Diverting clothes from landfill ‘could save £140m’

11 July 2012

By Gabriel Samuels

A third of all clothes bought in the UK end up in landfill, but if they were donated for reuse or recycling they could generate £140 million in revenue, according to a new WRAP report.

The ‘Valuing our clothes’ study provides the first ‘big picture’ view of the environmental impacts of clothing, incorporating both the financial and environmental aspects of its whole life cycle, from raw material and manufacture to purchase, use and disposal.

The WRAP study looks at the impacts of clothing
The WRAP study looks at the impacts of clothing

Key findings from the report include news that around 350,000 tonnes (31%) of used clothing out of a total of 1.13 million tonnes are sent to landfill. This is despite it retaining a commercial value, either as re-used garments or when recycled into wiping cloths, felts and other non-clothing uses.

Nearly half of adults surveyed also said they put at least some of their clothing into bins, usually because they think it couldn’t be used again for any purpose and are unaware of its value to charities and recyclers. As a result, WRAP suggests that more could be done by local authorities and other organisations to raise awareness.

The report found that 540,000 tonnes (48%) of used clothing is re-used, with more than two thirds of this being sent overseas. WRAP says this highlights a potential opportunity for more to be recycled in the UK, provided the quality of clothing produced and collected improves. The remaining 80,000 tonnes of used clothing (7%) is currently sent for incineration.

Other significant findings include:

  • The average UK household owns around £4,000 worth of clothes – but around 30% of clothing in the average wardrobe has not been worn for over a year, most commonly because it no longer fits. This unused clothing is worth £30 billion;
  • Extending the life of clothes by just three months of active use per item would lead to a 5-10% reduction in each of the carbon, water and waste footprints;
  • Two thirds of UK consumers buy or receive pre-owned clothes and there is a willingness amongst consumers to wear more such items, especially if a better range were available.

According to WRAP’s survey, in the past year:


• 73% of people have donated clothes to charity

• 42% have used charity doorstep collections

• 37% took clothes to textiles recycling banks

• 33% took clothes to HWRCs

• 21% have sold unwanted clothes online.

The report was unveiled this morning at the annual Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) conference in London by WRAP chief executive, Dr Liz Goodwin.

Dr Goodwin said: “This research clearly shows there are real financial and environmental benefits to be reaped from valuing our clothes more. By building on and encouraging the innovation already undertaken by collectors, re-processors, charities, retailers and local authorities, we can help protect precious resources, and save billions in the process”.

Solutions

The report goes on to outline a range of initiatives and possible solutions aimed at challenging attitudes towards the disposal of clothing. WRAP identifies several opportunities for retailers to enhance the lasting sales value of clothing, including establishing ‘buy-back’ schemes to provide an additional income stream, promoting repair and alteration services in store and increasing sales of high-durability garments to consumers.

To accompany the report, WRAP commissioned an investigation into five separate business models which would facilitate re-use of clothing at major retailers – including providing repair and upgrade services for their garments, initiating large-scale leasing and one-off hire services for consumers and peer-to-peer exchange. The results of this research are due for publication in the next few months.

Source: WRAP's 'Valuing our clothes' report
Source: WRAP's 'Valuing our clothes' report

Dr Goodwin said: “Not only does the report provide a fresh perspective on the environmental and financial impact of sensible clothes disposal, it also clarifies the ways in which we can get the most out of the clothes we purchase and the associated benefits for individuals and businesses.”

“If more quality clothing can be collected, re-use will increase. We don’t have all the answers, but the report aims to encourage awareness about the opportunities currently available to us.”

‘Huge potential’

Recycling minister Lord Taylor showed his support for the research, saying: “This report shows that there is a huge potential for both businesses and households to save money and the environment by thinking differently about the way we produce, use and dispose of clothes.”

“Used clothing has massive commercial value…making better use of our resources is integral to economic growth and building a strong green economy.”

2020 Commitment

At today’s SCAP conference, WRAP also outlined plans for a '2020 Commitment' which it is developing with organisations from across the clothing sector under the government's Sustainable Clothing Roadmap. Launched seven years ago, the clothing roadmap is co-ordinated by WRAP and aims to reduce the environmental footprint of clothing. To date, clothing organisations have reviewed the evidence for taking action and collated best practice. The 2020 Commitment is the next step. It is an agreed set of voluntary actions and collection targets based on the opportunities outlined in today's report.

This includes: Choice of fibre and fabrics; designing clothing to increase its useful life and reduce laundry impacts; working to increase efficiency and reduce footprint; providing consumer information on garment logevity and re-use, laundry practice and choosing clothes with a lower impact; increasing clothing collections, reuse and recycling rates; and, measuring and pursuing footprint reductions.

Related Links

WRAP clothing report

Commenting on the Commitment, Lord Taylor said: "I am very much looking forward to the exciting new wave of collaborative voluntary action - the new 2020 commitment.

"I encourage both existing and new members to sign up to the commitment as soon as it is ready. The top 10-20 clothing retailers have 50-60% share of the UK clothing market. We have many of them in the room today, as well as many other key players and influencers. So between us we can make real and impressive changes for the better."