Traditionally the ‘Three Rs’ were about education.  This is slightly strange given that two of them don’t even start with R – a Victorian attempt at irony I guess.  In current thinking the three Rs are the mantra of sustainability and frugality – Reduce, Re-use, Recycle. Our children learn about them at school, our council encourages us to live by them and there are countless other wonderful initiatives with these maxims at their heart.

Drowning in Plastic (and Clothes….)

plastic bag levy reduce, reuse, recyclePlastic is a topic that’s filling our headlines at the moment – the overuse of plastic as wrapping, as an additive in every day items such as teabags and cosmetics and the main component of single use items such as straws and plastic cups.  For several years we’ve felt justified in our plastic over use by the fact that much of it can be recycled.  However now China have drawn the line at accepting our plastic waste we will need to find a new solution.

There are a lot of similarities between plastic and clothing when it comes to over abundance.  Just as is the case with plastic, we have gained a false sense of security around recycling, happily buying new clothes and complacently sending off our unwanted items to the recycling bin or charity shop. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s bad to recycle or donate clothes, just that we need to put a bit more emphasis on the ‘Reduce’ part of the 3 Rs.

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle – Are We Doing Too Much Recycling and Re-using?

reduce, re-use, recycleClothes recycling is a bit different to plastic as it is far more likely that other people will want to re-use your discarded clothing.  Charity Shops are a wonderful resource and online charity shops such as Oxfam offer a curated service to help you search amongst the wide range of donations.  However charity shops do receive far more than they are able to sell in their shops and the majority are traded abroad.   The UK is the second largest used clothes exporter after the US and much of our rejected clothing ends up in markets in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.  There are of course arguments for both sides here, it’s much better that the clothes are being re-used and creating employment, but an influx of used garments massively effects local clothing industries and can lead to unemployment and the loss of traditional textile skills.

Clothes that are not re-used are very likely to end up in landfill as most of our mixed fibre clothes are very difficult (if not impossible) to recycle as it is too costly to separate the cotton from the polyester.  Fast fashion, cheaply made clothes are virtually impossible to recycle as the fibre quality is so low. According to WRAP 350,000 tonnes of clothing ends up in landfill each year in the UK.

Here’s a simple breakdown of what happens to our used clothing according to WRAP.

Destinations of end-of-life clothing reduce, re-use, recycle

So What Needs To Change?

Well, just as with plastic we now need to drastically reduce the amount of clothing that is being produced.  It’s unlikely that you would be reading this article if you didn’t already have some interest in sustainability, so I don’t need to go on and on about the negative effects of fast fashion on the environment, the workers and the mental health of consumers.  However I will just mention that the average UK household owns around £4,000 worth of clothes and around 30% are never worn.  Add that to the figures above and I need say no more.

reduce, re-use, recycleWe’ve become used to cheap clothes.  Clothing prices have not increased in real terms since the 1980s.  The reason they are cheap is because they’ve been made with little thought for the fabric and garment quality, the people who made them and the longer term effects on our environment.

It’s Time To Change Our Shopping Habits

We need to buy less and we need to ensure that what we buy is good quality and ethically sourced so that it has minimal impact. We need to focus on only buying quality clothes that we love, so we’ll wear them repeatedly for years to come.  Natural fibres (non-plastic) are better too as they are more likely to be recyclable and will eventually biodegrade.

Ethical Fashion is now a growing part of the clothing industry.  Where Does It Come From? is one of an increasing number of brands offering quality clothing with ethics so you can buy clothes that have minimal negative impact and that are designed to be gorgeous and versatile.

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle, the 3 s of sustainability, are a fantastic mantra to keep us focussed on sustainability. We’ve stepped up, with many of us embracing recyclying of household waste as part of our lives. Now, with our plastic mountains and our landfill full of polyester, its time to take it to the next level and focus on the Reduce part too.