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How we can treat clothing more sustainably

Updated Monday, 28th October 2013

Why some of the most effective ways to behave more sustainably may not be quite what you’d expect.

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Fair Trade clothing concept image with colorful cotton shirt Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: © Brooke Becker | Dreamstime.com

The media has a tendency to provide coverage of the socially unsustainable aspects of the fashion industry in preference to environmental issues. Understandably the public may therefore view the use of child labour and tragic accidents in factories as possibly the only issues in relation to sustainable clothing production. These are undoubtedly very important issues that deserve to be widely publicised. Such news stories could result in feelings of despair for consumers, making them frustrated by a lack of information about the conditions in which the products they purchase are manufactured and a feeling that they may have unwittingly contributed to these problems.

However, until it becomes a requirement for businesses to tell us more about the sources of the garments that they sell it can be very difficult for consumers to assess how to buy clothing more sustainably. A rarity among fashion brands is People Tree, a company that tackles social sustainability directly by revealing the manufacturers that make its products and using Fair Trade certification in addition to using only organic materials. This approach is referred to as the ‘triple bottom line’, a term originated by sustainability expert John Elkington to stress the importance of businesses addressing social and environmental sustainability, rather than just focusing on financial sustainability.

Since around 95% of clothing sold in the UK is imported (according to market research company Key Note) consumers may be concerned about the carbon emissions  produced by the transport and distribution of garments as they typically travel here from Asian countries by sea or air freight. However, the way in which we behave towards clothing after we buy it is considered to have a much bigger impact on the environment than its transportation does, according to a report from the University of Cambridge Institute of Manufacturing.

The way in which we launder clothes uses far more fossil fuels, usually consuming most of the energy in a garment’s lifecycle. Reducing washing temperatures, laundering clothing only when necessary and avoiding tumble drying can cut down a garment’s carbon footprint substantially, with the added benefit of saving money. Although buying garments  that are manufactured locally and made from environmentally fabric would be ideal, in reality they can be expensive and difficult to find, with the potential for this action to have a harmful effect on employment in developing countries.

As consumers, some of the main ways in which we can act more sustainably towards our clothes are to buy less of them, rethink our laundry habits and to dispose of them more carefully. We dispose of over two million tonnes of clothing and textiles in landfill sites per year in the UK, but we have the ability to reduce this substantially if we place more value on our clothes by making them last longer and recycling them at the end of their usable life.

Sources and further reading

This blog is part of the Institute of Social Marketing online sustainable clothing event.

 

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