Clothing research at the ESA Sociology of Consumption Conference

Last week SIFO hosted a conference for The European Sociological Association (ESA)’s Research Network of Sociology of Consumption. The theme for the conference was “Consumption, justice and futures: Where do we go from here? (oslomet.no)“. 146 participants from all over Europe gathered for the event and most of SIFO’s clothing researchers were among them.

The clothing research group’s Vilde Haugrønning presented her work in the i CHANGE project and discussed the preliminary findings and method development on the basis of the pilot study carried out in Norway o, Uruguay and Portugal. The title for the presentation was: «Occasions and clothing volumes: wardrobe pilots in Norway, Portugal and Uruguay». You can read the abstract using this link (conftool.org).

Clothing as part of the thematic

The conference contributed new insights and as one of the large areas of consumption, clothing was mentioned in many contexts. In the form of fashion, it was only natural that clothing was used as the major example and how consumers are primed for getting a «taste for variety» in Sophie Dubuisson-Quellier’s keynote presentation: «Why do we consume so much? Exploring the lock-ins of affluent consumption».

Julie Madon’s presentation «To make or not to make objects last? Consumers between prosumption and the desire for simplicity», was closely related to the theme in our Lasting project and examined several product groups. An important point from the presentation was how subjective the judgement of when something is used up is – for some, holes in the shoes are acceptable, as the shoe itself can still be used, but for others would throw them away at any visible sign of use. You can read the abstract from the presentation here (confrool.org).

In the same session, Victoire Sessego presented «Do-It-Yourself practices throughout generations: the effects of digitalisation». She pointed out that even though her presentation was part of a “Sustainable Consumption”-session, many of her informants’ DIY practices were highly unsustainable. You can read the abstract here (confrool.org).

Clothing as the main research topic

In addition to these presentations and others that included clothing and textiles as a part of the scope, several were also focused specifically on clothing.

Reka Ines Tölg presented her PhD work at Lund University, about the circulation of responsibility between consumers and producers of clothing. The title of her presentation was «Consume with care and responsibility! The material-semiotic making and distribution of responsibilities in green marketing». We, in the clothing research group, noted in particular that a story of the fragility of clothing was being told by the clothing producers and how this transferred responsibility onto the consumer if the clothing should break. Our question would then be if the producers shouldn’t instead make clothes of better quality to begin with? You can read the abstract by following this link (conftool.org).

In the same session, Gabriella Wulff from the University of Gothenburg presented her work on discount practices: «The Future of Discounting Practices? Materials, meanings, and competences in the Swedish Fashion Retail Sector». From our perspective, it was particularly interesting how the sector itself sees these practices as a necessary evil in a business model based on economy of scale and large advance order quantities. Simultaneously, they do attempt to “activate” garments in different ways to avoid reducing prices as much. The findings point to other aspects of the overproduction that is rampant in the clothing industry. You can read the abstract here (conftool.org).

Consumption of second-hand clothing was also discussed when Ariela Mortara talked about her research on the users of the Vinted App in Italy in the presentation «Second-hand clothing between savings and sustainability: Vinted case history». You can read the abstract via this link (conftool.org).

Deep diving into wardrobes provides important knowledge on clothes and their environmental impact

Norway leads the way in methods for studying the use of clothing. This is knowledge that is important in sustainability studies of apparel.

How many clothes are there in our wardrobes? What is used a lot and what do you seldom wear, and why? Which clothes have the largest environmental footprint? What causes clothes to be cared for and repaired?

There are many unanswered questions when the desire is to understand the connection between the consumption of clothing, and climate and environmental impacts. We need to understand why someone has a wardrobe full of clothes and still nothing to wear. To answer these questions, methods that can reconcile the concrete material with the way we use, buy, repair, launder, choose and not least throw away clothes, are required.

The method called “wardrobe studies” is very central in studies of clothing’s environmental impact. Consumption Research Norway (SIFO) at Oslo Metropolitan University has been at the centre of the development of these methods for 23 years. Today, the method is included in research, teaching, product development and design worldwide.

Research in people’s homes

The method involves the researcher and informant going through the informant’s wardrobe piece by piece, together. In some studies, the entire wardrobe is reviewed and in others, selected parts such as passive clothes, leisure and sports clothes, or favourite clothes are specifically studied. When the clothes are reviewed, the researcher asks the same questions for each garment. This gives us opportunities to analyze differences in the way different garments are used.

The method is time-consuming but provides detailed and reliable knowledge. Ideally, we do this at the informants’ homes and thus also gain knowledge about details around the organisation, storage, laundering and care of the clothes.

Clothes are complex

Wardrobe studies are particularly suitable for studying practices that we often take for granted. The practices are important to understand in order to gain better knowledge of consumption patterns, and thus how they can be changed in a more sustainable direction. The special feature of the method is that the clothes are at the centre of the analysis.

Clothes are very complex materially, socially and culturally. They are made from most types of materials, from animals and plants, including metal and chemicals and increasingly plastic. They are used to camouflage the body, keep it warm, decorate, protect and show belonging to cultures, groups, places and positions in society. Clothes are important for self-respect, security and social participation.

In order to embrace so many different aspects and see them in context, methods are required which have the capacity to connect the actual material with the practices and their many different meanings, both for the individual and society.

What properties do the clothes have?

Wardrobe studies lead to more knowledge about the use of clothes. This stands in contrast to studies that are concerned with clothes related to fashion, often understood as the novelty value of the clothes. In such studies, some things are often excluded, namely the material properties of the clothes, as well as all the nuances in the relationship between the wearer of the clothes and the clothes themselves, and the interplay between the clothes in the wardrobe.

After conversations with people about clothes over several decades, we have rarely heard informants say that fashion is important to them, and it is much more common to say the opposite. Fashion is an aspect of our clothes, but for most people, there are completely different reasons for both what you buy and what you wear. Fashion can make it difficult to find something you like in the store, such as the colour you think suits you, or a shape that is perceived as flattering.

