While the British fashion industry squirms under the klieg lights of public scrutiny, indications abound that clothing sold in the country is actually becoming greener.
This is due, in part, to changes made as a result of the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan 2020 (SCAP 2020), a commitment by 85 of the United Kingdom’s leading apparel retailers, charity shops and clothing recyclers to clip back their carbon, water and waste-to-landfill footprints by 15 percent and waste across the product life cycle by 3.5 percent by 2020.
Together, the signatories, which include Asos, Arcadia Group (which owns Topshop), Marks & Spencer, Next, Primark, Tesco, the Salvation Army, the British Retail Consortium and the Textile Recycling Association, represent more than 65 percent of U.K. retail sales by volume, according to Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the England-based nonprofit coordinating the effort.
As a whole, the clothing industry is “looking good” in terms of progress toward SCAP targets, WRAP noted in its latest SCAP 2020 progress report, which was published on Tuesday.
In the five years since SCAP was established, signatories have achieved an 11.9 percent reduction in their carbon footprint per metric ton of garments, a 17.7 percent reduction in the water footprint per metric ton of garments, a 14 percent reduction in waste to landfill and a 1.1 percent reduction in waste per metric ton.
Parsed in more accessible terms, signatories have saved, per metric ton of clothing sold, as much water as a family of four would use if they each took a bath every day for 29 years and as many greenhouse-gas emissions as a car would generate on a 24,000-mile trip.
Meanwhile, waste-reduction activities by signatories saved the equivalent of 900,000 pairs of jeans by weight, or enough to supply everyone working on Christmas Day, WRAP said.
Despite progress against the water and carbon targets, waste remains an area of concern ahead of the 2020 deadline.
“While the SCAP water target has been met, further action is needed to meet the carbon target, and the waste footprint target continues to look extremely challenging,” Sarah Gray, research analyst at WRAP, wrote in the report.
The organization credits changes in the signatories’ fiber mix—notably their use of more sustainably produced fibers such as Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) cotton, Cotton made in Africa, lyocell, recycled polyester and organic cotton—for the uptick in numbers.
A “significant adoption” of BCI cotton, “thanks to the efforts of several of the larger retailers,” accounted for a 5 percent reduction in the industry’s water footprint and a 0.7 percent reduction in its carbon footprint, Gray said.
SCAP signatories have replaced at least 27 percent of their conventionally produced cotton with BCI cotton, or the equivalent of more than 300 million pairs of jeans.
Switching to sustainable (or “improved”) cotton, such as that from BCI, delivered more water and carbon reductions than any other actions, WRAP found. In all, the organization tracked 46 individual measures by signatories, including improvements in production techniques, the expansion of used-clothing collection for recycling and efforts to increase reuse and resale.
Meeting SCAP 2020 targets, it said, would save the U.K. fashion industry more than 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year (the equivalent of annual emissions from 250,000 cars), 420 million cubic meters of water per year (enough to fill more than 160,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools) and more than 16,000 metric tons of waste stemming from the entire product life cycle.
“I am delighted by what SCAP 2020 signatories have achieved,” Peter Maddox, director of WRAP said in a statement. “Compared with the wider sector they continue to set the bar high for improving sustainable practices. And it’s important that they do because while clothing might only be the eighth largest sector in terms of household spend, it has the fourth largest environmental impact behind housing, transport and food. “
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of room for improvement, he noted. WRAP plans to release further recommendations in the form of guidance documents in 2019.
“As the Environmental Audit Committee into fast fashion has shown, there’s a lot more work to do on clothing, and I believe that initiatives like SCAP 2020 have an important role to play,” Maddox said.