Hugh’s War on Waste puts fast fashion in the spotlight

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall continued his 'war on waste' last night (9 November), with the second episode of his TV show highlighting the need for a more sustainable fashion industry.

The celebrity chef-turned-eco-warrior concluded his BBC One series with a look into the turbo-charged clothing and textile industry, which he said “seems hell-bent on pursuading us to buy more than we need”.

At one point in the programme, Fearnley-Whittingstall stood upon a seven-tonne pile of clothing, consisting of 10,000 separate garments, in one of Britain’s largest shopping centres. He then revealed to surprised shoppers that it takes just 10 minutes for the country to throw away that amount of clothes.

“We’re binning more than £150m worth of clothes every year in the UK, and they end up being incinerated or buried in landfill,” Fearnley-Whittingstall said. Chucking away clothes at this current rate is clearly an environmental disaster.”

Sustainability leader

Unlike his ongoing investigation into food waste, Fearnley-Whittingstall does not speak to the retailers about textile waste in his programme. But over the past year, edie has reported on a number of new business models, company intiatives and collaborative projects that have attempted to tackle the issue.

Just last week, International fashion brand H&M became the latest Global Partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as it seeks to ‘revolutionise’ circular economy activities throughout the industry. 

H&M has become one of the fashion industry’s leading lights on sustainability. In the past year alone, the Swedish retailer collected 7,684 tonnes of used materials through an in-store recycling scheme; developed a new recycled denim range; achieved a 29% increase in its use of organic cotton; and launched a €1m funding scheme for clothes-recycling innovations.

Speaking exlusively to edie last year, H&M’s head of sustainability Helena Helmersson said: “The circular economy is a prerequisite for us. It is embedded in our long-term profitability.

“It’s really close to the business and to use natural resources in this way is actually cost-efficient. For us, this is a clear long-term business case to keep on being profitable in the long-term. We will have to find ways on being less dependent on natural resources.”

Role models 

While some retailers continue to adapt to more circular business models within their own operations, edie has also reported on a number of innovative new models that are shaking up current processes in a bid to completely close the loop on textile waste.

Mud Jeans – a finalist in edie’s Sustainability Leaders Awards – is pioneering a lease model for its organic cotton jeans. When customers no longer want their jeans, they can return them and Mud will either upcycle them into a unique vintage pair or they will be completely recycled. 

Eco-clothing company Rapanui offers a similar scheme, offering store credit to consumers who returned last season’s clothing. Rapanui’s designer Martin Drake-Knight said: “There’s a conflict between fashion and the environment. We want to heal that and find a way for people to enjoy shopping, and fashion, without creating mountains of waste.”


On a broader level, the fashion industry is also championing sustainability through a number collaborative initatives. For example, WRAP runs the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) which brings together industry, government and the third sector to reduce resource use and develop sector-wide targets.

An update on the SCAP initative released last week revealed that the water impacts of the clothing supply chain have been reduced by 12.5% per tonne of clothing since 2013, while carbon impacts have also been cut by 3.5% per tonne.

WRAP director Marcus Gover said: “We will be working with the sector to ensure focus is maintained on priority areas. And whilst waste arisings haven’t been reduced, they have remained stable and we are encouraging concentrated efforts in this area.”

A growing number of retailers – most recently Primark – have also collectively joined the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which requires firms to enter sustainability data into a series of online tools which then generate standardised performance scores and benchmarks.

But with the high street’s appetite for fast fashion still leaving around 85% of discarded clothing in landfill, Fearnley-Whittingstall concluded that the challenge remains to be overcome – and, as with food waste, customer engagement and behaviour change initiatives to encourage redistribution will prove key.

“There’s really no excuse to bin any of our old clothes,” he said. “Even if you think they’ve had their day, they can still end up as a recycled mop head or stuffing for a car seat. Charity shops will take anything and if they don’t think they can sell it they will move it on to someone that can use it in a different way.”

The second episode of Hugh’s War on Waste also took another look at the food waste crisis caused by exacting supermarket standards and an oversupply of produce. Read about the first episode here

Luke Nicholls

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