First broadcast on 30 August 2021
In this episode, Tom Heap meets Aisling Byrne from clothing app NUW, a clothes-sharing app for people to put unwanted clothes into new hands and get the excitement of something 'new' in return.
From clothes to cars and buildings, all our new 'stuff' takes energy and resources to produce. If we want to cut down the use of high carbon materials like steel and cement then we need a new attitude. We need to think about sharing more and valuing what we have, we need products that are designed to last longer.
Tom Heap meets Aisling Byrne from clothing app NUW. Concerned about the impact of fast-fashion on the environment, she found that lecturing friends who loved fashion didn't change their minds or behaviour, so she's designed a clothes-sharing app for people to put unwanted clothes into new hands and get the excitement of something 'new' in return. It can stop the demand for brand new products at the top end and avoid landfill at the other end.
Professor Julian Allwood of Cambridge University expands on how much our desire for bigger and better is impacting on resources and how behaviour change needs to come sooner rather than later.
Listen now on BBC Radio 4
We asked Society Fellows Professor Jana Hawley from the University of North Texas, Dr Sonali Diddi from Colorado State University, Dr Mike Tennant from Imperial College London and Professor Sandy Black from the London College of Fashion to offer some observations on the potential of longer lasting consumer goods and changing where our raw materials come from in reducing carbon emissions. Their points take some of the themes of the programme a step further.
A fundamental problem for fashion goods is the very definition of 'fashion'. Defined: Fashion describes the social and temporal system that 'activates' dress as a social signifier in a certain time and context. In other words, fashion constantly changes. It is even said that fashion is the current (constantly changing) trend, favoured for frivolous rather than practical, logical, or intellectual reasons. Companies understand this, and their goal is to sell new ‘fashionable’ merchandise.
If we can learn to embrace and value style more than fashion, we are making progress. This will require companies to make high quality goods that last for years. A person can showcase their style with timeless items and supplement with bespoke accessories or rented special occasion garments.
Being able to identify quality is important. But companies need to start producing clothing that is of higher quality and a lack of home economics classes also means that consumers no longer know how to mend their clothing.
Research commissioned by the Waste and Resources and Action Programme (WRAP), a not-for-profit research and campaign organisation working with UK government, produced a report in 2012 Valuing Our Clothes that documented consumer practices regarding clothing and evaluated the carbon footprint of total UK clothing consumption at 38 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).
The report also found that keeping clothes in use longer before disposal has the following impact on carbon saving:
10% longer lifetime (i.e. 3 months longer) 8% (3 Metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e))
33% longer lifetime (i.e. 9 months longer) 27% (10 MtCO2e)
The research also found that around 30% of clothing in people’s wardrobes has not been used for at least a year, often because they no longer fit – and this is very relevant to the NUW business model and other sharing/reselling sites.
Potentially the packaging used, transport, and laundry behaviours. Transport is one of the biggest contributors of carbon emissions in alternative business models such as NUW.
The fashion industry and specifically the fast fashion industry segment has changed consumers degree of 'wants' for new looks and new clothes. As a society we have yet to address the overconsumption of goods and resources, and platforms such as NUW or Depop do not specifically address this issue. NUW and similar business models may be helpful in extending the lifecycle of the garment, however, if the garments that are shared/swapped are made poorly with lower quality fabric, it is questionable about how sustainable this practice is.
There is little information about where these clothes end up after finishing its actual life - missing data points on end-of-life cycle.
Currently there isn’t an established secondary market for recycling and virgin material is often cheaper than recycled. In some cases, well-recycled material has the same quality as virgin (e.g. steel), but in some it's downgraded (e.g. coloured plastics) and loses value and utility ('downcycling' – e.g. waste glass being turned into road filling material)
There are significant barriers to recycling for some products. For example, waste feathers as a by-product of the poultry industry can act as an excellent insulator, but recycling them is difficult due to regulatory, technical, and financial barriers.
