Why are clothes so important when it comes to building a sustainable culture?

by Andrea Speranza, head of education at Traid.


Andrea Speranza, head of education at Traid

The importance of clothes transcends cultures, time and geographies. No matter whether we are talking about the present or Victorian times: what we wear on our bodies has meaning. Our clothes indicate who we are as individuals as well as a society. Indeed, some anthropologists refer to clothes as “the social skin.”

In the alarming face of climate change, the biggest threat civilisation has ever faced, it is worth asking ourselves: what meaning do we want to give, or should we give, to clothes, if we are aiming for a sustainable society?

In the current unsustainable model of society, clothes could be described as the elephant in the room. The textiles industry is a huge polluter and massive producer of global carbon emissions. Deforestation, excessive consumption of resources and waste of all types are necessary for our clothes as we want them today: cheap and fast.

Around 90% of the clothes we buy in Britain are made abroad. Demand for clothes in the UK drives the production of almost three times more emissions outside of the UK than it drives domestically.

As a nation we love clothes. We spend £44billion a year on them. However, it seems we enjoy buying them more than wearing them. Statistics show some 30% of the clothes that are bought are never worn in one year. And an estimated £140million worth of used clothing goes to landfill.

To return to the initial question: what meaning do we want to give to our clothes?

For a socio-environmental charity such as TRAID, clothes represent a way of protecting our planet. We work to encourage as many people as possible to share this interpretation of clothes with us. Extending the life of clothes by just three more months can lead to a 5% to 10% reduction in carbon, water and waste footprints. When we buy second hand clothes and donate our unwanted clothes we are extending their life for a few more years.

And there is even better news. Seeing our clothes as a way of protecting the environment is not only green, it is fun too!

Clothes are a means of expressing our individuality (whether we are formal or serious, whether we are cheeky or a bit “too much”). When lots of people express their individualities, diversity arises; a diversity we all know keeps life alive for us.

Fashion as it is currently promoted is the opposite of diversity. By definition it is something we are all supposed to follow. Someone, somewhere is telling us, with each approaching summer or each new winter, exactly how we should look. But when we visit a second hand shop or go to a clothes swapping event, there is always just one garment waiting for us. Our own intrinsic creative sense informs us how we want to look.

Our current social paradigm promotes the value novophilia (love of something only because it is new) to an unimaginable extreme. Within such a society, how can we encourage the millions who buy new to try second hand?

We cannot change behaviour without first changing values and perception.

WRAP’s new “Love your clothes” campaign is doing a fantastic job of sharing information about the economic value of our unwanted clothes.

However, it is also time to start talking about other values – those we should be putting first; not those that rule the market but values that help us discern what is truly important for us all, and for our planet’s future.

“By doing something as simple as reusing our clothes, we are avoiding the use of raw materials, the destruction of ecosystems, reducing energy consumption and waste.

So, one simple way in which everyone can opt to make sustainability important is by choosing #SecondHandFirst.”



Charity Number: 1118616 | Company Number: 4323551