.238

A one pence levy on garments produced for sale in the UK could raise around £35 million for investment in clothing collection points, sorting and recycling.239


105.Increasing garment lifetimes is one of the most effective means of reducing their environmental footprint. Extending the life of clothing by an extra nine months could reduce carbon, waste and water footprints by around 20–30% each.240 Academics at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion argue that carbon emissions and demand for water can be reduced through developing clothing maintenance skills, enhancing an appreciation of material qualities, and a ‘habit of mind’ that prefers existing items to new ones which then acts to slow cycles and volumes of consumption (Craft of Use).241 Professor Dilys Williams says that the practical skills associated with repair, including of clothes, should be mandated as part of the national curriculum at Key Stage 1, 2 and 3.242 The Centre also recommends increasing opportunities for apprenticeships and training in technical and craft skills for textile and garment production.243

Craft education

106.The role that schools and colleges could play, both raising sustainability awareness and fostering the skills and habits necessary to create, mend and care for clothes was highlighted by many of the contributors to the inquiry.244 Many people currently lack the skills, ability or confidence to create, repair or alter clothing and want to gain them, according to Professor Tim Cooper.245 We heard anecdotal evidence about the prevailing throwaway culture. Dr Sumner recalled a conversation he had overhead amongst his fashion students:

They are designers who spend all of their time working in the design studio with a sewing machine and a needle and thread and everything. One of the students said to her friend, ‘I have to go down to Trinity Shopping Centre to buy a new coat. A button has fallen off my coat’. That is one example, and it is a very bad example but there are real challenges around that whole thing about repair. There is definitely a niche where repair and making your own garment is important. I suggest it is quite a small niche in relation to mainstream, and what we are seeing is more and more people just thinking, ‘You know what, I am going to buy a new outfit because I can’t be bothered to fix it’ or, ‘It is so cheap to buy the outfit I am going to do that’.

107.The Clothing Sustainability Research Group at Nottingham Trent University argued that policy measures were needed to encourage routine clothing maintenance and fabric reuse. It recommended that:

108.TRAID argues that social responsibility should be encouraged through sustainable education initiatives which give the public the information and skills to understand the real social and environmental cost of consumption of cheap clothes. TRAID has been helping local authorities deliver educational activities to thousands of residents, as well as teaching practical repair skills.247 The up-cyclers collective Waste Not Want Not warned that textile education was being neglected in schools:

UK undergraduate and postgraduate fashion and textile education is recognised as being the best in the world, yet these subjects are not really valued in schools. This needs to change and alongside that sustainability and waste issues need to be covered at all levels to raise awareness.248

Reusing second hand clothes and upcycling

109.An increase of 10% in second-hand sales could deliver environmental benefits, cutting carbon emissions per tonne of clothing by 3% and water use by 4% water, WRAP estimates, if it extends garment life by 50%.249 The charity suggests that providing opportunities for resale in places where new sales take place can make it easier for customers to extend the life of their unwanted garments. However, it warns that the scope to increase second hand sales is limited. Although more take back schemes and availability of second hand clothes in mainstream stores could increase second hand sales, WRAP warns that the ‘number of new garments that they are expected to displace is limited and so the savings potential is low’.250

110.The UK has a growing community of artisans, crafters and micro-businesses who ‘up-cycle’ old, damaged and discarded textiles. Jane Grice created the Waste Not Want Not Facebook group as a networking platform for upcyclers. It now has around 7,500 members of whom 3,270 are resident in the UK. She surveyed its members in August 2018 and submitted their views to our inquiry. Their submission describes the barriers that upcyclers face when trying to access waste clothing from charity shops:

Many [up-cyclers] source materials from charity shops and a few have succeeded in persuading charity shops to set aside damaged or lightly soiled items for them rather than automatically sending them to the ‘ragman’. However often such items are never made available to the up-cycling community. Instead they are bagged up and reserved for textile reprocessing (the ‘ragman’), which usually means wearable clothing is sent abroad to be sold in developing countries and the rest is shredded or incinerated.251

111.Members of the group said there should be a new approach to dealing with post-consumer fashion. They argued for ‘regular kerbside collection of clothing waste (nationwide, co-ordinated with councils), which could be operated by local charities or textile recyclers’252 and called for the creation of Regional Textile Sorting Centres. At these centres items would be graded according to their resale potential. They wanted more tip shops and scrap stores to allow upcyclers more access to used fabrics.

