The COP26 plastic uniforms are a disaster for the environment

Ingun Grimstad Klepp, Tone Skårdal Tobiasson, Ingrid Haugsrud

The UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, COP26, is in full swing. The event aims to be carbon neutral. The guests will be served local food and are encouraged to walk, cycle or use public transport. The clothes should also be environmentally friendly. A thousand volunteers have been given a small wardrobe to use during the climate conference. Glasgow City Council boasts of the “stylish uniforms” that are supposed to be made of “sustainable and recycled materials”, but without specifying what or how.

Sustainable materials?

Claims about sustainable materials are easily thrown around. Clothing production is a very complex process with many different stages. Most often, and also in the case of these uniforms, it is unclear what makes them sustainable. In our view, clothes that are called sustainable should be produced locally and with dyes, fiber and other inputs from, for example, regenerative agriculture (i.e. agriculture that builds the carbon content and the soil).

Why not develop a uniform based on local Scottish traditions and reuse?

The initial information released about the clothes did not state what they are made of, but by contacting the manufacturer, we got an answer. The hoodies, polo shirts, jackets and backpacks are all made from 100 percent recycled polyester from plastic bottles. The trousers are made from a mixture of 65 percent of the same polyester and 35 percent organic cotton. They provide no information about dyeing and finishing – the most polluting part of clothing production.

After repeated inquiries, we were told that the uniforms are produced in the UK and in Sri Lanka, but we do not know where the main stages of production is, or what clothes are produced where, nor where the raw materials come from or are processed.

Who will wear the clothes after the conference?

How long products are used, makes the biggest difference for both the climate and the environment. Clothes that you have not chosen yourself, but received from someone who does not know you, are typical garments that see little use. If they also have large logos and other things that make them time- and place-specific, the chance of reuse is small.

It is possible that Glasgow City Council and some of the volunteers think the clothes look nice, but we can safely say we aren’t enthusiastic. They would be better suited for the staff at a petrol station, but it is not the sale of fossil fuels that is on the agenda in Glasgow. However, since the “sustainable” material turned out to be from recycled plastic bottles, i.e. fossil origins, one could easily be fooled.

It is also possible that some of the thousands of volunteers have few clothes, and are happy for a gaudy top hat, black and blue shapeless trousers, a bulky outer jacket, a fleece jacket, polo shirt and a hoodie, but the chance that their closets are already full of similar and better garments is much greater.

In short: the clothes should not have been produced at all and of course not been described as “sustainable”.

A gift to the homeless after the summit

Avoiding waste is a stated goal for COP26, and this should be done through reuse, recycling and by taking design and material choices into account. The manufacturer states that there is a plan for what will happen to the clothes after the event.

The volunteers who do not want to keep their clothes can return them, and they will either be donated to the homeless or torn up and used for energy recovery.

The fact that these clothes can be handed in afterwards if the volunteers do not want to use them, does not make the matter any better. There is no shortage of easily used or unusable clothes for both reuse and energy recovery.

Are plastic clothes good for the climate?

In many of the tools available for comparing climate and environmental impacts of different textile materials, polyester, and especially recycled polyester, are highlighted as those with the least climate impact. At the same time, voices are being raised protesting against these truths, for example in this article in Impakter.

The basis for the comparisons are so-called life cycle analyses (LCA). These analyses aim to show a product’s environmental footprint from raw material extraction to disposal. For clothing, these LCAs are both few and incomplete, and much that can be achieved by choosing strategically among LCAs.

The independent analyst Veronica Bates-Kassatly describes how manufacturers have chosen LCAs that favor synthetic materials, and as a consequence are worst for nature. This is difficult to control, partly because privately owned HIGG Co., with its Material Science Index, the most widely used of such comparison tools, keeps its sources secret.

We would argue that no one knows if polyester is better for the climate, but there are some who stand to make a lot of money from claiming this, and that those who earn the most are the same ones behind this “truth”.

Recycled what then?

What is certain, however, is that polyester, and the other plastic materials used in clothing, are a significant source of spreading micro plastics to the sea, water and air. This also applies to recycled polyester.

None of the plastic-specific problems, the lack of degradability and the spread of micro plastics, are included in the calculations we mention above. PET bottles that are “recycled” into polyester fiber are in themselves a bad idea, according to the Changing Markets Foundation’s report on synthetic materials.

The properties embedded in the plastic used for bottles are not utilized in the clothes, and the bottle-to-bottle recycling system actually works better. The textile fibers deteriorate and therefore cannot be recycled, as one is capable to do with the bottles. This is of course why the manufacturers of these clothes will either give them away to the homeless or deliver them for energy recovery.

Local production as a solution

Scotland has a proud textile history, with Shetland wool, fantastic tweed and tartans – the checkered wool fabrics. Why not develop a uniform based on local Scottish traditions and reuse?

