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Getting Emotional: The key to improving the sustainability of apparel

In her first blog piece, we hear from Susan Harris, Technical Director, on the role of durability of clothing and consumer behavior.

When we look at the environmental footprint of clothing, how long we keep garments for has a big part to play. On average, in the UK people keep their clothes for about three years[1]. Whether that seems like a long or a short time depends on who you talk to: the stat is often met with raised eyebrows by the fashion set. “I thought it would be much shorter!” they say. Meanwhile, “Only three years?!” the hair-shirt sustainability set say disdainfully.

The truth is, how long we keep our clothes depends on a combination of how much we like them and how well they last.  In the Sustainable Clothing Guide  recently produced by WRAP to help clothing brands improve clothing durability and sustainability, both emotional and physical durability are identified. Physical durability refers to things like whether the garment is well-made; if the fastenings are strong; if the color lasts; if the fabric resists pilling and how well it holds its shape. Emotional durability is about how important a garment is to “me”: whether I want to keep it, and keep wearing it. Think a favorite old T-shirt or that perfect classic trench coat. Although everyone is different, and so what creates emotional durability may vary from person to person, we know that things like classic cuts and styles, and feel-good fabrics tend to be associated with emotional durability[2].

In an ideal world, physical and emotional durability of a garment should be well-matched. A shirt or coat I love will stay looking great while I wear it again and again, reducing the life cycle impact as I keep and wear it for longer. At the same time, for brands and retailers, that means great customer satisfaction, which breeds brand loyalty.

On the sharp end, it can also mean a reduction in returns, as WRAP’s work helping a range of retailer’s pilot durability improvements has shown[3]. Furthermore, tracing back down the value chain from the shop floor into production, embedding durability principles in design and manufacturing can reduce garment failure and, because it is so strongly linked to the quality agenda, the increased level of rigour can improve efficiency in the sampling and production process.

Therefore, although more traditional brands may find initial resistance from commercial teams who worry that the concept is at odds with their business aim of selling more clothes, most are able to see how the underlying principles align well with their quality, efficiency and customer satisfaction aims.

This is a growth area for the sector: through our work with various sector commitments around the globe, we are seeing industry benchmarks and standards being developed at both a national and pan-national level.

There are a range of techniques and intervention points that brands and retailers can use to begin embedding durability principles within their ranges. Many of these are low or no cost, and will fit well with existing quality and customer satisfaction agendas. To find out more, take a look at the new Sustainable Clothing Guide. It gives free information on the tools and techniques, along with case studies detailing how brands and retailers have made it work in their own businesses.

 If you would like to explore more about how to measure and improve physical or emotional durability of clothing, or to join the Business Leaders Forum, a learning network for senior sustainability professionals in the clothing and textiles sector please contact Susan Harris.


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