112.Oxfam said that some Local Authorities have encouraged the establishment of recycling centres, for example at supermarket car parks and operate kerbside collection schemes to make disposal of clothing easier. It said that the availability of kerbside collection of clothing doubled since 2002 to over 30% of households, but is still less than half of that for other recyclables such as glass and plastics.253 In London only 11 of the 33 boroughs offer kerbside textile collection for recycling and reuse.254 The Textile Recycling Association estimate that there are approximately 15,000 kerbside clothing banks for the whole of the UK.255

Pre-consumer waste

113.Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fabric are wasted at the design and production stage before clothing reaches the customer. When garments are cut out as patterns, for instance, as much as 15% of the fabric can end up on the cutting room floor.256 The designer Phoebe English explained:

For those of you who are not familiar with the production process of a garment, you have your flat fabric laid out on the table, you have your pattern pieces—your sleeve piece, your front piece and your back piece—you lay them on the fabric, you cut around your pattern piece, you get your garment pieces and you put them together, but you are left with waste fabric. If you imagine every shop on Oxford Street and every garment that is hanging on a hanger in those shops … then imagine that the space around that garment, every single garment, is waste.257

114.In 2016, this supply chain waste for clothing in active use in the UK was estimated at over 800,000 tonnes compared to just under 700,000 tonnes in 2012.258 This increase is driven primarily by the increase in clothing consumption. Around 440,000 tonnes of supply chain waste arises during preparation of fibres to make yarn and during garment production, most notably in China and India. The amount of waste varies by fabric and fibre type.259 Some designers, such as Mark Liu and Phoebe English, are experimenting with zero waste pattern cutting techniques in which the garment pieces are designed to fit together like a jigsaw so that nothing is wasted when they are cut.260

115.Phoebe English highlighted legislation in New York State as an example of how to deal with pre-consumer waste.261 Businesses there are required by law to separate and recycle or repurpose all textile waste including fabric scraps, clothing, belts, bags, and shoes if textiles make up more than 10% of their waste during any month.262 This has led to the creation of organisations like FABSCRAP and HELPSY which collects bags of excess fabrics and scrap fabrics directly from fashion studios on a weekly basis around New York.

Textile collection

116.Charity shops are currently the UK’s main clothing collection infrastructure. The UK has one of the highest collection rates of used clothes in the world (per head of population) according to the Textile Recycling Association.263 Around 650,000 tonnes of unwanted clothing is collected annually from charity shop donations, door-to-door charity collections, car park clothing banks, school collections, high street take-back schemes and kerbside collection. TRAID said that the UK’s 11,000 charity shops diverted over 330,000 tonnes of textiles from landfill in 2017 and helped reduce carbon emissions by millions of tonnes a year by reusing and recycling second-hand clothes.264

117.The supply of clothing entering the used market has increased in recent years, according to Dr Sumner. However, this is not being matched by an increase in demand. Of the volume collected, about 30% is sold in the UK (e.g. through charity shops, online sales, vintage shops, etc).265 The majority of the remainder is exported for re-use either in Africa or Eastern Europe.266

118.A handful of countries currently account for the majority of all used textiles collected. The USA is the biggest exporter, accounting for approximately 15% of all exports, followed by the UK and Germany, which both export around 10% of all used clothing.267 Existing markets would not be able to cope with the increase in supply of used clothing that would result from countries like China matching the consumption, disposal and collection rates seen in the UK. The Director of the Textiles Recycling Association Alan Wheeler told us that:

