Despite widespread awareness of the importance of sustainable consumption and the environmental impact of the clothing industry, poor quality, short-lived clothing continues to come to market on a huge scale. A highly competitive retail market and offshore manufacturing have reduced the price of clothing, which is now a disposable commodity for many consumers.
To meet the circular economy goals of reusing, repairing and recycling existing materials and products, the clothing industry needs to change, and consumers must raise their expectations of clothing lifetime, say researchers behind a new study that takes data from a number of projects convened by the UK’s Waste and Resources Action programme (WRAP) and Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
Clothes are discarded for a variety of reasons – a garment may still be wearable but no longer attractive to the consumer. Such clothes may be passed on for further use via the second-hand market. Technical durability is important to permit ongoing re-use, however, and many items are designed without this in mind, but rather to meet a certain price point. Meanwhile, the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles may make producers responsible for textiles entering the waste stream – incentivising companies to make clothes more durable. Knowledge on durability is, therefore, important, but data on physical issues with garments, at the point of disposal, has been lacking.
The researchers, therefore, took data from a garment condition survey1 in which nearly 1 500 items of clothing donated to UK charities, but not considered in good enough condition for resale, were analysed. The sampled items from three textile recovery centres included a range of clothing categories, including knitwear, outerwear and schoolwear, with mens-, womens- and childrens-wear roughly equally represented. Brands broadly reflected the market share of leading high-street retailers. Technical factors that could explain why each item was discarded were recorded. Drawing on discussions with industry representatives2, 3, the researchers reviewed these causes of garment failure and identified potential solutions.
The most common issues were pilling – where bobbles of fibres accumulate on the fabric – and colour fading. About half the items were affected by one of these problems. Fabric breakdown (e.g. fraying) and accidental damage (e.g. stains or tears) were also common. Loss of shape, logo failure and holes in seams were also found.
Colour fading was in particular a problem for jersey fabrics and jeans (affecting about 60% and 86%, respectively). The researchers noted that chemical finishing processes can adversely affect colourfastness, as well as inappropriate dyestuff selection. Exposure to UV light can cause dye molecules in fibre to decompose and laundering garments too intensively can also cause fading during consumer use. Solutions could include higher-quality dyes appropriate for the fabric, and gentler laundry detergents. UV-absorbing agents may also be added during processing.
Pilling affected 55% of garments and was an issue with 83% of knitwear and jersey items. Testing for pilling does not account for the effect of laundering, and it is accepted in quality standards that certain products have a high risk of pilling. Cheaper yarns with shorter fibres (sometimes including a mix of artificial and natural filaments) and looser knits, are quicker to pill. However, pilling on 100% natural-fibre clothing is easier to remove. Resistance can be improved (with trade-offs such as reduced softness) by engineering the fabric to be more physically durable or by adding certain fabric treatments, the researchers note, and consumers should be encouraged to use less-intensive washing programmes to prolong garment life.
The researchers also discuss potential solutions to the other causes of garment failure, which often include better testing and durable design approaches. Significantly, testing procedures on garments are not consistent across different brands and often fail to replicate real-life wear over long timeframes, they note.
Obstacles to producing durable clothes are not only technical – solutions may exist, but are not applied, as the business model looks to meet a certain price point. Therefore, marketing that motivates consumers to purchase longer-lasting garments is key, although these may be more expensive, and promotion of aftercare that lengthens their life is required. Labelling garments with their anticipated longevity is problematic, however, as this is often influenced by use.
The researchers conclude that clothing companies should embrace sustainable business models.
- Cooper, T., Claxton, S., Hill, H., Holbrook, K., Hughes, M., Knox, A. and Oxborrow, L. (2013). Development of an Industry Protocol on Clothing Longevity. Report Produced for Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). Nottingham: Trent University Nottingham.
- Cooper, T., Oxborrow, L., Claxton, S., Goworek, H., Hill, H. and McLaren, A. (2016). Strategies to improve design and testing for clothing longevity. Report for DEFRA.
- Goworek, H., Oxborrow, L., Claxton, S., McLaren, A., Cooper, T. and Hill, H. (2020). Managing sustainability in the fashion business: Challenges in product development for clothing longevity in the UK. Journal of Business Research, 117: 629-641.
Cooper, T. and Claxton, S. (2022). Garment failure causes and solutions: Slowing the cycles for circular fashion. Journal of Cleaner Production, 351: 131394.
To cite this article/service:
“Science for Environment Policy”: European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service, edited by the Science Communication Unit, The University of the West of England, Bristol.
Notes on content:
The contents and views included in Science for Environment Policy are based on independent, peer reviewed research and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Commission. Please note that this article is a summary of only one study. Other studies may come to other conclusions
- Publication date
- 16 November 2022
- Directorate-General for Environment