Few know how many clothes they own

To capture the material in wardrobe studies, various techniques are used to obtain information about each individual garment such as photos, interviews, registrations and technical analyses. This gives the advantage that the information becomes concrete and tied to both the material and social aspects, and thus not so dependent on words alone.

Clothing habits, like other parts of our daily lives, are something we don’t usually think about. Therefore, they are also difficult to put into words in a conversation or interview situation. It is easier to describe the clothes and how they are used when we talk about specific garments. It will then be possible for us researchers later to see the relationship between the clothes and the wearer, and pursue what lies behind the words.

Very few know the average age of their own wardrobe or how many clothes they actually have. We ask people about what they know and have a relationship with, but compile the information ourselves with national or global averages, or qualitatively based interpretations.

Knowledge to inform policy

Today, SIFO has several ongoing research projects with wardrobe studies: CHANGE, Wasted Textiles and Belong, all funded by the Research Council of Norway. Here the wardrobe studies are used to study how we use clothes for different occasions and the importance of variation in clothing habits, how we can reduce the amount of textiles and specifically synthetic textiles, and the importance of clothes for belonging.

In all projects, wardrobe studies contribute to important knowledge about the importance of clothing and textiles in our everyday lives. This knowledge is crucial to developing policies capable of drastically reducing climate and environmental impact, and at the same time ensuring everyone in the population has access to good clothing.

An important challenge in the work with clothing and the environment has long been very inadequate life cycle analyses (LCAs). Without knowledge of lifespan, disposable products are compared to clothes that are worn 500 times or more.

No one would argue that such a use of LCAs is correct, but going from this point of departure to finding methods to include lifespan in LCAs of environmental impact, is quite a challenge. SIFO has further developed the wardrobe studies method in a quantitative direction in order to obtain knowledge about global clothing habits suitable for such analyses.

Consumption is important

In these studies, we work with detailed information on 53,461 garments which gives the opportunity to ask questions about, for example, differences between different types of garments, fibres or what the clothes are used for. This is very relevant when the EU is now developing a new labelling scheme, the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF), which will include textiles. SIFO, therefore, contributes to the development of the rules specific to clothing in this labelling scheme. There, as in many other contexts, it is difficult to get the impression that consumption is important.

The work with wardrobe studies shows that in research it is not only important to develop good questions, but that the methods must also be adapted so that we researchers are able to deliver the knowledge that society needs. Climate and environmental problems cannot be solved without knowledge of people, society, politics and regulation. It is urgent to take the fact that we humans have created the problems seriously, but that we can also solve them. For that, we need more knowledge about ourselves and our habits and the way we use products that burden the climate and the environment a lot, such as apparel.

A comprehensive overview of research and projects that use wardrobe studies can be found on this web site and publications related to wardrobe studies can be found by clicking here.

This article draws on the following research:

Fletcher, K. and Klepp, I. G. (eds.) (2017) Opening Up the Wardrobe: A Methods Book. Oslo: Novus.
Klepp, I. G. and Bjerck, M. (2014) ‘A methodological approach to the materiality of clothing: Wardrobe Studies’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 17(4), pp. 373-386.
Klepp, I. G., Laitala, K., & Wiedmann, S. (2020). Clothing Lifespans: What Should Be Measured and How. Sustainability, 12(15).
Laitala, K., Klepp, I. G. and Henry, B. (2018) ‘Does Use Matter? Comparison of Environmental Impacts of Clothing Based on Fiber Type’, Sustainability, 10(7).
Laitala, K., & Klepp, I. G. (2020). What Affects Garment Lifespans? International Clothing Practices Based on a Wardrobe Survey in China, Germany, Japan, the UK, and the USA. Sustainability, 12(21), 9151.

Visit to Poland

Ingvild and Lisbeth visited Poland the last week of June. The goal of the trip was knowledge transfer and during it, they held three workshops/seminars.

At the University of Bielsko-Biala, teachers and pedagogy students were invited to a workshop about teaching wool to children, emphasising the creative potential as well as cultural aspects of wool. Through a short lecture, they were introduced to how different actors in Norway work with wool and children, and then we worked practically with wet felting, carding and hand spinning.
At the university, they also held the seminar “How can wool replace plastic?”, discussing the advantages and obstacles to this, building on SIFO’s research reports on wool products published last year in this project. The example of Selbu Spinning Mill was used to show how the local wool comes into play in this context and underline the advantages of wool compared to plastic in relation to preserving heritage, creating a circular (bio-)economy and degrowth.

Felting with teachers and pedagogy students

The last workshop was a wool sorting workshop held by Ingvild at Maria’s venue in Koniakow. It gathered 20 people, both sheep farmers, other local people and academics. The sorting showed great variety in the quality of the wool, from finer longer fibres to coarser fibres, but also that through it, the variety of products possible to make from the wool greatly increases, including softer yarns for garments like socks and sweaters.


In addition, they visited local museums in Koniakow and saw the milking of the sheep, getting a great insight into the cultural heritage that the pastoral practice upheld in the Polish highlands is such an important part of! (Not to mention the lovely cheese it results in!)

Feedback on the Sustainable Products Initiative (EU)

Kirsi Laitala and Ingun Grimstad Klepp have submitted feedback on the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation proposal on behalf of Consumption Research Norway. In the following, you can read the introduction. Click this link to read the whole feedback document (eu.com). The clothing research group also sent feedback on the Sustainable textiles strategy to Miljødirektoratet (under the Ministry of Climate and Environment), click here to read the feedback.

Feedback from Consumption Research Norway (SIFO)

Consumption Research Norway (SIFO) would like to thank the European Commission for the opportunity to give feedback on the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation proposal.
Our feedback concerns textiles that are very complex products, socially, aesthetically, functionally, and technically. The main problem lies in overproduction, and therefore setting requirements for eco-design can have unintended effects. For example, when setting criteria for more physically durable clothing, longer-lasting products will first and foremost contribute to greater accumulations and when they are discarded, they still retain the potential useful lifespan. Only about 37% of garments are disposed of because they are worn out or broken. Therefore, it is important that the directive also takes into consideration the other design aspects that impact length of product lifespans, such as changes in fashion, and poor fit of garments.