There are deep issues with identity and stuff in our 'hyper-consumerist' society, in that material wealth (the amount of stuff one has) is often perceived as a sign of personal worth (i.e. “look at my enormous TV and three mobile phones”). This norm is complex and not something that simple remedies will fix in a hurry – just telling people that it’s wrong to have so much stuff is not going to work!
Circularity – keeping materials in use for as long as possible, then returning them to the system for reuse - is often seen as the solution to the problems in fashion and sustainability, however this will not be successful alone, without a reduction in consumption, otherwise continually increasing consumption outstrips any environmental benefits.
Sorting out second hand baby clothes (Image: SkyLine/Adobe Stock)
Consumers must be encouraged to change behaviour, through education, storytelling, rewards, and incentives for sustainable behaviours, also businesses need to be incentivised and rewarded for actions that foster sustainability. One consequence of the pandemic was a remarkable drop in demand for new stuff especially in the fashion/clothing sector as social life was curtailed. Lessons can be drawn from this behaviour about the cultural and symbolic value of fashion as well as economic.
Research has shown that buying less certainly helps with reducing demand of unwanted clothing items. In the clothing industry the biggest impact after manufacturing is the consumer use phase. Buying less, and high-quality clothing reduces the environmental impact dramatically. However, on the other side, using less may not be ideal from a perspective of reducing carbon impact. By using less, consumers may keep the product for a long time, but discard quicker if the style/fashion changes which sometimes may end up in landfill. Buying high quality clothing may ensure brands are more responsible and accountable in the materials used and ethical labour practices.
Ultimately the consumer clothing budget can be reduced once they have established a high quality wardrobe that is timeless.
Workers in factories will be able to focus on production of high quality goods. Their worth is paid by production of quality rather than production of quantity that happens in so many of today’s factories, with pay based on the number of units produced each shift.
The stress of constant production of 'new fashion' will be reduced. This will impact the entire fashion supply chain.
When fewer garments are produced, there is a reduction in toxic dye runoffs, transportation emissions, use of harmful petro-products, use of herbicides and use of pesticides.
The notion of markdowns will need to change. It will not be about the 'sale' but instead about the building of wardrobes.
Consumers will engage their creativity as they learn to accessorise their basic, well-made garments.
Well-made clothing should be able to withstand hand washing and care, without the use of dry cleaning. Dry cleaning is also harmful to the environment. Companies often put 'dry clean only' labels on their garments to protect themselves. If consumers had better product knowledge, they would know that most silks and woollens are washable, you just have to do it the correct way based on the fibre.
If we buy fewer products we use less stuff, at least in the first instance. In a traditional ('linear') manufacturing model this should translate into environmental benefits as we’re extracting less virgin material (e.g. less oil for plastic, fewer trees chopped down, less digging for metals). The more we reuse and recycle means that less stuff is being thrown away, which should result in less pollution. Ideally there would be a host of environmental benefits, including benefits to biodiversity as we’re not digging up species’ homes.
The thing to note though is that this will likely have a negative impact on business models for those firms at either end of the value chain. Mining companies and waste collection companies will have less business. People in the least industrialised countries who make their living 'scavenging' off tips (essentially picking up our plastic bottles and selling them to a waste collector) could also be affected – how do they live if we don’t send them waste? Think of these as trade-offs – we have competing goals (e.g. environmental protection vs. shareholder returns) and one is thought to be more important than the other. But remember that trade-offs do not need to happen if a business thinks more ecologically about its products – creativity is essential when we think about sustainability!
Social costs may also be reduced if we extract less stuff from the Earth. For example, a lot of electronics rely on metals and minerals from conflict regions (e.g. coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo) – reducing what we use and being more efficient in how we use things reduces extraction and the opportunity for exploitation of the poor and of children. Again though, this is not a straightforward problem as this could be the only way for some people to earn a livelihood.
Reduction in demand on virgin resources.
Appreciation and valuing of items and their quality.
Significant reduction in waste.
Reduced overproduction and throughput of the clothing sector.
