Fast fashion means giant UK waste problem but more is now recycled or sold on

The UK is discarding a huge amount of clothing every year, most of it not worn-out and potentially recyclable, a new report shows, with the fast fashion sector being blamed for creating the waste mountain.


Sustainability non-profit organisation Wrap said in its ‘Valuing our Clothes: The Cost of UK Fashion’ report that cheap fast fashion means people are buying many more items and not getting full wear out of them before they’re discarded.

But on the plus side, of the amount discarded, the volume actually being thrown away in household bins is falling with a cut from 350,000 tonnes in 2012 to 300,000 in 2015 (the last year for which figures are available). Of the more-than 1 million tones bought, some 320,000 tonnes was given to charities to be sold or recycled during the study period. And another 100,000 tonnes was exchanged between family and friends.

As well as heightened awareness of the need to recycle, the period since 2012 has also seen growth in the secondhand market with the UK population turning to websites like Freecycle, eBay and Gumtree. Wrap estimated that 50% of the population now buys secondhand clothes at some point.

As well as people selling clothes for money the group also highlighted the “growing use of online exchange sites… as well as parent and baby groups who often informally exchange clothing.”

It added that a typical piece of clothing has a life of around three years but this could be extended to closer to five years if more items were sold on. And a garment’s lifecycle could also be extended if there was more knowledge about how to repair clothing.

It said a decline in sewing skills is a problem with only 12% of people confident of altering a garment to make it fit better, 14% confident about replacing a pocket and 35% able to patch or darn a hole.


The carbon footprint of clothing sold has risen steadily despite initiatives such as successful campaigns to encourage people to wash clothes at lower temperatures that not only saves energy but creates less need for the use of irons and tumble dryers.

While such campaigns have saved around 700,000 tones of carbon dioxide since 2012, people buying more items at low prices has cancelled the benefits out.

Auction websites mean more unwanted fashion is now passed on rather than being thrown away
Wrap said clothing in the UK had a carbon footprint of 26.2 million tonnes of CO2 last year, up from 24 million. It also said the biggest offenders in terms of environmental impact were women’s dresses that created a large amount of fabric waste in their production, followed by women’s jeans, then men’s T-shirts and women’s knitwear.

Not all waste occurs at the end of the life of a garment with the body also blaming the processing and production phases for creating massive waste. In 2016, supply chain waste was estimated at over 800,000 tonnes in the countries where the fibres or fabrics are processed. Most of the garments sold in the UK are produced in Asia and most supply chain waste, around 440,000 tonnes, happens during preparation of fibres to make yarn and during garment production, notably in China and India.

The report also said that one of the biggest environmental issues is the large amount of water used to to make clothes with the vast amounts of water required to make individual items being a major problem in countries such as India and Pakistan that regularly suffer from water shortages.

The total water footprint of clothing in active use in the UK in 2016, including the water consumed overseas to make the clothes, was 8 billion m3 of water. The greatest quantity of water is used during the growing and production of fibres, although water is also used during colouration, fabric finishing and domestic washing.

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