EU policy places great responsibility on consumers to bring about the reductions in environmental impact by choosing the least polluting products. However, within clothing, the difference in environmental impact between products is not large enough, and secondly, there is a lack of reliable information available about these differences. There are no «sustainable clothes» – rather there is rampant overproduction. The main problem is related to the quantity and not to the individual items.
In connection with product passports for textiles, access to information about production year will ensure a greater opportunity for consumers, authorities, and the waste industry to map how long things are used and last. The fiber labeling should also be updated to include information about the content of environmentally harmful chemicals.


Most clothes can be mended, and the majority of repairs are quite easy. When they are not repaired, it is usually because they are so cheap that this does not “pay off”, either in terms of using time or money for the repair. Therefore, determining repairability should be connected to the value of garments. Examples of non-repairable clothing include those with non-replaceable batteries or fabrics with Elastane. Elastane in fabrics can make them more durable, but when the Elastane has lost its elasticity, the clothes can no longer be repaired.


We recognize the urgency of building a larger second-hand market and a textile recycling industry in Europe. This will prevent landfill and the export of waste to countries without proper waste management. However, this entails the danger of continued spread of chemicals and materials including plastics. The requirement of using recycled fibers can in some cases lead to products with poorer use properties.
Due to the global overproduction of clothing, there are many products that are not needed or wanted, and that must go away somehow. What are the alternatives if the destruction of unsold consumer products is prohibited? We believe that this problem should be tackled earlier in the value chain, for example by using financial penalties against overproduction/import, measured for example by the number of unsold products, or that are returned, go on sale, or otherwise clearly are not desired.


We wish you all the best with this important work and hope to contribute to that the knowledge of consumption will be used actively in the design of the directive to avoid unintended adverse effects of good intentions.

New Make the Label Count White paper outlines important shortcomings for PEF

The report, that Ingun and Kirsi have contributed to, identifies key areas that are not aligned with other EU environmental strategies and that will have detrimental environmental effects if not amended.

Key whitepaper findings:

  • Issue #1: The PEF system does not currently take into account microplastics
    • Omitting microplastics as an indicator effectively assigns zero impacts to this form of emissions, which risks unintentionally guiding consumers towards plastic products and fibres.
    • Therefore, the system does not align with the CEAP, The Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, the Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles or the EU Strategy for Textiles Roadmap
    • The white paper proposes an ‘inventory-level’ indicator – this is a simple summation of modelled microplastic emissions across the life cycle
  • Issue #2: The PEF system does not currently include plastic waste
    • The increase in consumption of synthetic fibres has been accompanied by an increase in the mass of plastic waste originating from the textile supply chain
    • The absence of plastic waste in the PEF methodology therefore has the potential to contribute to an inequitable comparison of natural and synthetic fibres
    • Therefore, the system does not align with the CEAP or the Packaging Directive
    • The white paper recommends the PEF system should include plastic waste as an indicator
  • Issue #3: The PEF system does not currently take into account renewability or biodegradability
    • The current methodology does not take into consideration the renewability or biodegradability of fibres. This means that synthetic fibres, which are made from non-renewable resources and disposed of in landfill, may be scored as more sustainable than natural or recycled fibres
    • Therefore, the system does not align with the CEAP or the Bioeconomy Strategy
    • The whitepaper proposes introducing circularity indicators such as the Material Circularity Indicator (MCI) into PEF

Click here to read the white paper (makethelabelcount.org).

Local as a fashion change-maker

Hybrid event, 8th June 2022, 17:30-19:30 CET
Online and at Sentralen, Oslo

How can we bring the local alternatives to the forefront of the sustainability debate and in policy?

We have important decisions ahead to ensure a just transition to more sustainable ways of living. The new book “Local, slow and sustainable fashion: wool as a fabric for change” from the clothing research group at Consumption Research Norway SIFO, uses “wool as a lens through which to see important aspects of the contemporary world: corporate capitalism, consumerism, standardisation and their opposites: localised crafts and practices, quality of life, sustainability” (Professor Thomas Hylland Eriksen).

The clothing research group’s (world-renowned) wool and clothing research sits within the institute’s important research areas of local consumption and sustainability.

Click here for more information about the book: Local, Slow and Sustainable Fashion | SpringerLink

Program

Doors open at 17:00 CET

17:30: Welcome by Eivind Jacobsen, Institute Director at SIFO

17:35: The editors, Prof. Ingun Grimstad Klepp and Tone Skårdal Tobiasson introduce the book and the authors

17:40: Perspectives from authors and readers of the book, led by the editors:

Prof. Kate Fletcher, Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London College of Fashion, UK
Rebecca Burgess, M.Ed.,Executive Director of Fibershed, California
Gunnar Vittersø, Senior researcher at SIFO and the Amazing Grazing Project
Dr. Lorrie Miller, University of British Colombia, Canada
Elisabeth Stray Pedersen, Designer and owner, ESP
Maria Ehrnström-Fuentes, Associate Professor, Hanken School of Economics, Finland
Dr. Tone Smith, Member of Advisory board, Rethinking Economics Norway; Editor, Degrowth Norway
Gisle Mariani Mardal, Head of development, Norwegian Fashion & Textile Agenda, Oslo, Norway

18:55- 19:30: Streaming ends – in-person discussions and mingling

Click here to watch the event recording (facebook.com)

Say hello (and goodbye) to our student intern Lea!

For the past three months Lea Gleisberg, a student from the Master in System Design program at HTW Berlin has been a part of our team. For her master’s project, she is developing a clothing swap concept for Berlin, to increase re-use and make it attractive to more people.

While working with us and participating in our fieldwork and tasks, she has also been applying her knowledge of systemic design to our research. Through this, we have learned about systemic design and Lea has shown us how it can contribute to our analysis and research.

