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WRAP reveals the UK's £30 billion unused wardrobe

UK consumers have around £30 billion worth of clothes which they haven’t worn for a year hanging in their wardrobes, reveals a new report by WRAP, the UK’s lead body on resource efficiency.

11 Jul 12

The ground breaking report ‘Valuing our clothes1’ provides the first big picture look at the impacts of clothing. It offers a fresh look at the financial and environmental aspects of the whole journey of all clothing; from raw material, to manufacture, purchase, use and disposal of our clothes.

By making more use of these clothes through re-use and other routes such as design changes, alteration,  repair and recycling, there is a real opportunity for businesses and consumers to realise both financial and environmental gains, WRAP’s research, published today, has found.

WRAP’s research, which was funded by the Westminster, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Governments, found in the last year alone we left a staggering 1.7 billion items unused in our wardrobes. It also found that there is considerable interest from consumers in re-using those unwanted items. With over two thirds of consumers willing to buy and wear pre-owned clothing such as jeans and jumpers, the report identifies additional opportunities for this aspect of the clothing industry.

Liz Goodwin, CEO, WRAP, said: “The way we make and use clothes consumes a huge amount of the earth’s precious resources, and accounts for a major chunk of family spending.  But by increasing the active use of clothing by an extra nine months we could reduce the water, carbon and waste impacts by up to 20-30% each and save £5 billion.

“Consumers can realise the value of clothing by updating existing items for their own use, or selling or donating them for others to use. There are also significant opportunities for industry to capitalise on consumer interest and gain financially.”

Each stage of the clothing journey has a significant environmental impact. For example over 90% of the water footprint occurs during fibre and garment supply. Washing and drying clothes is the equivalent of around 10% of total carbon emissions from cars in the UK, and the majority of the waste arises once an item is no longer wanted.  

A third of all of the clothes we buy ends up in landfill, which is bad for the environment and bad value. There are significant opportunities to generate revenue of around £140 million2 if all items currently sent to landfill were given to charities, local authorities or other organisations for recycling or re-use. For example, through donating unwanted items to friends, family or charities, selling online, or using the various collection banks or local authority services where available.  These existing options or indeed new business opportunities could keep more clothing out of the bin and landfill, ensuring value is retained for longer.

The report goes a step further than simply providing the economic and environmental facts, it also identifies potential new business models for industry that can add to the bottom line, increase the range of services or stimulate markets.

The recently-launched M&S & Oxfam Shwopping initiative has provided clear evidence that there’s both retailer awareness and customer interest in new approaches.

One such new business opportunity WRAP’s report identifies is retailers establishing ‘buy-back’ schemes. This would enable customers to sell retailer own-brand clothes they no longer want back to the retailer to prepare for re-sale. With more than half of the people WRAP surveyed stating they would sell back items, and over two-thirds saying they would consider buying returned clothes, this type of initiative could provide an additional income stream from a ready customer base.

Liz concludes: “This research clearly shows there are real financial and environmental benefits to be reaped from valuing our clothes more. By building on and encouraging the innovation already undertaken by collectors, re-processors, charities, retailers, brands, designers, suppliers and local authorities, we can help protect precious resources, and save billions in the process. WRAP will be working with industry to do exactly that.”

Lord Taylor, Defra Minister for Environment, said: “Making better use of our resources is integral to economic growth, cutting carbon emissions and building a strong and sustainable green economy.

“This report shows that there is a huge potential for both businesses and households to save money and the environment by thinking differently about the way we produce, use and dispose of clothes.

“Used clothing has a massive commercial value, yet over 430,000 tonnes is thrown away in the UK every year.”

Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s Environment Secretary, said: “Scotland is making huge strides to reduce waste and recycle more both at home and in business. Recycling clothes is a great way to increase our efforts to cut waste – with charities accepting donations and many councils offering textile collections.
"The Valuing our Clothes report highlights to businesses and consumers potential opportunities not only to recycle, but to re-use clothing. This will in turn benefit the environment, as well as creating opportunities to save and generate money.”

John Griffiths, the Welsh Government's Environment Minister, said: "Wales has set ambitious targets to become a zero waste nation by 2050 and clothing is an important part of this agenda.

"As this report shows, recycling is only the start – we need to develop a more sustainable clothing sector by making clothes that last longer and offer greater opportunities for reuse.

"We all have our part to play in reducing the clothes we throw in the bin. By repairing our clothes, donating them to charity or ensuring that items that cannot be reused are recycled, we can all help reduce clothing waste and save money too."

Alex Attwood, Northern Ireland Environment Minister, said: “The results of this research are staggering. £30 billion is an overwhelming amount of money, the fact that in the UK that value of clothing is hanging in our wardrobes shows an urgent need for an attitude shift in this area by all of us.

“There are also a number of things that we can do to ensure our clothing is reused – donating it to charity shops, selling them and updating them for repeat wear are just some of the many options which we all need to consider before disposing of this valuable resource. What I and my Department are about is making Northern Ireland a better place to live, work and invest. A change in attitude towards clothing will significantly contribute to this goal.”

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