The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) reveals why producing better quality, longer lasting clothes is a win-win situation for manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike.
The Waste and Resources Action Programme, better known as WRAP, is a UK charity whose vision is a world in which resources are used sustainably. Working with governments, businesses and communities, it seeks to find practical solutions to accelerate the move to a sustainable, resource-efficient economy. Essentially, it wants to reinvent how we design, produce and sell products; rethink how we use and consume products; and redefine what is possible through re-use and recycling.
With clothing and textiles being one of WRAP’s priority sectors for driving change, it has carried out extensive research into the environmental impact of the whole journey of clothing – from raw materials and manufacturing, to purchase, use and disposal. In June, it published ‘Sustainable Clothing – a practical guide to enhancing clothing durability and quality’. Researched and developed with industry, the guide shares simple steps and best practice on how to design, produce and sell sustainable clothing that lasts longer and can easily be repaired and reused. CWB takes a look at the key findings.
What does durability mean?
For some clothing brands, ‘durability’ and ‘quality’ are interchangeable. As well as reducing the environmental footprint of clothing, durability helps to drive quality, safeguarding against garment failure, strengthening brand reputation and helping cement customer satisfaction and loyalty. For a consumer, the durability of a product is measured by how long it provides a useful service to them. Expectations for individual items vary – jackets, coats and outerwear, for example, are expected to last for over five years, while underwear and tights have an active lifespan of less than three years.
Enhancing the durability of childrenswear
In terms of childrenswear, WRAP has five top actions for enhancing durability: design in a growth allowance; select fabrics and components that are proven to offer durability and colour fastness; apply fabric finishes to reduce the likelihood of staining; design garments for multi-functionality, such as reversible items; and reinforce weak areas, or areas liable to extra stress, such as elbows and knees. If used skilfully, the style and cut of childrenswear can also have impact beyond the look and feel of the garment. Unisex, multi-functional and updateable designs all increase potential wearability, along with built-in size adjustments.
The design stage is pivotal to the eventual durability of a garment. Choices around style, cut, fit, fibre and yarn, construction, trimmings and finishings all have an impact on the final product. Many designers and buyers will focus much of their attention on selecting and specifying the main fabric for their products. However, a garment may be returned or disposed of not because the main fabric falls short, but due to a failing in a low-cost component, or as a result of a poorly specified aspect of construction or manufacture. A good way to improve durability and potentially reduce cost and returns is to introduce specifications for all production tasks and materials.
Raw materials include fabrics, linings and components (trims). Fabric quality depends on many variables, such as fibre type, blends, yarn structure and fabric construction, as well as dyeing and finishing. Fabrics may carry the same description – 100 per cent cotton, for instance – yet can vary greatly in performance and durability.
Man-made fibres such as nylon, polyester and acrylic have good physical durability attributes such as strength, abrasion resistance and shape resilience. Polyester in particular is commonly used because of these attributes, as well as being wrinkle-resistant, good at retaining colour and relatively low in cost. Natural fibres like cotton, however, need to be carefully selected to allow for variations in harvests. A poor quality, short staple, immature and weak fibre is more likely to cause fabric pilling than long, staple cotton. Wool is a hard-wearing fibre, but can also be fine and delicate.
The durability and performance of products can be enhanced by blending different fibres. Nylon and polyester fibres can be successfully blended with natural fibres to enhance the durability of fabrics and improve the comfort of the final product. However, poor selection of fibres can have a detrimental impact on quality and it’s worth noting that the blending of fibres compromises opportunities for recycling the garment at the end of its life.
Wovens, plain and twill weaves are commonly considered the most durable options and are used in garments that require high levels of physical durability, such as denim jeans and school uniforms.
Colouration and dye selection
Colour is one of the most important influences when it comes to choosing new clothes and it also plays a significant role in deciding when a garment has reached the end of its life. The choice of a cheap or unsuitable dye, or cutting corners in dye application, has a significant effect on the durability of a garment: correctly specifying dye use and application should be a key part of product specification.
Finishing processes are used to improve the look, performance, or ‘hand’ (feel) of the finished clothing. They are usually applied directly to fabrics after, or in combination with, dyeing. Mechanical and chemical finishing treatments produce a range of effects, such as changing the texture, drape and feel of the fabric; stiffening/ softening, brushing or smoothing; improving appearance, including colour, sheen and pattern; adding functional properties, like crease resistance, stain resistance and waterproofing; and facilitating care requirements, including easy wash, quicker drying times, colour-fast or pre-shrinking, applying anti-pilling or anti-microbial treatments.
Technologies available for mechanical and chemical finishing of fabrics are very diverse and extensive, with new finishing opportunities constantly being developed. The majority of chemical finishes are relatively easy to apply and most good suppliers can provide the bulk of chemical finishing. Many finishing treatments can affect performance and durability, or help extend the active use of a garment. Understanding likely impacts and giving clear instructions on where and how the final product will be used needs to be an integral part of overall product specification.
Designers have numerous stitch types, sewing threads, machine models and settings to choose from, as well as an array of methods for garment construction. Each technique will be best suited to a particular fabric or garment type, and can be exploited to achieve greater durability.
Product failures can occur when the seam technique used is incompatible with the fabric. Particular care should be given to the construction of performance garments, such as waterproof products and close-fitting or stretch garments.
The quality of trimmings and the way they are attached need to be given special consideration to give the finished garment the longest possible life. To enhance durability, the use of reinforcement stitches and bar tacks at stress points on the garment is recommended.
The use of clearly defined testing protocols for components and manufacturing elements can be built into product specifications to ensure consistency of quality. Industry standard tests cover physical testing, colour fastness, chemical testing and flammability, and can form part of a product specification. Standards may be British (BSI), European (CEN) or international (ISO), and even retailer-specific.
Wash and wear guidance
The way consumers wash their clothes at home has the potential to change the characteristics of fibres and fabrics and, as a result, to reduce durability. Improving care information on labels, packaging, at point of purchase, or on supporting websites is a low-cost method that could further decrease the carbon footprint, while increasing the item’s durability.
Advising customers that some garments are likely to experience pilling may help to reduce customer returns, while providing advice on how to remove fabric pills could also be appropriate.
Clothing repairs and alterations
Although most people are able to sew a button on, fewer have the skills to make more complicated repairs, such as altering a hem or darning holes. Instead, people may store or discard items in disrepair or in need of alteration.
At a national level, TV shows such as The Great British Sewing Bee have helped promote clothing repair and alteration as a hobby and lifestyle choice. This trend could be supported through the provision of basic repair kits, including threads or yarn, buttons and instructions in garment packaging and/or on product labels. It can also be supported by fact sheets offered in-store, online or in packaging. Some department stores with haberdasheries are promoting sewing materials and running open courses in stores. Where self-repair or alteration may not be appropriate, some brands and retailers are entering into national agreements with chains of tailors, or even offering this service themselves.
Sustainable outdoor clothing brand Patagonia is one such company that believes in offering its customers the chance to have their items repaired to extend product life. In 2016, its repair department mended over 45,000 garments. Patagonia has also empowered consumers to repair clothing themselves by launching a new repair programme in collaboration with iFixit, whereby customers can download free, easy-to-follow online repair guides for Patagonia clothing. It also offers an Expedition Sewing Kit for on-the-spot emergency repairs.
A number of brands and retailers have formed partnerships with charities to support and encourage consumer reuse by providing in-store take back options; promoting the delivery of second hand clothing to charity shops; and incentivizing reuse through the use of money off vouchers for new products.
Getting started within your organisation
For recommendations for getting started with durability in your organisation, download the full Sustainable Clothing guide at www.wrap.org.uk.