Now that her stay is coming to an end, we are looking forward to seeing her project come to fruition and wish her the brightest of futures. We’ve greatly enjoyed having her and welcome her back any time.

Lea says:

“My days at SIFO started with a seminar trip to Finnskogtoppen with the research team I would be working with. This was probably the best way to get to know my team and parts of the Norwegian culture. Throughout my stay at SIFO, I got a wide variety of opportunities to participate in different events, seminars, field research and everything I was personally interested in. I liked that it was not only about being in the office but also about taking part in field research and that I was able to work on my own project too. My time here has greatly impacted my master’s project, and I hope to stay in touch with the team even though my time here is limited. Until then, I hope to contribute some more systemic design approaches to the work of researchers, and I am curious to see to what extent they can be of value in the research field. I appreciate the very respectful, relaxed and down to earth atmosphere among all of the colleagues at SIFO. I can recommend it to every student who is motivated, likes to work independently and wants to learn something about theoretical and practical research, to spend some time here with the SIFO-team!”

Kristiane Rabben, Ingun Grimstad Klepp, Lisbeth Løvbak Berg and Lea Gleisberg sorting very dirty textiles for the Wasted Textiles Project. Photo: Kristiane Rabben.

Hit them where it hurts: Producers of fast fashion should pay the most

Ingun Grimstad Klepp and Tone Skårdal Tobiasson

OPINION: How best to deal with the negative environ l impact of the clothing industry? The writers behind this opinion suggest a system in which those who sell large volumes of clothes that don’t last pay the most.

The EU’s new textile strategy  was launched at the end of March. An important tool is a so-called extended producer responsibility (EPR), which means that producers voluntarily or compulsorily pay for the environmental impacts from the product both in use and as waste.

Rapid growth in fast fashion and overproduction are the main problems in the textile sector. In order for the new strategy to contribute to solving these problems it must be targeted. We have a proposal for how this can be done and have called it targeted producer responsibility.

Those who pollute the most should pay the most

Click here to read the full op-ed (sciencenorway.no)

Click here to read the textile strategy (europa.eu) 

Feedback to the EU Textile Strategy

The input is based on knowledge from these ongoing research projects on clothing and its environmental impact, supported by the Norwegian Research Council:

Lasting: Sustainable prosperity through product durability

CHANGE: Environmental system shift in clothing consumption

Wasted Textiles: Reduced synthetic textile waste through the development of resource-efficient value chains

Amazing Grazing: Sustainable products from rangeland-grazing sheep in Norway

Summary

We criticize the EU’s textile strategy for unilaterally addressing the global mass-producing sector of clothing production and its negative effects. Where is small-scale, local production addressed and where are the many opportunities and alternatives that exist for Europe’s indigenous raw materials and long craft traditions? The weakest point of the strategy is that it does not take overproduction and the explosive increase of synthetic textiles (plastic) seriously and does not aim to reduce this ‘out of control’ growth. If overproduction continues, longer life for textiles, more users or other measures to increase the utilization rate for individual garments, will not make sense. The measures mentioned in the strategy are not aimed at the main problem and are not suitable for achieving the goals of sustainable and circular textiles. At the same time, the measures can also have unintended side effects that further favor the fossil materials and through this, growth and overproduction will continue.

Introduction

Like many others, we at SIFO are happy with the strategy being launched and impressed that the EU wants to leverage many different tools for reducing the environmental impact from clothing and other textiles. At the same time, we see that the strategy has obvious weaknesses and, like a great deal of other work within this area, will have many consequences, but still increased environmental impacts. The reason for this is that the sector’s main challenge of accelerating overproduction is not taken seriously. We believe it is possible to do better, also within the framework set by the strategy and much will depend on details that have not yet been developed or made public. This allows Norway to take a lead – and show that it is possible to reduce the environmental impact of this sector and at the same time ensure Norwegian and European consumers access to good clothes. It can also enable parts of the industry local development opportunities. The strategy contains 6 main measures that we will comment on, but first some input on what the strategy lacks.

Good clothes, local production and the EU’s cultural heritage

Until the industrial revolution, clothing was actually sustainable, durable and “circular”. The production of textiles is at the heart of the great changes that led to increased prosperity in the Global north, at the same time as it led to great social inequity in the world and to the environmental problems we now have to solve. Clothing and other textiles are central to most cultures, including indigenous peoples’ understanding of themselves and are an important part of all social life, including traditions, rituals, and celebrations. Textile techniques and forms of expression are as old as Europe itself. We, therefore, want to open our outlook. The goal of the strategy is to an extent narrow and seen through the eyes of the mass-producing industry where nothing has lasting value. Where are the many small artisans who carry on the millennial traditions? Where is the great diversity of clothing and clothing practices that live a quiet and often very difficult life in the shadow of the global large-scale industry? Is it really the case that the EU envisions a future for textiles where the best they can come up with is that it should be “recycled”? Where is the beauty, warmth, tradition and cultural diversity? Where is the only real alternative to the global mass-producing industry: small-scale, local production? The EU has started important work with “Intellectual property” to strengthen crafts and industrial products, among other things through GI (Geographical Indications). This type of labeling and protection has long been known in the food sector. Why is it not part of the textile strategy?

It is often wise to build on existing alternatives. Today, probably 80% of EU’s wool is thrown away, and there is almost no utilization of fur and skins from hunting, trapping, livestock and pets. It is possible to make clothes from everything from fish skins to human hair and there are of course a number of plants such as flax, hemp and nettle that are under-utilized. The EU’s textile strategy is completely silent about the many untapped opportunities in the bio-based industry and the uninhibited waste of raw materials that is taking place. These are mainly raw materials with a potential for small-scale local production of high-quality goods, often based on highly developed handicraft techniques. These are raw materials that are irrelevant to the global mass-producing industry due to their price and small quantities.