We are seeing China move really rapidly into this market. In 2010 it accounted for something like 0.88% of all global exports of used clothing. It now accounts for 6% and is the fourth largest exporter in the world. There is only one thing that is going to happen to the Chinese market and that is it is going to become the dominant factor. […] My estimate is that if China in, say, 20 years down the line were to be collecting half as much as the average British person does, the entire size of that market from China would be the same size as the current global market. We have to start seriously planning what to do with the stuff that is coming on to the market.268

119.The oversupply of used textiles has already devalued the used garment market, helping to push some textile recyclers into bankruptcy.269 It has also lead to an increase in clothing waste exports to developing nations. There may be negative long- term impacts of this on the cultures and textile industries of these nations.270

Stock burning

120.In 2018, the British luxury brand Burberry faced a storm of criticism when it revealed in its Annual Report for 2017/2018 that:

The cost of finished goods physically destroyed in the year was £28.6m (2017: £26.9m), including £10.4m of destruction for Beauty inventory.271

This led to it being reported in July that the retailer had incinerated unsold clothes, accessories and perfume to protect its brand and prevent unwanted stock from being sold cheaply. The BBC reported that the total value of goods it had destroyed over the past five years was more than £90m.272 Burberry initially defended the practice saying that the energy generated from burning its products was captured, making it environmentally friendly. However, in September, Burberry pledged to end the practice and said it will reuse, repair, donate or recycle all excess stock.273

121.The journalist and author Lucy Siegle wrote at the time the story broke:

… there are 101 processes that go into making a garment, from harvesting plants for raw fibre, to the processing and finishing of textile yarns involving thousands of litres of water. There are hundreds of hours of human labour too. Similarly, high-end cosmetics are a drain on resources in terms of both raw ingredients from the natural world and processing. To input all of these resources and then to squander them by burning (recovering only a tiny proportion of that energy) is pure madness given the backdrop of ecological emergency that we face.274

122.While incineration of unsold stock ‘recovers’ some energy from the products, it multiplies the climate impact of the product by generating further emissions and air pollutants that can harm human health. Incineration of clothes made from synthetic fibres may release plastic microfibres into the atmosphere. Climate changing emissions will have been generated when the products were created and more CO2 will be produced when they are burnt. The waste hierarchy suggests that reuse and recycling comes first. This should be a priority means of dealing with unsold stock. Incineration should only be used as a last resort where there is a health and safety case for destroying the stock. The Government should ban incinerating or landfilling unsold stock that can be reused or recycled.

Take-back schemes

123.Clothing companies are not yet required by legislation to take responsibility for end of life recovery of the products they put on the market place, unlike electrical and electronic goods.275 There have been a number of voluntary garment recovery initiatives. Some brands have used passive approaches to encourage recycling by providing garment recycling bins in their car parks and stores. Others have employed proactive clothing take-back schemes. These schemes encourage consumers to deposit old clothing in the brand’s stores, which is then donated to a charity or sold to recyclers. For example, Marks and Spencer and Oxfam launched a ‘shwopping’ take back scheme which has collected some 20 million items since 2008. Other companies, including H&M, Zara and John Lewis, have started or are planning garment recovery schemes. Financial incentives have been used to encourage donations, through cashback vouchers, and these have been relatively successful.276

Extended Producer Responsibility for textiles

124.During the inquiry we heard a number of calls for clothing producers to take responsibility for fabric waste.277 WRAP says there needs to be more leadership from the UK Government to achieve a step change in the sustainability of the clothing sector. It says the Government should consider an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme for clothing in the published Resources and Waste Strategy.278

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a policy approach where producers are given responsibility–be it financial and/or physical–for the treatment or disposal of products they put on the market. Assigning such responsibility provide incentives to prevent waste at source, promote eco-design and support the achievement of public recycling and materials management goals.279 In the case of clothing, a levy on clothing sales as part of an EPR could be used to support UK collection, sorting and processing of clothing, R&D into new recycling processes.280

