THE CURRENT STATE OF THE UK FASHION ECOSYSTEM

THE NEED FOR SYSTEMIC CHANGE

The UK fashion market represents one of the largest globally, with revenues of £118 billion, 890,000 workers and a contribution of £35 billion to the UK’s pre-pandemic GDP19. Serving a global fashion market, which generated £1.8 trillion in 2019, the UK’s fashion ecosystem is a complex network with an extensive set of stakeholders20. The UK fashion industry is also critically reliant on, and closely interlinked with, the global fashion and apparel market. Approximately 90% of the fashion and textiles purchased on UK high streets are imported, and 60% of all used textiles collected domestically are exported21, 22, 23.

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

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CONSUMER BEHAVIOUR IN THE UK FASHION ECOSYSTEM

The development of a circular fashion ecosystem must be compatible with consumer preferences and behaviours to be successful and create lasting change. This is particularly true in light of consumers’ increased demands for positive social change among brands and ever-growing access to information about brand sustainability. While consumer preferences are a fundamental consideration for any systems transformation, understanding such preferences is a complex task, and research into consumer behaviour is often omitted from reports on the circular economy.

For these reasons, Phase 1 of the CFE Project incorporated primary research into consumer behaviour, with a particular focus on understanding those British consumers who buy the most fashion products. By influencing the behaviours and preferences of this group, it is possible to achieve a significant proportional change in the environmental impact of all fashion purchases in the UK.

Defining a high intensity shopper profile - initial omnibus survey

The first requirement of this consumer research was to determine the profile of ‘high intensity shoppers’. To do this, an initial omnibus survey* was prepared to identify the characteristics of people who purchase above-average amounts of clothing. This survey was conducted online with a sample of 2,080 adults who were representative of the UK’s geographical and sociodemographic mix (in terms of age, gender, region, social class, and ethnicity).

These initial survey results were triangulated with earlier desk research to define the criteria for high intensity shoppers as individuals who shop often for fashion items** (i.e. “at least once a month’) and who purchase relatively high quantities on average (i.e. those who “purchase two or more items in a typical month”).

Of the 2,080 respondents for this initial omnibus survey, 562 respondents (27%) met our high intensity criteria, and those shoppers could be characterised as typically:

younger
67% are aged between 18-45, compared with 34% of the national average.
Predominantly female
62% are female, compared with 51% of adults across the UK.

These findings were used to target respondents for the more substantial, quantitative research.

Understanding the high intensity shopper - targeted quantitative survey

The second survey conducted was a targeted and in-depth online quantitative survey*** designed to better understand high intensity shoppers. To do so, respondents were first pre-screened to ensure they met the high intensity shopper criteria defined above before the survey was issued. A total of 1,020 UK consumers who qualified under these criteria completed the survey.

The survey sought responses on their fashion shopping, use and disposal behaviours, and their preferences for shifting to more circular practices. This included questions about:

  • Non-standard retail models that diverge from purchasing new garments. Examples included buying and selling used items and swapping, renting, and returning purchased items after use for a full refund;
  • Curation and care for products - how respondents manage their wardrobe contents, whether they repair or pay for repair of garments and their use of stain removal products to extend useful life of clothing;
  • Attitudes to purchasing items with perceived lower environmental impact (organic or recycled materials); and
  • Use of digital platforms that could reduce the need for buying physical garments. Examples included using an app to manage wardrobe contents and buying downloadable content and “digital skins” for use in online environments.

* An omnibus survey is a quantitative market research method where information on a variety of different subjects is collected using the same questionnaire.

** Fashion items include clothing, shoes, and accessories. Purchases could be made either in-store or online.

*** Quantitative surveys are used to gather responses on a set of predefined issues posed in a questionnaire. By design, they do not provide contextual commentary nor the richer feedback of qualitative methods such as focus groups, but they can be useful for reaching a large audience and enabling analysis of results across multiple parameters such as age, gender, and social circumstances. The results of quantitative surveys are often used to drive focus areas for further analysis.