If we exchange ‘clothes’ with ‘food’? Would a strategy for “Europe’s future sustainable food production” be possible without mentioning food culture, self-sufficiency, local traditions and specialities? The strategy is at best a one-sided argument for improvements in the part of the textile sector that is the problem itself. Everything else is ignored as if it does not exist or is irrelevant. We see the same thing in the development of policy instruments. It is the large mass-producing companies that are given the power to define both the description of the reality and the solutions. It is somewhat paradoxical that the strategy states that “fast fashion is out of fashion by 2030”, at the same time as the strategy itself remains entirely within the premises, concepts and ways of thinking of this industry. We are anxious that everything and everyone that are not mentioned, and not thought of, will be the ones who have the greatest problems adapting to the demands that will come. We are, frankly, afraid that the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater.

Norwegian interests

Norway has – compared to many countries in Europe – a better-preserved textile tradition, including amongst our Indigenous peoples. We have a well-functioning value chain for using the wool, not only from the dominant sheep breed, but for the entire spectrum of wool-producing animals. We have wool stations, spinning mills, weaving mills and knitting factories that supply quality goods. Norway is world-famous for its knitting patterns, and Norwegian knitwear is an obvious part of the wardrobe and celebration of our nation. The national costume (‘bunad’) is highly loved and contributes to a broad popular understanding that clothes can have value, can be inherited and can be made through time-consuming craft techniques. The national costume production has helped to maintain local raw material production, weaving mills and local tailoring, which are important elements in a potential build-up of more specialized sewing and repair facilities. This infrastructure is also important for the disabled and other consumers who cannot find clothes on the mass market. The Covid pandemic has taught us that local industrial companies are important for rapid restructuring if global sourcing is halted. The Norwegian textile industry has received little public attention, but it contributes significantly to Norwegian society both through the workforce and by delivering locally produced yarns and other products that contribute to maintaining a broadly popular textile culture with long and deep traditions.

Another important element in Norwegian clothing culture is the ability and willingness to dress for “all kinds of weather”. We have good clothes for children and many companies that help to constantly develop the concept of layering with wool innermost – which has made it possible to reach both Poles and local mountain peaks in the “Hundred Acre Wood”. Norwegian design at its best builds on our clothing culture and knitting pattern traditions and thus contributes to good clothes that people feel comfortable in and that make our daily lives warmer and more beautiful.

The Norwegian textile industry is alarmed by the EU’s strategy both because it completely lacks an understanding of what clothing is and can become, and because the “global mass-producing industry” perspective potentially galvanizes instruments that endanger small and vulnerable, local and time-consuming forms of production and cultural expression, if not addressed correctly. Norwegian interests will benefit from developing a strategy where better utilization of natural, local raw materials is central – or at least mentioned.

Norway has a responsibility to facilitate a reduced consumption of the textiles that pollute the most, especially when the pollution takes place in other countries and affects human health and the surrounding environment. Even though Norway (unlike Denmark and Sweden) does not “produce” fast fashion, we still have a high consumption of these clothes.

Global overproduction

The big problem in the sector is that too many clothes are made in relation to the number of people who can use the clothing. This problem is not solved with the proposed instruments but instead stands in the way of initiatives that are discussed as being economically and environmentally profitable.

There is little knowledge about the overproduction of textiles, but it is visible in different ways along the value chain, among other things, in unsold goods and returned goods that are destroyed or included in the trade of «used clothing» that is “gifted” to the Global south. With the individual consumer, the increase will show up in the form of expanding wardrobes and through the fact that more and more of the clothes never have been or will be used. This includes between 20 and 30% of the clothes purchased. The overproduction is also reflected in the disposal of clothing both in the form of growing quantities, but also because the vast majority of collected used clothing (97%) is exported. This shows that we in Norway import far more clothes than we can use. In the countries that are recipients of used clothing, overproduction manifests itself as large mountains or deserts of unwanted, but not worn, clothing. There are few, if any, who have relevant estimates of how large the overproduction is.

The EU textile strategy mainly seeks to meet this overproduction by extending the technical durability of the products (often called service life) including “eco-design” and “repairability”. We would like to remind that the clothes that make up these mountains or deserts are not primarily worn out, but unwanted. Increasing the technical life of clothing will not automatically reduce the number produced or purchased. On the other hand, it will cause the clothes to last (even) longer, whether it is in our wardrobes or in the flow of used clothes.

What the strategy should focus on, is the degree of utilization of clothing. A garment that is used little during its lifetime will have a poor degree of utilization and therefore has a large environmental impact. The utilization rate for clothing has dropped drastically in the last 20 years, and will continue to fall with this strategy. Piously asking the industry to produce a little less and consumers to buy a little less is not enough. None of the instruments (as they have been described so far) go to the heart of the problem. Neither rental, second-hand trade, longer life, repair, etc. leads to lower environmental impacts. They can, if it leads to fewer clothes being bought, and if this, in turn, leads to fewer being produced. These are two hypotheses that have not been discussed or documented, but which are a prerequisite for the strategy. The clothing industry has planned to increase its production further at the same time as the clothes are now meant to last a long time (according to the strategy), thus the utilization rate for clothes will continue to plummet. If clothes are only used 1 or 10 times, they should also be made for this. Of course, we believe that clothes should rather be made to be used 100 or 1000 times, but planning for even stronger “disposable products” is the very worst option. It is, therefore, necessary to discuss how production can be scaled down, and for which products increased strength will have some if any positive effect.

The strategy contains 6 main measures that we refer to and comment on below.

1. Requirements for eco-design of textiles so that they are more durable, can be reused, repaired and materials recycled, and do not contain environmental toxins.

Eco-design: Textiles are very complex products, socially, aesthetically, functionally and technically. Setting such requirements can thus have unintended effects. We see this clearly in the work with PEF (Product Environmental Footprint). It may sound wise that products are more durable, but no matter how strength is measured or how the limit for strength is set, this will favor synthetic textiles – which are much stronger than natural materials. If we look at how long consumers use different products, the opposite trend emerges. The “weak”, i.e., the natural fibers, are used longer. Setting requirements thus strengthens the products that are used the shortest. This is one of many examples of how “eco-design” is not a simple field at all and that good intentions can easily have catastrophic consequences.

