Stats on a crisis: UK clothing waste facts & 7 ways to reduce it

Stats on a crisis: UK clothing waste facts & 7 ways to reduce it

Girl with pile of clothing waste

As interest in sustainable fashion has grown, the clothing sector’s uncomfortable relationship with waste has been increasingly in the spotlight. The facts and statistics about clothing waste in the UK have become better known in recent years, and yet textile waste levels have continued to grow.

It is estimated that 30% of unwanted clothing in the UK ends up littering landfills, furthering this, more than 60% of UK households claim to own unwanted clothing. With fashion already a large contributor to pollution levels around the world, how we dispose of the clothes we no longer wear is an important issue.

Both within the UK and globally, clothing waste has been steadily increasing over the last decade. However, there are solutions to fashion’s waste problem. Through re-examining our relationship with our clothes and engaging with circular fashion solutions we can create meaningful change.

The fashion waste statistics are shocking: annually, the world throws away an average of 92 million tonnes of textile waste. By 2030 this number is expected to swell to 134 million tonnes. These monumental amounts of discarded clothing are negatively impacting the natural world and costing consumers millions every year. There is no doubt that the world has a clothing waste problem.

What Happens to Clothing Waste?

Pile of clothing waste in landfill
Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

We have to understand what happens to the clothes we throw away to understand the environmental impacts that clothing waste creates.  A 2017 report found that 57% of the world’s discarded clothing is sent to landfill, a further 25% of global clothing waste is incinerated. Only 8% of items are re-used and just 10% are recycled.

Both incineration and landfill are options that don’t do any favours for the environment. Incinerating clothing creates greenhouse gas emissions and can release dangerous chemicals, gasses and microplastic fibres into the air.

Clothes sent to landfill don’t fare much better than their incinerated counterparts. They also contribute to the global carbon footprint. Landfills are also known to potentially leak dangerous chemicals and toxins into the surrounding environment.

Commonly used synthetic fibres containing plastic compounds can also release microplastics into the environment and can take hundreds of years to decompose.

The problem has got so bad that the Chilean government are now calling on the UK to stop clothes from Europe and the US being illegally dumped in the Atacama Desert. Mounds of these waste piles are burned causing an environmental disaster in Chile and way beyond.

When clothing is prematurely discarded and there is a cycle of constantly purchasing new items, the environmental impacts of the clothing industry are compounded. The fashion industry is one of the largest polluters in the world; buying new items increases the demand for its unsustainable clothing production. 

the UK’s Clothing Waste Crisis

In recent years, UK shoppers have been buying more clothes than the rest of Europe with an incredible two tonnes of clothing purchased every minute. The waste statistics reflect this increased consumerism mindset. One report found that over 300 thousand tonnes of clothing was thrown away with the UK’s household rubbish in just one year.

Too much shopping in the UK creating excess clothing waste
Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

As well as the shocking environmental cost of clothing waste, the levels at which we are throwing away clothing and apparel is taking a hefty toll on our wallets. It is estimated that annually the UK throws away £140 million worth of clothing. To put this number into perspective, this is the same as paying the UK average salary to over 5,000 people.

When it comes to clothing waste facts, the UK is clearly responsible for some troubling waste statistics, and current projections only foresee the UK’s clothing waste problem continuing to increase.  

Clothing Waste Facts and the UK’s Growing Waste Problem

Between 2000 and 2014 the number of garments bought per person increased by an average of sixty percent. In this same time frame clothing production doubled.

Without implementing changes to how we shop, how long we keep our clothes, and our mindset surrounding waste and the fashion sector, clothing waste levels are expected to continue growing.

A 2017 report found that three-quarters of consumers are more likely to throw away items than recycle them.

In the UK, clothing and textile waste has grown more rapidly than any other waste category over the past decade. It is a worrying trend. A 2017 report found that three-quarters of consumers are more likely to throw away items rather than recycle them. These unsustainable clothing disposal practices could be costing the UK £4.48 billion by 2050.

Fast Fashion and Clothing Waste

Textile waste is expected to increase by 60% between 2015 and 2030. Part of the fashion waste problem stems from the rise of the fast fashion sector and a shift in the consumer mindset towards a more disposable fashion industry.

Fast fashion and social media influence creating more clothing waste UK
Photo by Flaunter on Unsplash

The rise of fast fashion interlinked with a rise in social media use has made outfit repetition increasingly unpopular. Studies have found that young adults and teenagers feel pressured to wear a different outfit for every social occasion. 

This attitude of a constant clothing turnover is enabled by the fast fashion sector providing access to low-cost clothing that is often designed to be worn for a limited time frame. 

How Can we Reduce Clothing Waste?

There is no escaping the fact that the world’s current relationship with clothing waste is an uncomfortable one. The good news though, is that it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Changing our relationship with fashion to create a more thoughtful and considered approach to our clothing choices can help to improve the textile waste statistics of the UK.

