Switching to sustainable cotton has delivered more of the water and carbon improvements than any other actions

Switching to sustainable cotton has delivered more of the water and carbon improvements than any other actions

The UK-based Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) says that changes introduced by retailers and brands who have signed up to its Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP 2020) have helped improve footprint of the clothing they sell.

For five years, British retailers, brands and organisations from the re-use and recycling sectors have been measuring their progress towards targets under SCAP 2020; the voluntary agreement managed by WRAP to reduce the environmental impact of the UK's clothing sector.

WRAP's latest progress report for SCAP 2020 measures the impact of changes made by members against the four targets. These show significant impacts in reducing the water and carbon footprints by SCAP 2020 members:

  • Changes in the fibres used by signatories to SCAP 2020 commitment have saved as much water, per tonne of clothes sold, as a family of four each taking a bath every day for 29 years would use.
  • Changes since 2012 under SCAP 2020 have reduced the amount of greenhouse gases emissions, per tonne of UK clothes sold by signatories, equivalent to a car travelling around Britain's coastline six-times.
  • Waste reduction activities by SCAP 2020 signatories has saved the equivalent to 900,000 pairs of jeans (by weight) – enough for one pair each for everyone working on Christmas Day.

Selecting more sustainably-produced fibres from enterprises like the Better Cotton Initiative is significantly reducing the volume of water used in clothing sold by SCAP 2020 members. Water demand is a huge factor in the production of clothing from crop irrigation, manufacturing fibres through to dyeing. WRAP found that the total reduction in water-use during the lifetime of garments sold by SCAP 2020 members has saved the equivalent of 42,000 baths of water per tonne of clothing sold. 

The other significant saving is in carbon – greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) – over the lifetime of garments sold by SCAP 2020 signatories. Here the reduction per tonne of clothes sold is estimated to be the same as the amount of GHGs produced on a car journey of 24,000 miles.

However, despite the good progress against the water and carbon targets, WRAP says the waste target remains an area of concern. As a result, the charity has set out a series of recommendations that signatories need to address.

  • More retailers adopting a greater proportion of improved fibres, particularly improved cotton and recycled polyester.
  • More retailers adopting improved dyeing techniques and more efficient supply chain practices.
  • Achieve and capture evidence of reductions in waste in the supply chain.
  • Achieve and capture evidence of greater repair, resale and reuse of clothing in the UK.
  • Maintain or improve low temperature laundry behaviours.  
  • Ensure that clothing is kept out of the black bag.

WRAP has gauged the waste target by measuring re-use by signatories working in recycling and re-use, comparing progress from 2015 to 2017. It found a 1.1% increase in the proportion of clothing handled by these organisations that is now going to re-use. In terms of items of clothing, this small percentage rise is nevertheless the equivalent to 900,000 pairs of jeans getting a second life, WRAP says.

"I am delighted by what SCAP 2020 signatories have achieved. Compared with the wider sector they continue to set the bar high for improving sustainable practices," says WRAP director Peter Maddox. "And it's important that they do because while clothing might only be the eighth largest sector in terms of household spend, it has the fourth largest environmental impact behind housing, transport, and food.

"As the Environmental Audit Committee into fast fashion has shown, there's a lot more work to do on clothing and I believe that initiatives like SCAP 2020 have an important role to play. The public is getting increasingly concerned about the impact of clothing on the environment."