Reduce, reuse, rental or recycle? 

Why reducing matters most, and how Shwap is here to help

In 2021 it seems that everyone in fashion has a solution to the climate crisis. From high street companies promising greener collections, to the rental revolution, resale apps and the prevalence of recycled packaging, there are innovations happening everywhere we look. As promises climb at the same time as emissions, (it’s currently estimated the fashion industry accounts for 4-10% of all global emissions annually) it can be hard to know what to trust. That’s why we’re here, to dig into the latest industry research and report back on the data. 

We read new environmental research conducted on the circular economy. Scientists compared the emissions made from start to finish, of five different ways of using clothing. They based their findings on the same pair of jeans being worn 200 times.

The options were:

  • Wearing the jeans then binning them (this is the standard lifecycle currently)
  • Wearing the jeans for longer, and not buying any more new, aka REDUCE.
  • Reselling, aka REUSE.
  • Recycling.
  • Renting, aka SHARING.

Although the ‘3Rs’ of reducing (wearing for longer, buying less) reusing (reselling) or recycling have been proposed for decades by environmentalists, there was actually very little data to back up how much these methods have an impact from start to to finish. The study looked at total carbon emission from manufacture, transport costs, reselling drop offs, and recycling and processing.

“Global clothing production has approximately doubled in the past 15 years, but the average number of times a garment is worn has decreased by 36%”

Recycling is not the cure

Companies  often place emphasis on recycling, but for clothing, this can actually be a less environmentally sound option than extending the life of the garment in the first place. For example, they found that the energy it takes to recycle plastics might be more intensive than making virgin plastics in the first place. This can also be true of synthetic and recycled polyester garments. It’s also the case that if we keep recycling things we already have, yet still producing more at the same time, then our environmental burden is not diminished. At the moment, only 1% of clothing is recycled, yet production and consumption of clothing has doubled in the EU in the past fifteen years.

Higher quality is needed

By digging more into the emissions behind these circular economy methods, the report found that reducing production and consumption, or wearing our clothes for longer, and then reselling, was the most environmentally friendly option, above rental or recycling. This means that companies should be manufacturing with as many wears in mind as possible. This often isn’t the priority for fast fashion companies, but clothing made anywhere should still be reworn and cherished.

“Currently, reduction of the total amount of products in the circuit is the most efficient way to steer the sector toward more sustainable practices. REDUCE and REUSE strategies are the most practical for achieving such goals”

The researchers recommended “business models that couple high-quality products with information technology that helps to communicate sustainability aspects of the product as well as the importance of extending the product’s use time.” In short, better quality clothing, with information on sustainability to educate customers, and repair and resale options are the best ways to go.

Second-hand first

Good news for us. This is exactly what Shwap is trying to achieve, by making our clothes work harder and longer, and rewarding brands for creating less clothing. We believe in a degrowth economy, which is why we’re creating a platform where brands can survive by making better quality clothing that lasts for longer, by earning a commission on each resale. We’re also trying to make it as easy as buying new for customers, by syncing with brands to provide all the information, imagery, measurements and details that you’d get when shopping new.

You can read: “Innovative recycling or extended use? Comparing the global warming potential of different ownership and end-of-life scenarios for textiles” by Jarkko Levänen et al 2021 Environ. Res. Lett. 16 054069 here.

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