Durability: The document uses the term long-lived, but the fact that something lasts a long time does not necessarily mean that it is used a lot. And this duration has both a technical and a social side. Said a little differently; if you produce a “merch” t-shirt, it may well be that it can “last” a few hundred years, but still never be used ever again after the event you participated in. In an economy with overproduction, that products last longer will first and foremost contribute to greater accumulations of products and when they are discarded, they still retain the potential useful life-span. The term thus ignores the social side of clothing consumption and the subjective perception of consumers of when a garment has been “used up”. In order for the garment to activate more use, there must necessarily be another user for it, and this is not a given.

Reuse: Reuse takes place both in and outside the commercial clothing market. In Norway, we have a very small market for buying used clothes, but a well-established tradition of heritage. The vast majority of collected clothing is exported for reuse in other countries, mainly the Global south. Important in a Norwegian strategy will be that more is “used up” in Norway, and that the most common form of re-use (inheritance) is not only replaced by buying and selling, but that re-use replaces the purchase of new goods. Reuse in itself does not reduce environmental impact. If it is to do so, it must replace the purchase of new clothes. Reuse is therefore not a goal in itself, but a possible way to increase the degree of utilization of clothing.

Repairs: Most repairs in Norway take place in the home. Strengthening repairs can be done through better training in schools, through support for NGOs that contribute to adult and child education, and for companies that develop good systems for collaboration on repairs with their customers. It is also possible to support small-scale tailors directly, both because they also do a lot of other socially useful work, such as adaptation and altering, and production for people who have different needs, for example, due to disabilities and mass-produced clothing that does not fit. In other words, it is necessary to lift this discussion out of “VAT reduction” and to instruments that will both work better and be easier to implement.

Repair is also part of the thinking around “eco-design”, i.e., that all products should be “repairable”. Clothes are mainly repairable. When they are not repaired, it is because they are so cheap that this does not “pay off”. In other words, it is the cheap clothes that are not «repairable», but this logic is not discussed. There is little reason to believe that the EU wants to ban cheap apparel and this discussion is rather about the technically repairable clothes. So what clothes are these? We see two groups of clothes that stand out and that we will briefly comment on.

“Intelligent textiles” or what is often referred to like this, i.e., textiles with electronics embedded. It is completely unproblematic to ban these from the market, we do not need flashing sneakers or Santa hats (with batteries that cannot be replaced), but this does not make up a large part of the market.

Elastane, on the other hand, does. In underwear, gym clothes, jeans, t-shirts, etc., a small percentage Elastane (elastic plastic) is mixed in to give these clothes stretch. This ensures that the clothes “hold” their fit and form. The problem is that Elastane has a shorter life than the materials it is used in, and if it is mixed in or integrated in other ways, it will not be possible to replace it. Will stretch in jeans, gym clothes and underwear be banned? And elastic that is part of the waistband, and thus irreplaceable? When the Elastane in the fabric has lost its elasticity, the clothes can no longer be repaired, but they can become more durable. Will there be a time-limit rule to how long Elastane should last? Clothes can in principle last for hundreds of years. The more clothes we have, the older they get. How many years do we have to require the clothes to last? Will Elastane and stretch-waistbands be OK in some products (e.g. support stockings and bras) and not in others?

We write this to remind that demanding that clothes are “repairable” will be at the expense of something else. Many consumers appreciate underwear that is invisible, gym clothes with a close fit or support stockings, etc. Based on the discussions in the work with PEF, it seems that the global, large-scale industry’s solution is a very symbolic interpretation of “repairability”, e.g. in the form of an extra button in the shirt, which is often already something most people have several dozen of. It has not been investigated whether an extra button will actually lead to more repairs, or only increased the environmental impact.

Material recycling: Textile to textile recycling is very limited today. There is no large-scale recycling of textiles (though some down-cycling is done industrially). Material recycling of the materials as new products (e.g. in the form of rags, rugs, etc.) takes place on a small scale and is difficult to scale up.

Wool recycling has a long tradition and is usually called shoddy. Yarn is still sold with the label saying “pure new wool” as a guarantee that the yarn does not contain recycled fiber. Why? Because recycling wool and other natural fibers results in weaker and poorer quality yarns. For synthetic fabrics, this is different. They can – but do not always – become weaker depending on the process used. In cases where the textiles become weaker after recycling, it has been shown to mean more emissions of microplastics, since the fibers are shorter.

Demanding mandatory recycled content will (fortunately) take time, as long as the EU’s textile strategy makes it so clear that this is fiber to fiber, and not fiber from other value chains, such as rPet from bottles. At the same time, both the waste hierarchy and the findings from research indicate that there are very few “environmental benefits” to be gained from recycling. There is also a danger that this will lead to even more fossil materials in clothing, because this is the only clothing manufacturers have so far extracted from other value chains and been allowed to call “recycled”.

Environmental toxins: This is important. It would be a good start to revise the «regulations for fiber labeling» to include all chemicals on the «list of concern» and at the same time decide whether plastic is an environmental toxin. A weakness in the strategy because it does not discuss whether textiles should be included in relevant regulations of environmental toxins (e.g. GMO, export of hazardous waste, etc.).

2. Stop/prevent discarded/returned textiles from being binned and/or destroyed. The Commission is considering banning the destruction of unsold and returned textiles.

Destroying unused goods is obviously a ‘no-go’. But if no one wants to use these products, or they are dangerous, then why shouldn’t they be destroyed? We believe that the source of this problem is overproduction and should therefore be stopped by capping production. Once clothing is produced and unsaleable, it should be very expensive to destroy it. We have made a proposal where this is part of an EPR variation, which we have called Targeted Producer Responsibility, which also includes an alternative to a banning this practice. There is currently great uncertainty about the extent to which the destruction of unsold goods actually takes place and it will therefore require a greater degree of transparency if this is to be regulated in any way.

3. Limit microplastic emissions. The Commission is launching a separate initiative to reduce unintentional emissions of microplastics into the environment in 2022, which includes emissions from synthetic textiles.

