“The most sustainable product is the one that you already own.”
The current conversation around ‘sustainability’ has a tendency to focus on the materials that garments are made from.
Is it made using recycled materials, and is that recycled content generated from post consumer content from single use plastic?
But what about durability as a measure of sustainability?
When we think about the durability of products, we’re usually assessing their strength, or their ability to work for a long time without breaking or needing to be replaced.
An item’s emotional durability should also be considered in this context.
Charles Ross is an industry expert in the field of technical fabrics and outdoor sportswear, and we asked him to elaborate on what it means to talk about emotional durability in relation to the clothes we wear.
“Having worked around technical clothing for nearly three decades one of the most common questions is around the ‘durability’ of an item.
In the past this might have meant just the strength of the material used, but now (with better knowledge), it should be revisited.
There is generally correlation between the lightness of the fabric and its physical durability.
There are two other durabilities to consider: Fit Durability – which is best seen on growing kids, or when you try to put on a pair of trousers that you bought in a previous stage of life; and Emotional Durability – which is how long do you continue using a product before you get tempted towards a newer version (often by a marketing message promising better technology.)
It is the latter that more attention should be focused on.
“It is known to be better (in the footprints of carbon, water, & waste terms) to have a ‘Bad Ingredient’ garment that you use for over five years, than several ‘Good Ingredient’ garments that keep needing to be replaced every couple of years, as so much goes into the manufacturing & shipping process.”
Currently there is much talk of the Circular Economy, which seems to be interpreted by many clothing companies as producing a garment for recycling.
Those that know what the Circular Economy is (to keep the original garment going for as long as possible) realise there are many steps to be taken before any garment should be put in for textile recycling.
Revitalise/ Recondition (normally just giving it a proper wash); Repair/ Resize (resurrect those skills!); Reduce/ ReSell (only buying a Four Season Down Jacket if you get sub zero temperatures for months of the year; plus if you move to warmer climates: selling on performing product); Reappropriate (gear you have fallen out of love with, to a better source like the local cycling club); Relegate to a lower task (like doing the gardening in); & only then should it be Recycled!
Wrap.org.uk (who guide most waste textile strategies in this country) identified that the end-of-life of textiles is normally worth less than 10% of the overall environmental footprint, but if you can extend the garment use for another season that represents over 25% reduction in those same measurements.
Emotional Durability is the key to extending the life of the garment.
As someone who works in a School of Art & Design this is where I become proud of Performance Sportswear – it is styled for comfort, as opposed to fashioned for trends.
The former encourages extended use, but the latter goes out of visage as fast as it comes in.
Tags like Slow Fashion are used, but I just refer to it as utilitarian product: stuff bought for what it does, as opposed to the vogue of the day.
“One simple test of whether a garment should be bought is to ask whether it will have 30 washes during your ownership of it.”
Manufacturing is the biggest footprint of most garments.
It is known to be better (in the footprints of carbon, water, & waste terms) to have a ‘Bad Ingredient’ garment that you use for over 5 years, than several ‘Good Ingredient’ garments that keep needing to be replaced every couple of years, as so much goes into the manufacturing & shipping process.
One simple test of whether a garment should be bought is to ask whether it will have 30 washes during your ownership of it.
It is not to say that product does not become superseded by new technology, but as someone who remembers the first use of Gore-Tex by Outdoor brands, it has progressed well – but all through evolution, rather than a new version being so much of a revolutionary technology that is completely outperforms what currently exists.”
Charles Ross is a specialist in Performance Sportswear Design & sustainable matters. He lectures at the Royal College of Art, is a visiting lecturer at University College Falmouth, and is a widely known and respected industry expert in the field of performance textiles.