Owing to its high material intensity, the UK fashion ecosystem has a significant environmental and social footprint. Across the cradle-to-grave life cycle of all fibres in the UK, the fibre production stage is the most carbon intensive, closely followed by manufacturing24. Despite the growing attention being paid to the importance of the reuse and recycling of garments, 97% of fibres used in clothing production are virgin fibres, with 25-35% of these materials lost during manufacturing as supply chain waste25, 26. More than half of these losses occur during the preparation of fibres to make yarn and during garment production, for example in the form of offcuts27, further increasing demand for virgin fibres.
UK consumers’ high demand for new clothing, combined with a global trend of ever-decreasing garment lifespans, is increasing the UK fashion industry’s environmental and social impact28. ‘Fast fashion’ has typified this trend as a business model focused on the high throughput of garments, with short lead times and low prices. The garments produced are frequently made from multi-fibre blends and consequently, cannot be recycled29. The annual UK demand per capita for new items of clothing is higher than that of other high-income countries, such as France, Sweden, The Netherlands and Italy30. Research indicating that UK consumers were expected to spend £2.7 billion on 50.3 million ‘throwaway outfits’ over the summer of 2019 further outlines the worrying trend towards ever shorter garment lifespans31
Downstream in the fashion supply chain, the UK has one of the highest recycling collection rates of used clothes per capita globally. However, the outcome for the UK’s collected textiles is often suboptimal because of constrained capacity within domestic recycling infrastructure. This is caused by inconsistent supply of quality feedstock, which prevents textile recycling from being profitable, and the poor commercial viability of recycling technology capable of producing high value outputs. Of the used textile volume collected in 2017, 60% was exported, 33% resold in the UK, and 3% recycled domestically32. The UK is the second largest exporter of used textiles globally, worth £381 million in 2018, but countries such as the US, Korea, and China have gained market share in the past decade33. This may limit the viability of large-scale UK export in the longterm.
In summary, the current UK fashion sector represents an ecosystem that needs to evolve and address its environmental and social impact The UK’s ecosystem suffers from falling clothing utilisation rates and suboptimal reuse and recovery following disposal, resulting in a significant environmental and social impact. There is therefore a critical need to move past the status quo and towards a new model for the fashion ecosystemin the UK that is fit for the 21st century