125.France introduced an EPR scheme for clothing in 2007 making clothing, linen and footwear companies responsible for the management of their end of life products.281 The scheme has nearly trebled clothing collection points from 15,621 in 2011 to nearly 42,000 by 2016 and collection rates have increased by more than 50%.282 In 2009, France was collecting 1.9 kg of discarded clothing, linen and footwear per person per year. By 2016 this had climbed to 3.2kg.283 Over 90% of the items collected are reused (59.4%) or recycled (31.8%) and 97% of retailers in France are legally compliant.284 The new sorting centres created by the scheme have provided 1,400 full time jobs, with 49% going to people facing employment difficulties.285

126.Dr Sumner expressed scepticism about the French EPR, saying:

… it is a tax on the retail and brand environment, and I think before EPR is considered we need to be thinking about the consequences of it. It does bring in income, but one of the things that the Government should be thinking about is more municipal waste and kerbside collections. Should there be more work done in terms of providing the systems and the infrastructure for recycling of textiles and other materials?

127.The textile recycling company Parker Lane Group argued that an EPR would have a number of benefits:

It estimates than an ERP levy of 1p per garment could raise over £35 million in a year to improve textile reuse and recycling in the UK:

Levy on goods produced:

Clothing created for UK sale per year




1p per garment

5p per garment

Amount of clothing sold






amount made nut not retailed 5%*






Total Revenue



*Doesn’t include shoes287

New Resources and Waste strategy

128.The Government published Our Waste, Our Resources: A Strategy for England, on 18 December 2018, its ‘blueprint for eliminating avoidable plastic waste over the lifetime of the 25 Year Plan, doubling resource productivity, and eliminating avoidable waste of all kinds by 2050’.288 The Government says that packaging reform is its immediate priority and the key measure announced in the strategy is a proposal to make manufacturers and businesses pay the full cost of recycling or disposing of their packaging waste through an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme. The new resources and waste strategy also promises to review and consult on measures, such as EPR and product standards, for five other waste streams - including textiles - by the end of 2025:

Defra says that it plans to complete two of these by 2022 but it does not specify which two.289 The strategy also promises to review whether Local Authority run Household Waste Recycling Centres could have their role extended to support textile collection by 2025. However, the strategy also notes that Local Authorities are ‘under pressure to make savings to their waste management budget, and many are looking to achieve this by reducing opening times of Household Waste Recycling Centres or by introducing charges for non-household waste items’.290

129.The Government’s previous waste and resources review published in 2011, Government Review of Waste Policy, stated that ‘we will review the case for restrictions on sending other materials to landfill over the course of the Parliament, including looking specifically at textiles and biodegradable waste.’291 This review does not appear to have ever been completed and no restrictions are in place to prevent textiles ending up in landfill. When we asked the Minister about it she had no awareness of the previous strategy regarding textiles and was not sure whether the review had been carried out. She said:

Q483: Kerry McCarthy: …can I ask about the 2011 Waste Strategy? That promised that a review would be carried out into whether restrictions should be placed on textiles going to landfill. Did that review ever happen?

Dr Thérèse Coffey: Not to my knowledge. I am not aware that it has been brought to my attention.

Q.484: Kerry McCarthy: Isn’t it normal practice, when you come up with the latest strategy, to look at the last one and see what was done and what was not done as part of that?

Dr Thérèse Coffey: I am aware that the amount going to residual house waste is falling in terms of tonnage and the amount that is collected for reuse or recycling is increasing. We do have set aside, as part of one of the areas we are going to investigate, extending the extended producer responsibility regime.292

130.Our desire for fast fashion, fuelled by advertising, social media and a supply of cheap garments, means we are disposing of over a million tonnes of clothes every year in the UK. Under the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the UK is committed to ‘to ensure sustainable consumption and production’. We need to reduce the environmental footprint of the UK’s textile production and consumption. To do that, we need to reduce textile waste, improve resource efficiency and reduce the carbon emissions and water footprint of the clothes we buy. We need to simply buy less, mend, rent and share more. To support this we recommend that lessons on designing, creating, mending and repairing clothes be included in schools at Key stage 2 and 3. The creative satisfaction of designing and repairing clothing can offer an antidote to the growing anxiety and mental health issues amongst teenagers. As well as providing a space to promote creative expression, the skills learnt can also provide a potential pathway towards job opportunities.