1. Love Your Clothes Campaign

Love Your Clothes campaign
Love Your Clothes @loveyourclothes

Engaging with campaigns to create a more sustainable fashion sector is a key step in reducing clothing waste and in moving the waste trend in the opposite direction. The Love Your Clothes campaign encourages consumers to make sustainable choices and outlines ways to adopt a more sustainable approach, including tips for repairing items, donating and upcycling clothing. 

Launched in 2014, the campaign is part of the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), facilitated by Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP). SCAP works with stakeholders across the UK to create a more environmentally conscious fashion sector.

2. Sell or Donate Instead of Discarding

Selling or donating clothes that are still of re-saleable quality helps to extend the life of clothing and keeps them out of landfill.

Extending the lifespan of clothing by even a few months can make a significant difference to its environmental impact. As such, creating a culture of clothing sales or donation rather than disposal, creates a concrete improvement to clothing waste levels.

Donate

When donating clothing it is important to research the organisations that you are donating to and to make sure that you donate good quality clothing. It can be common for low-quality second-hand clothing that doesn’t sell in its donation country to be sent to developing nations.

While this has led to a booming second-hand trade in some areas, in other areas this clothing simply becomes waste that has been transferred from one country to another. 

Researching what an organisation does with its clothing donations means that you can be sure that your donation is making a real difference, not just ending up in another country’s landfills.

For hard to donate items like underwear, see our article on bra donation here.

Sell

For those of us wanting to make some extra cash, selling unwanted clothing is a great way to keep clothing from going to waste and can be good fun too. 

For some tips on how to sell and more creative ways to make sustainable clothing choices see our article on How to Build an Ethical and Sustainable Wardrobe. For where to sell see our article about Secondhand Treasures here.

3. Keep Clothes for Longer and Buy Less

When it comes to clothing waste, the fact is that the longer you keep your clothes and the fewer new clothes bought, the less waste is created. Moving away from the rapid consumerism of the fast fashion approach also represents a move away from the rampant waste of the fashion sector.

Keeping our clothes for longer and buying fewer clothes is one of the simplest, and yet most effective, ways to reduce clothing waste. By keeping our clothes for just nine months longer, the environmental impact of a garment can be reduced by up to 30%. And buying less is known to make us happier, see our article on that here!

4. Shop Second Hand

Buying clothes second hand
Photo by Becca McHaffie on Unsplash

Just as donating clothes to second-hand clothing platforms helps to reduce clothing waste, buying second-hand clothes also tackles this issue.

Extending the clothing lifecycle through engaging with the preloved market benefits the environment in a multitude of ways. Buying second-hand reduces the need for new clothing to be created. This, in turn, eliminates the environmental impact that would have been created to make a new garment.

Buying pre-loved clothing is a great way to save money and find unique styles. Of course, engaging with the second-hand market also stops quality clothing from becoming textile waste, supporting a conscious and circular fashion approach.

See our article on buying preloved clothes online here for ideas about where to buy.

5. Recycle

While not always a perfect system, recycling clothing instead of throwing it away helps to reduce fabric wastage. Recycling centres and schemes will often accept fabric of various qualities and materials, providing a viable alternative to disposing of used clothing items.

A quick search of ‘clothing recycling near me’ should give you the best recycling options in your local area. For those runners and trainer lovers out there, see our article on how to recycle running shoes for more info!

6. Take Back Schemes

Some clothing brands now offer take back schemes. These schemes encourage and facilitate consumers to donate old or unwanted clothing to brands that can then reuse or recycle the fabric.

Take back schemes help to promote engagement with a circular fashion sector. These schemes also limit clothing waste sent to landfill and minimise the need for the often environmentally harmful production of virgin fabrics.

Girlfriend Collective, Nudie Jeans, and M&S are just some of the brands that have implemented take back schemes.

7. Support Conscious Fashion Companies

Less-sign-in-window-to-reduce-clothing-waste-UK
Photo by the blowup on Unsplash

Clothing pollution is an issue that is ingrained in the fashion sector and needs multifaceted solutions. As well as used clothing, a large percentage of waste comes from the production stages, such as inefficient pattern cutting and excess fabric ordering. Clothing companies need to make changes at this level to improve waste levels.

Luckily, there are some great companies out there that are doing their part to help reduce fabric waste. By supporting and buying from companies that are taking active steps to reduce their waste levels you are casting a vote for a more sustainable fashion industry.

For more information on certifications to look out for, check out the section within our article on why sustainable and ethical fashion is important.

A Changed Mindset

There is no doubt that clothing waste poses a significant challenge in the modern fashion sector. With UK clothing waste statistics pointing towards the trend worsening in coming years, an industry-wide change is needed.

An attitude of conscious consumerism is vital to create a cleaner, greener, and fairer fashion industry. Whether you choose to support conscious fashion companies, engage with the second-hand market or simply limit your buying, engaging in a more circular fashion model is the key to fixing the fashion waste crisis.

After all, our clothing choices of today don’t have to become the environmental problems of tomorrow.

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