Yes, we understand that the volunteers must be recognizable, but to achieve this you only need one clearly visible garment, or bandola, or a fun hat.

Local production utilizes raw materials better, reduces transport, and not least the clothes stand up over time. The volunteers could have been a colorful flock with playful use of Scottish traditions. Using history as a resource for the future has many benefits, as do natural fibers.

Public procurement

The public sector is a major purchaser. Both the environmental and purchasing expertise of the very many who are responsible for buying textiles are in general a sad state. Therefore, we are currently working with a purchasing guide for public procurement of textiles in Norway.

If such initiatives are to contribute to a reduction in climate impact, they must not be hijacked by misguided ideas about «sustainable materials», but on the contrary, systems must be developed that ensure the procurement of good products that are utilized to the maximum through long use and good care.

To achieve this, good routines are needed for cooperation between buyer, user and supplier. The volunteer uniforms are thus a glaring example of how wrong things can go.

Climate vs. the environment

The climate crisis is serious. But so is the environmental crisis. “Saving” the climate by destroying the environment is not a good idea. Of course, this discussion is not just about clothes. The “emission-free” electric cars are, after all, only “emission-free” if you do not create emissions elsewhere and in other forms. The debate about wind turbines has many of the same ingredients.

Numbers and rankings are important tools in the climate and environmental debate. Therefore, we must be careful about who gets to decide what data is seen as robust and reliable. Things go wrong when the fox alone is allowed to guard the chickens, or the wolf the grandma, so to speak.

We must stop up and not let the same global giants who drown the world with bad plastic clothes also be allowed to drown us in the “truth” that their products are good for us and the planet. “Recycled” plastic clothing will never save the climate, and they are a disaster for the environment.

By the way: We never got to know what the knitted hat that tops it all is made of, but our tip is acrylic. Acrylic does not win any prizes for saving either the environment or for clothes that help to keep the wearer warm. It is possible that the conference had taken into account that global warming would make it superfluous for the hat to be knitted in their warm and wonderful Shetland wool.

Published by www.sciencenorway.no, click here to see the op-ed

Design process: research tools for CHANGE

During the first week of September 2021, CHANGE researchers collaborated with the Master Digital Design of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, in the context of its Design Processes Track. You can read about the course here (masterdigitaldesign.com).

Guided by Angella Mackey, a diverse group of 48 international students proposed 12 research tools that could be used in the fieldwork phase of CHANGE. The purpose of this design sprint was for the students to start their year rapidly producing design concepts for a real-world design challenge. The sprint guided them through collecting user data, building, and testing a prototype in 4 days. CHANGE’s researchers Ingun Klepp, Vilde Haugrønning, Ingrid Haugsrud and Irene Maldini participated in answering student queries, and acting as a jury for the most feasible and the most original solution proposed by students.

The “Most Feasible” nomination went to “Two peas on a Polaroid”.

The “Most Original” solution was awarded to “Momo”

Moreover, the jury awarded two extra mentions to:

BUDDY, for the use of automated voice communication with respondents

GARMOTIONS, for the focus on emotions as a drive for outfit choice

Durable or cheap? Parents’ acquisition of children’s clothing

Ingun Grimstad Klepp & Vilde Haugrønning

Abstract

Parents are faced with a plurality of choices and concerns when it comes to the acquisition of clothing for their children. This paper explores how parents employ longevity in consumption of children’s clothing from a practice-oriented perspective. The material consists of 6 focus groups with 40 parents who have at least one child under the age of 18. The aim of the groups was to establish children’s clothing needs: how many they need of each garment, how long parents expect the garment to last and what they understand as quality in clothing.

The analysis shows that parents mainly opt for an ‘one or the other’ strategy; they choose what they understand as quality, often affiliated with specific brands, and accept paying more for the garment, or they mainly choose based on low prices, and expect less of the garment. Quality is evaluated based on the garments’ durability and function. More specifically, the parents measure the service lifetime of a garment based on the number of seasons it lasts, either in terms of wear and tear or the child growing out of it. The expected lifetime is defined by uncertain sources, from their own and friends’ experiences, and their desire to justify their own choices as well as routinised practices.

Our discussion section employs these findings and contextualise them within product lifetime discourses. By doing this, we provide knowledge about how quality is understood, and how brand and price are used as indicators. We show how lack of information about products, especially on garments, leads to uninformed consumption practices that have consequences for how quality and longevity are prioritised and understood.

Click here to read the full article (www.ul.ie)

Consumer practices for extending the social lifetimes of sofas and clothing

Vilde Haugrønning, Kirsi Laitala & Ingun Grimstad Klepp

Abstract

Consumers play an essential role in efforts to extend product lifetimes (PL) and consumers’ practices can determine how long and active lives products get. Applying the framework of Social Practice Theory, this paper argues that in order to suggest changes to how consumers can contribute to longer product lifespans, research needs to focus on consumer practices. The data material consists of 4 focus group interviews with 38 participants about household goods and 29 semi-structured interviews about clothing.