131.The Government must end the era of throwaway fashion. It should make fashion retailers take responsibility for the waste they create by introducing an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme for textiles and reward companies that take positive action to reduce waste. A charge of one penny per garment on producers could raise £35 million for investment in better clothing collection and sorting in the UK. This could create new ‘green’ jobs in the sorting sector, particularly in areas where textile recycling is already a specialist industry such as Huddersfield, Batley, Dewsbury and Wakefield in West Yorkshire. The Government’s recent pledge to review and consult on how to deal with textile waste by 2025 is too little too late. We need action before the end of this parliament (2022).

132.The Resources and Waste strategy should incorporate eco-design principles and offer incentives for design for recycling, design for disassembly and design for durability. It should also set up a new investment fund to stimulate markets for recycled fibres.

231 WRAP (SFI0050)

232 European Clothing Action Plan, Used Textile Collection in European Cities (March 2018)

233 Textile Recycling Association (SFI0013)

236 Dr Mark Sumner, University of Leeds (SFI0026)

237 European Clothing Action Plan, Used Textile Collection in European Cities (March 2018)

241 Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London College of Fashion (SFI0034)

242 Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London College of Fashion (SFI0034)

243 Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London College of Fashion (SFI0034)

244 ECO AGE LTD (SFI0075); TRAID (Textile Reuse & International Development) (SFI0010); WASTE NOT WANT NOT - Artisans and Crafters Facebook group (SFI0014); Professor Tim Cooper (SFI0049); Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London College of Fashion (SFI0058)

245 Professor Tim Cooper (SFI0049)

246 Clothing Sustainability Research Group, Nottingham Trent University (SFI0049)

247 TRAID (SFI0010)

248 Waste Not Want Not (SFI0014)


252 Waste Not Want Not (SFI0014)

253 Oxfam (SFI0087)

254 London Waste and Recycling Board (SFI0022)

255 Email from the Director of the Textile Recycling Association to committee staff (10 Jan 2019)

257 Q87

258 Defra (SFI0047)

259 Defra (SFI0047)

260 Black, Sandy (editor) Sustainable Fashion Handbook (2013)

261 Phoebe English, (SFI0055)

262 New York City Department of Sanitation, Recycling for Businesses: Special Cases

263 Textile Recycling Association (SFI0013)

264 TRAID (SFI0010)

265 Textile Recycling Association (SFI0013)

266 BBC News, Where do your old clothes go? (February 2015)

267 Textile Recycling Association (SFI0013)

270 Clothing Sustainability Research Group, Nottingham Trent University (SFI0049)

271 Burberry, Annual Report 2017/18, p. 165.

275 Clothing Sustainability Research Group, Nottingham Trent University (SFI0049)

276 Dr Mark Sumner, University of Leeds (SFI0026)

277 Fashion Revolution (SFI0056); Parker Lane Group (SFI0094); Textile Recycling Association (SFI0013); WRAP (the Waste & Resources Action Programme) (SFI0050)

278 WRAP (SFI0050)

280 Textile Recycling Association (SFI0013)

281 Eco-TLC, 2016 at a Glance: Half-way results from the 2014–2019 accreditation agreement (2017)

282 Textile Recycling Association (SFI0013)

283 Eco-TLC, 2016 at a Glance: Half-way results from the 2014–2019 accreditation agreement (2017)

284 Eco-TLC, 2016 at a Glance: Half-way results from the 2014–2019 accreditation agreement (2017); Textile Recycling Association (SFI0013)

285 Eco-TLC, 2016 at a Glance: Half-way results from the 2014–2019 accreditation agreement (2017)

286 The Parker Lane Group (SFI0070)

287 Parker Lane Group (SFI0094)

288 Defra, Our Waste Our Resources: A Strategy for England (18 Dec 2018)

289 Defra, Our Waste Our Resources: A Strategy for England (18 Dec 2018)

290 Defra, Our Waste Our Resources: A Strategy for England (18 Dec 2018), p.74

292 Q483-Q484

Published: 19 February 2019