Households in the UK throw away an estimated 300,000 tonnes of clothes and home textiles a year, most of which ends up in landfill sites and incinerators. This contributes significantly to individuals’ carbon footprints. According to the charity Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap), the annual environmental footprint of a household’s new clothing is roughly equivalent to driving a modern car for 6,000 miles, and filling 1,000 bathtubs with water.
Sustainability and recycling were in vogue at Paris Fashion Week, the epicentre of the fashion world, this year. It is apt, then, that the French government is leading the way in Europe with schemes intended to encourage an emissions-reducing circular economy for clothing.
Under its €154m repair fund, people will receive a direct subsidy of €6 to €25 towards the repair of an unlimited amount of damaged clothes and shoes. The repairs must be carried out at a mender or cobbler certified by Refashion, the eco-organisation behind the scheme. Elsa Chassagnette, head of the repair fund at Refashion, told Spotlight that the fund is “one of the levers in the fight against overconsumption”. Increasing public awareness of the damaging nature of fast fashion is at the heart of the scheme.
Clothing repair initiatives confront the reality that it is often more affordable and less time-consuming to buy new items from fast fashion companies than it is to shop more sustainably, such as at charity shops, or to fix broken clothing. Under the French scheme, consumers are saved both the expense and time of repairing their own clothes.
Tim Cross, director of Circular Textiles Foundation, a UK-based non-profit that helps companies to design fully recyclable clothing that can be converted into plastic pellets and remade into new clothes, said that “repair is going to be massive”. He believes introducing a clothing repair scheme in the UK could form a crucial part of the circular economy.
A circular economy would replace the fashion industry’s linear “buy, wear, dispose” model with a model of recyclability. Cross advocates for designers to “begin with the end in mind”, ensuring that their garments can continually be repurposed to avoid landfill and incineration.
Including fashion repair schemes in the circular economy perhaps seems counterintuitive – repair can only extend the life of non-recyclable garments, rather than convert them into something else. Yet in 2022 the consultancy McKinsey found that, across the European Union and Switzerland, fibre-to-fibre recycling systems could address 18 to 26 per cent of textile waste by 2030. The rest would continue to go to landfill without other repair and reuse schemes. In this sense, both fully recyclable clothing and repair schemes are necessary to tackle fashion waste.
[See also: The fall of fast fashion]
There are no specific UK policies on fashion sustainability. Cat Smith, Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood and a member of the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee, said: “I don’t think it’s a priority for Rishi Sunak and his government.” Speaking in a personal capacity rather than on behalf of her party, she added that the UK “can’t not have a policy on this”.
In 2019 the Environmental Audit Committee published a report called Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability. It called on the government to “end the era of throwaway fashion” by introducing an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme. This would put a duty on the producer to take accountability for the endurance and sustainable disposal of their products. This, and most of the committee’s other proposals, were rejected by the government.
But EPR “is probably about two years away from really hitting home” in the EU, said Cross. If UK retailers are to continue trading with the EU, they will have to adopt these forthcoming EU regulations, which would affect both businesses and buyers. Some brands already have repair built into their business models, such as Patagonia and Finisterre, which hold contracts with repair companies. It is now crucial for the government to hold all clothing retailers to these standards.
For an item to be successfully repairable, it must be designed to a high standard of quality to avoid “hasten[ing] a garment’s demise”, said Cross. The fast fashion industry does not value endurance, however; some items of clothing have an average of ten wears before they require repair. The Circular Textiles Foundation is pushing for legislation to be introduced that would mean clothing has to be designed for repair, recommerce and recyclability.
Increasing the quality of clothes comes at a cost, which further emphasises the importance of clothing repair funds and initiatives. The Environmental Audit Committee’s Fixing Fashion report recommended that lessons on “designing, creating, mending and repairing” clothes to be integrated into primary and secondary school curriculums. There was consensus among those who spoke to Spotlight that people in the UK are not well equipped to mend their own clothes. Instilling “old-fashioned skills”, said Smith, could encourage people to implement Refashion’s model of “emotional” clothing consumption. If we value our items more highly, we are more likely to extend their lives.
Chloe Anderson, fashion initiative programme manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity focused on the circular economy, said that there were economic as well as environmental benefits to reuse and regeneration. The charity’s 2021 Circular Business Models inquiry found that “rental, resale, repair and remaking” industries represented a $73bn market at the time and could be worth more than $700bn by 2030. Alongside this, the foundation believes such practices could “provide considerable greenhouse gas savings”.
At first glance, France’s clothing repair scheme may seem like a small and inconsequential step towards its net-zero goals and reducing in waste. But with the abundance of fashion designers and sellers who continue to create unrecyclable garments, repair is often the only way to prevent items from reaching landfill and incinerators. While one policy cannot fix a country’s waste issues, offering the public incentives to be more sustainable while increasing their awareness of reusability could be an important first step.