Textiles lose fiber in use and washing, and they dissolve into microfiber if they are dispersed into the environment (f. ex. face masks that litter our surroundings) or end up in landfill. For the issue of plastic and microplastic pollution, both of these two problems should be addressed. All production, transport, trade, use and recycling of plastics (including textiles) entails the spread of microplastics and the risk of plastics leaching. We therefore believe that more should be done to limit the use of plastic in textile form and that efforts should not be so one-sidedly concentrated on the spread of microplastics directly from the textiles. There are great untapped opportunities to look at alternatives to synthetics and other plastics in forestry, agriculture, fishing, and in clothing and interior textiles. So far, the EU’s strategy seems to be narrow, and “waiting for more knowledge”, rather than acting on what we do know: growth in the use of fossil materials in clothing should be stopped and quickly reversed, in other words capped.

A lot of fossil materials are used in the form of chemicals for dyeing and finishing. This is the part of the textile value chain that pollutes the most. Dyeing and finishing can be said to relate to the use of chemicals, but here too there is a lot of use of plastic (and other materials from fossil raw materials that are not renewable or degradable in nature).

4. Requirements for information and digital product passports. To improve access to product information, the European Commission proposes to introduce information requirements on the sustainability of textiles and the use of digital product passports so that consumers can more easily make sustainable choices.

We completely agree that the product information must be better. At the same time, it is also the case that the systems that exist today are outdated and work poorly. We therefore need to find out how they can again be relevant, updated and better controlled.

We further believe that the information consumers need is first and foremost the use properties of clothing. The requirements for (and follow-up of) labelling of sizes and fit are absolutely central, since it is one of the most important reasons why clothes are not used, or returned in the case of internet sales. Simple and reliable information about the expected life of the clothes, the number of expected uses, degree of pilling, fading, etc., will make it easier to choose the right product. The same applies to information about wind-proofing, water-proofing, etc. in ways that enable easy comparison between products. But above all, consumers should know who produced the product and when. This will strengthen complaint rights and be essential for developing good producer responsibility. Transparency about where and by whom products are produced (the entire value chain) will be important in the work of improving working conditions and animal welfare.

The product passport could also be used to include information about the content of the clothes in addition to fiber. Such labelling of the chemicals could also include additional warnings on substances that are on the REACH watch list, and in addition to environmental information, could also be useful for those suffering from allergies.

To inform consumers about “environmental impact” presented as the level of sustainability in production, we are, however, more sceptical of, see point 5.

5. Tighten the regulations on greenwashing. The Commission will present two initiatives to combat greenwashing and ensure reliable and comparable information to consumers about the environmental footprint of products.

Greenwashing: It is a paradox that one of these two initiatives (“Substantiating Green Claims”) to which the strategy refers to, will be using PEF, which is probably the largest greenwashing project that has ever been planned. Today, there is a massive greenwashing of synthetic textiles (Plastics) within PEF, and this constitutes a threat to natural fibers, small-scale production, crafts and consumers’ interests. The mainstay of today’s eco-labeling schemes (the Nordic Swan and the EU Eco-label) and the Norwegian Consumer Agency’s understanding of greenwashing is that this should be based on documented information about the product itself and not more or less reliable global average figures, which is what PEF uses. PEF thus threatens the other eco-labels’ interests and it is urgent to demand that “Substantiating Green Claims” should be stopped if it is not possible to develop this instrument better, i.e., by not using PEF. It is also a paradox that it is the global mass-producing industry that has the majority in the technical committee (and thus veto-right) that is developing what is to be used to combat “greenwashing”, an industry that has already proven to be masters at greenwashing.

The environmental footprint of products: As the very idea of what is needed, is to label the products so that consumers will choose the ones with the least environmental impact, there are a series of assumptions that are not discussed and which we believe are untrue. These are:

• there is a big difference between the environmental impact of products

• there is knowledge about the environmental impact of products that is scientifically documented and an agreement on how this should be calculated and weighted

The first is important because a labelling scheme of “green” products in itself, can increase consumption. This will happen because it will be (even) easier to defend high consumption because the products are “green”. Furthermore, it can happen because a parameter is added to consumers’ available choices. Even today, many consumers have difficulty finding clothes they like and that fit. The products that impact the least are those that are used a lot and for a long time and thus (potentially) replace the purchase of several new ones.

If the EU finds that polyester in bedding “burdens the environment less” than cotton (as PEF currently proposes), there is a high probability that many people will buy into this, but find that they do not like sleeping in polyester, and throw the bedding in the bin, and buy new bedding.

It is a basic premise for the strategy that there is knowledge about the products’ environmental impact that is agreed upon and which is scientifically documented. This is not so. We do not have comparable LCA studies, and we hardly have LCA studies that include the use phase of clothing (with a few exceptions). The big question of how to measure natural fibers against synthetic materials is not solved and there are no current measuring methods that include microplastics, to name a few of the issues at stake. What exists in the way of indices, have been created by the global mass-producing textile industry itself, and can be considered advanced greenwashing systems. A major concern in the use of these indices, is that through a seemingly third-party certification, what the industry itself will profit on the most, also appears to be the most “green” as well.

This has also become an industry in itself. It is striking that the strategy does not ask the question of whether the knowledge exists, nor by whom, when and how it should be developed. It is not in the interests of consumers to be told that some products are “green” and then hear the opposite the following year, when new knowledge has emerged or is adopted. Developing a system which later aims to correct weaknesses and errors, is thus a very unfortunate way to go.

6. Producer responsibility. The Commission has announced that they will introduce requirements for extended producer responsibility for textiles in their proposal for an amended framework directive on waste, coming in 2023. Producer responsibility will, among other things, contribute to financing systems for separate collection and treatment of textile waste from 2025.