Previous research shows that consumers’ expectations of product lifetime has decreased, while satisfaction with products is relatively high, which may indicate that product break down and/or replacement is more accepted. Therefore, we argue, it is necessary to focus on social lifespans. Our findings show that products such as clothing and sofas often go out of use or are disposed of before their physical lifespan ends, and it is more common to donate or sell old clothing and sofas than buying the products second hand. There are a number of routinised practices, such as disposal of functional items, that are considered normal, which leads to less reflexivity of seemingly unsustainable practices.

The material in products, or the expectation to the material, is highly influential for practices that can extend the social lifespan, such as maintenance. We conclude that by understanding practices as integrated and influenced by elements of the material, social and cultural, policy interventions may have a greater impact on the social lifespan of products.

Click here to read the full article (www.ul.ie)

Increasing repair of household appliances, mobile phones and clothing: Experiences from consumers and the repair industry

Kirsi Laitala, Ingun Grimstad Klepp, Vilde Haugrønning, Harald Throne-Holst & Pål Strandbakken

Abstract

Increasing product lifespans is one of the most effective environmental strategies and therefore repair is a part of the circular economy approach that aims to keep products and materials longer in use. This article explores drivers and barriers for repair from consumers’ and commercial repair actors view-points, in order to understand how the repair rates of household appliances, mobile phones and clothing could be increased.

The study is based on a consumer survey of 1196 respondents in Norway, and 15 qualitative interviews with actors in the commercial repair industry working with repairs of household consumer goods. A surprisingly high share of repairs was conducted by consumers themselves. The main barrier is the consistently low price of new products, and often of poor quality, which contributes to low profitability in repair work for businesses and low motivation from consumers. Furthermore, access to competent personnel is a major challenge for the repair industry, a need which is expected to increase in the coming years.

Both the industry and consumers agree that better quality of products is a starting point for increased product lifespans, and this will also increase the motivation and the number of profitable repairs. These results have political implications on how to promote longer product lifespans through repair such as increased utilization and knowledge of consumers’ complaint and warranty rights.

Click here to read the full article (sciencedirect.com).

Global differences in consumer practices affect clothing lifespans

Kirsi Laitala & Ingun Grimstad Klepp

Abstract

Most studies of clothing and related habits are carried out within a country. However, apparel production and sales are a highly globalized industry, with many of the same large chains operating worldwide. It is thus quite possible that the use of the same mass-produced clothing differs between various geographical areas. Based on a practice theoretical approach, we have studied differences in consumption, use and disposal of clothes in different countries that may affect the lifespan of apparel.

The paper is based on an international survey in five countries with large apparel markets: China, Germany, Japan, UK and the USA. 200 respondents from each country answered to a comprehensive web-based survey on their wardrobe content. We found differences in practices that could affect the lifespans of clothing in these five countries. At the same time, we find many similarities. For clothing acquisition, buying new items dominates in all the five markets, and washing machines contribute to the main chore of keeping clothes clean. Home production and second-hand clothes constitute a very small part of clothing consumption in all five countries. Many respondents showed low sewing skills, and repair activities were done irregularly. Thus, many of the challenges to increasing the lifespans of clothing are similar for all the five countries. At the same time, there are significant differences. These differences open up for the possibility to learn «best practice» by studying the countries and transferring knowledge between regions. When defining use phase in LCA and other sustainability tools, it must be taken into account that despite the fact that clothing is a global industry, consumption is part of local practice.

Click here to read the full article (researchgate.com)

What Affects Garment Lifespans? International Clothing Practices Based on a Wardrobe Survey in China, Germany, Japan, the UK, and the USA

Kirsi Laitala and Ingun Grimstad Klepp

Abstract

Increasing the length of clothing lifespans is crucial for reducing the total environmental impacts. This article discusses which factors contribute to the length of garment lifespans by studying how long garments are used, how many times they are worn, and by how many users. The analysis is based on quantitative wardrobe survey data from China, Germany, Japan, the UK, and the USA. Variables were divided into four blocks related respectively to the garment, user, garment use, and clothing practices, and used in two hierarchical multiple regressions and two binary logistic regressions.

The models explain between 11% and 43% of the variation in clothing lifespans. The garment use block was most indicative for the number of wears, while garment related properties contribute most to variation in the number of users. For lifespans measured in years, all four aspects were almost equally important. Some aspects that affect the lifespans of clothing cannot be easily changed (e.g., the consumer’s income, nationality, and age) but they can be used to identify where different measures can have the largest benefits. Several of the other conditions that affect lifespans can be changed (e.g., garment price and attitudes towards fashion) through quality management, marketing strategies, information, and improved consumer policies.

