Josephine Copeland and her 20-year-old daughter, Jo, visited Primark at the Peacock Center Mall in the London suburbs, to buy presents for friends, but ended up loaded with clothes for themselves: boots, a cardigan, a festive blouse, and a long silver coat with synthetic fur trim, which cost ￡12 but looks like a million bucks. “If it falls apart, you just toss it away!” said Jo, proudly wearing her new purchase.
Environmentally, that is more and more of a problem.
With rainbow piles of sweaters and T-shirts that often cost less than a sandwich, stores like Primark are leaders in the quick-growing “fast fashion” industry, selling cheap garments that can be used and discarded without a second thought. Consumers, especially teenagers, love the concept, pioneered also by stores like H&M internationally, and by Old Navy and Target in the United States, since it allows them to shift styles with speed on a low budget.
But clothes—and fast clothes in particular—are a large and worsening source of carbon emissions contributing to global warming, because of both how they are produced and cared for. This is the conclusion in a new report from researchers at Cambridge University, titled Well Dressed?
The global textile industry must become ecoconscious, the report concludes. The document explores ways of how to develop a more “sustainable clothing” industry—seamingly, an oxymoron, in a world where fashions change every few months.
“People nowadays think a lot about green travel and green food. But I think we are a long way from there in terms of clothes. People are mad about those stores.” Said Sally Neild, 44, dressed in casual chic jeans and boots, as she pondered such alien concepts, shopping bags in hand.
It is hard to imagine how customers who rush after trends, or the stores that serve them, will respond to the report’s suggestions, namely, that people lease clothes and return them at the end of one month or season, so the garments can be lent again to someone else like library books and that they buy more expensive and durable clothing, which can be worn for years.
In terms of care, the report highlights the benefits of synthetic fabrics that require less hot water to wash and less ironing. It suggests that consumers air-dry clothes and throw away their tumble dryers, which require huge amounts of energy.
Consumers spend more than $1 trillion a year on clothing and textiles—an estimated one-third of that in Western Europe, another third in North America, and about a quarter in Asia. In many places, cheap, readily disposable clothes have displaced hand-me-downs as the mainstay of dressing.
“My mother had the same wardrobe her entire life,” Ms. Neild said. “For my daughter, styles change every six months, and you need to keep up.”
As a result, women’s clothing sales in Britain rose by 21 percent between 2001 and 2005 alone to about ￡24 billion, spurred by lower prices, according to the Cambridge report.
And while many people have grown accustomed to recycling cans, bottles and newspapers, used clothes are generally thrown away. “In a wealthy society, clothing and textiles are bought as much for fashion as for function,” the report says, and that means that clothes are replaced “before the end of their natural life.”
Dr. Julian Allwood, who led a team of environmental researchers in conducting the report, noted in an interview, that it is now easier for British consumers to toss unwanted clothes than to take them to a recycling center, and easier to throw clothes into the hamper for a quick machine wash and dry than to sponge off stains.
“Morally, we know more sustainable clothing is the right thing to do, but we are more and more convinced that commercially it is the right thing as well,” Mr. Barry said. In fact, marketing the “green” value of clothing, even if it costs a bit more, may provide an advantage over competitors.
Part of the problem is that neither manufacturers nor customers understand much about how and when clothing purchases degrade the environment, since these can occur anywhere from the harvest of cotton or the manufacture of synthetic fibers to how—and how often—the garment must be washed.
In their efforts to buy green, customers tend to focus on packaging and chemicals, issues that do not factor in with clothing. Likewise, they purchase “natural” fibers like cotton, believing they are good for the environment. But that is not always the case: while so-called organic cotton is exemplary in the way it avoids pesticides, cotton garments squander energy because they must be washed frequently at high temperatures, and generally require tumble-drying and ironing. Sixty percent of the carbon emissions generated by a simple cotton T-shirt comes from the 25 washes and machine dryings it will require, the Cambridge study found.
A polyester blouse, by contrast, takes more energy to make, since synthetic fabric comes from materials like wood and oil. But the upkeep is far more fuel-efficient, since polyester cleans more easily and dries faster.
Over a lifetime, a polyester blouse uses less energy than a cotton T-shirt.
The report suggests that retailers could begin to lease clothes for a season (just as wedding stores rent tuxedos) or buy back old clothes from customers at a discount, for recycling.
But experiments along these lines have faltered. A decade ago, Hanna Andersson, an eco-conscious American clothing company, tried offering mail-order customers 20% credit toward new purchases if they sent back their used garments. This “hannadowns” program was canceled after two years.
To cut back the use of carbons and make fashion truly sustainable, shoppers will have “to own less, to have less stuff,” Dr. Allwood said. “And that is a very hard sell.”
And so Marks & Spencer is thinking about whether its customers will be willing to change their buying habits, to pay more for less-fashionable but “sustainable” garments. After all, consumers have shown a willingness to pay more for clothes not made in sweatshops, and some are unwilling to buy diamonds because of forced labor in African mines.