The UK disposes of one million tonnes of textiles every year, 300,000 tonnes of which end up in landfill or incineration and figures suggest 10% of global CO2 emissions could come from the fashion industry. The football sector is a huge contributor to this – approximately 2.45 million Liverpool and 1.95 million Manchester United sports shirts were sold worldwide in 2021 alone. In this article, Lindsay Pressdee, Dr Amy Benstead and Dr Jo Conlon discuss some of the key issues relating to achieving circularity in sportswear and fashion, and make policy and practice recommendations.
- Sportswear is often an overlooked area, despite an over-reliance on polyester garments, which are harmful to the environment as the fabric releases microfibres and takes hundreds of years to fully biodegrade.
- It is difficult to tackle climate change when unlimited economic growth is achieved through overproduction and overconsumption.
- The UK Government has failed to make progress when it comes to tackling sustainability in the fashion industry.
- As a society we lack the basic skills and knowledge needed to repair clothes and understand the environmental impact of textiles.
The circular economy
One of the key principles of the circular economy is to recycle used or unused materials in order to reuse them in the creation of new objects. Our research at The University of Manchester investigates the issues surrounding polyester sports garments and tackles the invisible sources and routes these garments take into the waste stream. We are also creating an educational opportunity to engage with communities and schools to build awareness and skills with the next generation of consumers, into recycling, repurposing and garment circularity.
To achieve this, a new project dedicated to tackling the impact of textile waste in the football industry has been launched to deliver community-based workshops which recycle and re purpose sports shirts. The project is working with the local community in Levenshulme and Ashton in Greater Manchester to transform surplus football shirts into unique reusable tote bags. This is done at the same time as educating communities on the environmental impacts of textile waste and how we can extend the life of our garments. It aims to provide a fun, responsible way to keep kits in circulation while shining a light on the large-scale problem in the industry.
However textile waste does not start with the consumer. Whilst it is difficult to distinguish between ‘blame’ and ‘responsibility’, it is important to establish sustainable behaviour throughout the supply chain. Leading the way on this, The European Commission has proposed extended producer responsibility (EPR) for textiles in the EU to encourage producers to assume responsibility. The concept of producer responsibility aims to create appropriate incentives to encourage producers to design products that have a reduced environmental impact at the end of their life. Fundamentally EPR focuses on encouraging producers to take responsibility and in an ideal scenario, everyone throughout the supply chain will take responsibility. It is fantastic to see the European Commission driving forward this type of policy, but sadly here in the UK, tackling sustainability in the fashion industry has lost its place on the political agenda. There has been a disappointing lack of progress from the UK Government following the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee Fixing Fashion report in 2019. This report included a call for the use of EPR as well as other important recommendations such as a ban on incinerating or landfilling unsold stock that can be reused or recycled and a tax system that shifts the balance of incentives in favour of reuse, repair and recycling to support responsible companies. We urge the government to ‘think again’ and drive forward the committee’s recommendations in order to put sustainable fashion back on the political agenda.
We also need the Government to lead the change to end the throwaway society. It is sadly often more expensive to repair an item of clothing than buy a new one. Unfortunately, many people also lack the skills to perform basic clothing repairs meaning clothes like football kits just get thrown away. In 2017, the Government removed the stand alone GCSE in textiles, and instead combined all technologies into a generalised GCSE. This has reduced the number of students going into the field and reduced the breadth of skills they would have previously gained, which enabled them to move onto high education and employment. We are therefore calling on the government to reintroduce textiles as part of the school curriculum to engage young people in sustainable materials and arm them with the basic skills required to repair clothes.
The local community project UoM research is involved with will be looking to help solve this issue by being involved in a new initiative ‘pupil panel’. This will involve Year 5 girls from under-represented groups from every borough of Greater Manchester. The aim is to upskill them to work alongside academics to understand the world of academia, and to understand how our research contributes to the University’s work around Sustainable Development Goals. The girls will be trained in the art of questioning, oracy, and inclusion in the STEM sector.
A sustainable future
The UK is at the forefront of textile design, and accounts 6% to the UK economy. We are surrounded by textiles, from furniture to garments, car interiors and costume, we need to enable the industry to grow with a skilled workforce. Industry and Government (Local and Central) engagement is key to ensuring new policy measures work in harmony with developments in international policy, such as the EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles. A holistic approach is needed if we are going to see positive change and a multi stakeholder approach must be implemented to ensure that education and community engagement is going to be considered in a bid to drive a more sustainable future.
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