Click here to read the full article (mdpi.com).

Laundry Care Regimes: Do the Practices of Keeping Clothes Clean Have Different Environmental Impacts Based on the Fibre Content?

Kirsi Laitala, Ingun Grimstad Klepp, Roy Kettlewell & Stephen Wiedemann

Abstract

Clothing maintenance is necessary for keeping clothing and textiles functional and socially acceptable, but it has environmental consequences due to the use of energy, water and chemicals. This article discusses whether clothes made of different materials are cleaned in different ways and have different environmental impacts. It fills a knowledge gap needed in environmental assessments that evaluate the impacts based on the function of a garment by giving detailed information on the use phase. The article is based on a quantitative wardrobe survey and qualitative laundry diary data from China, Germany, Japan, the UK and the USA.

The largest potential for environmental improvement exists in reducing laundering frequency and in the selection of washing and drying processes, and through a transition to fibres that are washed less frequently, such as wool. Adopting best practice garment care would give larger benefits in countries like the US where the consumption values were the highest, mainly due to extensive use of clothes dryers and less efficient washing machines combined with frequent cleaning. These variations should be considered in environmental assessments of clothing and when forming sustainability policies. The results indicate the benefits of focusing future environmental work on consumer habits and culture and not only technologies.

Click here to read the full article (oda.oslomet.no)

Clothing Lifespans: What Should Be Measured and How

Ingun Grimstad Klepp, Kirsi Laitala & Stephen Wiedemann

Abstract

Increasing the use of each product, most often called longer lifespans, is an effective environmental strategy. This article discusses how garment lifespans can be described in order to be measured and compared. It answers two sub-questions: (1) what to measure (units), and (2) how to measure (methods). We introduce and define terms related to clothing lifespans and contribute to discussions about an appropriate functional unit for garments in life cycle assessments (LCA) and other environmental accounting tools. We use a global wardrobe survey to exemplify the units and methods.

Clothing lifespans can be described and measured in years, the number of wears, cleaning cycles, and users. All have an independent value that show different and central aspects of clothing lifespans. A functional unit for LCAs should emphasise both the number of wears for all users as well as the service lifespan in years. Number of wears is the best measure for regular clothing, while number of years is most suited for occasion wear, because it is important to account for the need of more garments to cover all the relevant occasions during a specified time period. It is possible to study lifespan via carefully constructed surveys, providing key data relating to actual garment use.

Click here to read the full article (oda.oslomet.no)

Environmental impacts associated with the production, use, and end-of-life of a woollen garment

S.G. Wiedemann, L. Biggs, B. Nebel, K. Bauch, K. Laitala, I.G. Klepp, P.G. Swan and K. Watson.

Abstract

Purpose

The textiles industry is a substantial contributor to environmental impacts through the production, processing, use, and end-of-life of garments. Wool is a high value, natural, and renewable fibre that is used to produce a wide range of garments, from active leisure wear to formal wear, and represents a small segment of the global fashion industry. Woollen garments are produced by long, global value chains extending from the production of ‘greasy’ wool on sheep farms, through processing to garment make-up, retail, consumer use, and end-of-life. To date, there have been limited life cycle assessment (LCA) studies on the environmental impacts of the full supply chain or use phase of garments, with the majority of wool LCA studies focusing on a segment of the supply chain. This study aimed to address this knowledge gap via a cradle-to-grave LCA of a woollen garment.

Methods

This study investigated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, fossil fuel energy, and water stress associated with the production, use, and end-of-life of a lightweight woollen sweater (300-g wool), together with inventory results for freshwater consumption and land occupation. Primary datasets were used for the wool production and wool processing stages, while primary datasets relating to consumer garment use were supplemented with literature data. Impacts were calculated and reported per garment wear event.

Results and discussion

Impacts per wear were 0.17 (± 0.02) kg CO2-e GHG, 0.88 (± 0.18) MJ fossil energy, and 0.96 (± 0.42) H2O-e water stress. Fossil fuel energy was dominated by wool processing, with substantial contributions of energy also arising from retail and garment care. Greenhouse gas emissions from wool production (farming) contributed the highest proportion of impacts, followed by lower contributions from processing and garment care. Contributions to water stress varied less across the supply chain, with major contributions arising from production, processing, and garment use.

Conclusions

Opportunities to improve the efficiency of production, processing, and garment care exist, which could also reduce resource use and impacts from wool. However, the number of garment wear events and length of garment lifetime was found to be the most influential factor in determining garment impacts. This indicated that consumers have the largest capacity to influence the sustainability of their woollen garments by maximising the active garment lifespan which will reduce overall impacts.

Click here to read the full article (springer.com).