In the Wasted Textiles project, we have developed a proposal for how producer responsibility can be something more than just collecting money, and we have called it targeted producer responsibility. We believe this proposal can be introduced in Norway independently of the EU. The project uses actual use time and actual costs to keep the textiles in circulation as a starting point for a differentiation of the fee manufacturers have to pay. This will make it possible to create an equal playing field for imports from foreign internet companies (the part of the textile industry that is growing the fastest) in competition with sales in brick-and-mortar stores. Furthermore, it will distinguish between products that are not used, or that are used very briefly, and clothes and textiles that already have a long life and thus have little impact on the environment, and also put the least burden on future collecting, reuse and recycling solutions.

What does the Minister of the Environment think about apparel and the environment?

Tone Skårdal Tobiasson & Ingun Grimstad Klepp.

This is a translated version of an op-ed first published by tekstilforum.no. Click here to see the original version (tekstilforum.no)

This is not easy to ascertain from two answers sent to Conservative Member of Parliament Liv Kari Eskeland in response to her questions about the EU’s new Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) scheme, which is in danger of labeling natural fibers as the least environmentally friendly.

What we are wondering is simply whether Espen Barth Eide is not worried about the galloping use of polyester and acrylic, with subsequent problems such as microplastics and increasingly cheaper and worse clothes? Is he really for a further increase in the proliferation of synthetic clothing which, after a brief appearance in our wardrobes, is exported lightly used out of the country to an uncertain fate? And in case why? We do not know the answer, but will explain why we ask the questions.

The case is this. There have been repeated questions about PEF, also from the Conservative parliamentary representative Liv Kari Eskeland, who has been involved in the case on behalf of local textile industry. In the first answer, the Minister of Climate and Environment writes that he is familiar with «that synthetic textiles such as polyester are best when it comes to some environmental impacts, while for other environmental categories natural fibers have less negative impact». This was followed up by Eskeland, who is from Stord (the local small town) and who knows the wool industry well.

As a business-savvy person, she is politically engaged, lively concerned about possible threats to Norwegian businesses. The answer to her follow-up question is surprising because it does not discuss which areas synthetic fiber (ie plastic) are environmentally better than wool, but instead addresses the relationship between environmental impact from cotton and synthetic fibers. Why? Does the Minister think that all natural fibers are the same? And Norway has no cotton production, so here Norwegian business interests are not threatened, only Norwegian consumers’ access to a textile material they love.

The next issue in this ‘package of wonder’ is the scientific content. The Minister presents two different sources for the environmental benefits of plastics. One is land use. And yes, it is true that in life cycle analysis (LCA) the square meters of “space” a business takes, is heavily considered. It is almost in the nature of things that natural fibers take up more “space” in production than oil. But this comparison between square meters used, for example, for grazing against oil refineries is easy to criticize. Because there are very different “uses” of land, and grazing has not only negative, but also many positive effects (which are not included), and it is also a question of what the alternatives are.

Very few – and certainly not Barth Eide – think it would be exactly the same to have an oil refinery or a polyester factory versus pasturing sheep, as the nearest neighbor? And when the area it once took for dinosaurs and others to live and die, and then turn into oil, is not included, it is because time is not included in the calculation. Neither how long it has taken to produce the oil, nor the time it will take to break it down again. The comparison of the space to cultivate something against the space industry takes, shows first and foremost how such tools as LCAs fall short when nature and synthetics are compared directly. This is also the core of the criticism of PEF. And one of the reasons why over 60 EU politicians have now sent letters to the Commission, because they are concerned about the way this will be done in the planned labeling scheme (https://www.makethelabelcount.org/).

The other basis for his evaluation that the minister points to, is water consumption and again the comparison is polyester against cotton. There is a heated debate on this issue. It is almost a bit shocking that the documentation to which he refers is a report from SIFO from 2012. It is of course nice that SIFO’s work is valued, but this report is based on figures from 2007, which in turn are based on figures from the previous millennium. Knowledge about environmental impacts has changed a great deal in these years, and in general LCA is considered to be ‘fresh produce’ with a perishable date, and then we are talking about a few years before they lose their value. LCAs should be repeated at least every five years, many say every three.

Both we, Barth Eide and the report he refers to that compares fibers believe that the difference between the fibers is very small, global average figures taken into account, and that the most important thing is that clothes are made from the fibers that are best suited for the purpose. Then they are used for a long time and a lot, and then we appreciate them and take good care of them. The problem is that as PEF now develops, there will be large differences between the fibers, and it is the natural fibers that come out the worst. Many people actually like natural fibers, national costume shirts in linen, sweaters in wool, and maybe even a silk shawl or tie, but wool is no longer wool, but full of acrylic and polyester, and cotton is increasingly “polycotton”.

Polyester national costumes will hardly be inherited. In many products, plastic is best and the synthetic fibers are also much better than other fibers. However, the rapid increase in the use of synthetic fibers, and the even faster increase planned by the industry, has not come because synthetics are the best. Developing a labeling scheme that will label plastic as green is like pouring gasoline on the fire in a world that needs to cool down. Polyester is today over 60% of textile fiber production and the only way the fashion industry can continue to grow. This is also why the industry puts so much effort into greenwashing plastic. They can do this job just fine without the help of a Norwegian Minister of Climate and Environment or a European labeling schemes.

That’s why we’re wondering. Does Espen Barth Eide know what was actually in the letter he signed? We have a hard time believing that he is an ordinary plastic pusher, even though the government’s oil policy surprises more than us. Is his highest desire really to remove the few clothes that are still found in natural materials from the market? And make it even more difficult to make a living from wool production and the wool industry in Norway? Liv Kari Eskeland and the others in the Conservative Party are probably also wondering the same. That is why the Conservatives’ Mathilde Tybring-Gjedde, Sandra Bruflot and Mari Holm Lønseth presented a representative proposal in the Storting on 17 February for stricter requirements for the textile industry. The government is thus squeezed from both the right and the left in politics, and interestingly enough mainly by female representatives. The Conservative Party’s proposal includes PEF, and both the problems with plastic and microplastics are mentioned. If Barth Eide really wants a future clad in plastic, he now has the opportunity to say it loud and clear. We are waiting in anticipation.