The Nuw model of sharing began with friendship groups to mimic natural behaviour of swapping/borrowing clothes. New social connections are made.
Reduce/abolish modern slavery: Opportunity to pay garment workers appropriate living wages which only marginally affects retail pricing, and create good jobs.
NUW have taken advice from WRAP and the London Waste and Recycling Board, and claim that for every garment borrowed/swapped instead of buying new, by keeping it in circulation 25% of the resources used in the production of a new item are offset. They aim to educate their membership about the positive effects of their sharing and swapping - as long as this replaces new purchases.
Buying less stuff will reduce revenue for retailers, therefore the (artificially) low prices of much high street fashion will have to increase, which is all about revaluing the materials and labour and other hidden costs that go into creating and making clothes. This entails a reversal of the ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of labour costs and locations that was so prevalent in the last decades.
Street sale (Image: Theastock/AdobeStock)
Swapping clothes could increase the desire to own a swapped product influencing consumers to buy some pieces. There is very little data to support this. While there are no studies, the working hypothesis is that consumers who swap or rent clothing do so to satisfy their need to look fashionable. Such models (e.g. swapping, renting) are more popular among younger consumers who cannot afford new clothing. Once these consumers grow in their income levels and careers, there is a strong likelihood that their buying frequency may be higher than an average consumer as swapping/renting are just a quick fix/band aid to the problem of overconsumption. The consumer segments of these alternative business models are fashion forward vs. sustainable consumers. So, the question remains, are the consumers (and businesses like NUW) are doing it for the right reasons - to be sustainable/promote sustainable consumer behaviour? How can businesses such as NUW use their platform to consume less and practice sustainable clothing consumption practices?
A significant argument against buying less stuff is economic. Consider a drill – allegedly only used on average for 10-20 minutes of its lifetime. This is an incredible waste of resources. Consider that the drill could be designed with this in mind and using it for considerably longer may require that the manufacturer upgrades it to ensure durability. This may increase manufacturing costs as more or different materials are used to make the drill more robust, or different designs are needed. Also consider that if a drill lasts longer, or is shared, fewer people will need one. The manufacturer and retailers will need to find different ways to make money. Some may move to selling services (e.g. a repair package), may change from ownership to lease (i.e. you never own a drill), or selling performance (e.g. a manufacturer would guarantee the number of satisfactory holes that you could drill – similar things have been done with Rolls Royce’s 'power by the hour' service). All of this takes money, resources and courage!
Without careful planning, job losses will impact workers at the bottom of the garment supply chain if orders are reduced without a holistic approach to increase fast fashion prices (and others) to a more realistic value.
A phased approach is needed to mitigate impacts and redeploy workers where necessary.
Without new recycling systems unsold resale items will still be disposed of eventually in inappropriate ways, having an environmental impact.
Black, S. (2012) The Sustainable Fashion Handbook, Thames and Hudson
Carbon Calories (2020) Emissions from the fashion industry, relying on McKinsey & GFA
Carbon calories (2020) Fashion: Cashmere Sweater
Carbon calories (2020) Fashion. Shoes: Running Shoes
Carbon calories (2020) Fashion: T-Shirt
Cooper, T. (2012) Longer Lasting Products: Alternatives to the Throwaway Society, Gower publishing
Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017) A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future
Marcketti, S.b. and Karpova, E.E. (2020) The Dangers of Fashion. Towards Ethical and Sustainable Solutions, Bloomsbury Publishing
Raworth, K. (2017) Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, Random House Business
WRAP (2012) Valuing our Clothes: the true cost of how we design, use and dispose of our clothing in the UK, Waste & Resource Action Programme (WRAP)
39 Ways to Save the Planet is a new radio series by BBC Radio 4 developed in partnership with the Society and broadcast in 2021. It showcases 39 ideas to relieve the stress that climate change is placing on the Earth. In each 15 minute episode Tom Heap and Dr Tamsin Edwards meet the people behind a fresh and fascinating idea to cut the carbon.
Over the course of 2021, the Society will be producing events and digital content to accompany the series.
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