Nobody Cared About Clothing’s Lifetime. That is About to Change

How and why clothing is used is important to Ingun Grimstad Klepp. She is a research professor at Consumption Research of Norway (SIFO), and how clothing is used and interpreted by consumers is critical to its lifetime, which in turn is important to the environment. "I work to make lifetime more important. Nothing is better for improving environmental sustainability than a long lifetime. It makes a big difference. I think fur is an area where lifetime is crucial because the production itself has an impact, which relates to both environment and animal welfare. The longer time fur or other products stay in use, the easier it is to defend it," Ingun Klepp said. But while clothing life time currently is considered the most effective way to improve sustainability in clothing, it has been disturbingly absent from fashion’s sustainability debate, a debate that traditionally has had its focus on the production, while leaving the user-phase unexplored.

Benchmarking tools favouring synthetics

This limited way of assessing sustainability in clothing seems to be changing though, not least because both fashion sustainability experts and -NGOs with increasing success have put the fashion industry and its sustainability problems on the agenda over the past few years. Ingun Klepp is a part of this agenda-setting movement. In her research, she has targeted the blindside of the ‘Higg Materials Sustainability Index’ and ‘Made-by Environmental Benchmark for Fibres’, two widely used benchmarking tools for comparing the environmental impact of different fibres. Both tools, however, work without including the user-phase. Effectively this ends up favouring synthetic materials over natural materials, which have higher environmental costs at the material production stage. However, comparing the environmental impact of textile fibres while leaving out the user-phase amounts to comparing apples and oranges. It also fails to consider the significant environmental damage synthetic materials cause through microplastic pollution. Companies who produce fast fashion may not have an interest in including such measures in the various benchmarking tools for sustainability. Still, a part of the problem is also that the knowledge on both the user-phase of clothing and the extent and consequences of microplastic pollution is relatively low. "There are many things we know and many things we don’t know yet. The first thing that happens is companies say ‘we don’t know anything about the user-phase’. Then we must show it’s possible to include the user-phase. It is a necessary debate," Ingun Klepp said.

Different material, different user-phases

So Ingun Klepp has conducted research that demonstrates it is possible to distinguish environmental impacts of different materials in the user-phase because clothes made of diverse fibres are maintained differently. For example, wool requires less energy and chemicals to be kept clean, compared to cotton. Cotton requires a more powerful wash, and often also uses energy for drying and wrinkle removal. Synthetic fabrics become dirty faster and are washed more frequently, which further speed up the release of microplastics. According to Ingun Klepp, Sustainable Apparel Coalition now works to incorporate the user-phase in their benchmarking tools. Up until now, clothing has not been the focus of the same political attention, for example, single-use products and –packaging, which however utilise the same non-renewable textiles as much fashion clothing. In other words, the clock is ticking on the fashion industry too. "EU and Norway are preparing waste management policies, but the world market for used textiles is decreasing, and just now it is about stagnant. This means waste must be handled locally, and waste reduction comes higher up on the agenda. Extended producer liability is already in the making around os. When producers are required to take responsibility for waste, lifetime becomes important," Ingun Klepp said. Her own research is, however, more focused on what happens with the clothes we buy - how is it actually used? Long clothing lifetime has little value to the environment if the clothes are not used as an alternative to buying new. Long lifetime could, for example, imply long periods of storage, which would often be the case for natural fur coats as they are typical winter garments. It is important to establish the relationship between actual use and lifetime because it is needed to establish the so-called functional units, which are used in LCAs and make comparisons possible and meaningful.

Show me your wardrobe ...

How, and how much, clothing is actually used can be determined with the so-called wardrobe studies, a relatively new and still emerging research field, which through qualitative consumer interviews works to establish the pattern behind the - often unconscious – clothing choices people make every day. Understanding the user-phase of fur would also be relevant for the fur sector. It is particularly interesting because natural fur has the technical properties for a long lifetime, but the question is what happens to the fur throughout all this time? Ingun Klepp points out. She and other experts have been commissioned by the international wool industry to research the user-phase of wool garments on big consumer markets like China and Germany. "It is evident that user-phase is important to the wool industry. This can be used politically, and we have worked to demonstrate the user-phase for wool," Ingun Klepp said. Amongst other things this work has clarified, there are differences in the maintenance of different materials, which are important for the ultimate environmental impact of clothing. Equally important, understanding user-phase is an important part of improving your environmental footprint. "It is important to bring in a lifetime to LCA work because it can help to both improve and develop an industry," Ingun Klepp says. She stresses that when working with the environmental impact of an industry, it is important to assess the production across the entire value chain. Only the user-phase does still not have the position in environmental assessments it deserves, to provide a comprehensive and fact-based discussion over sustainability in clothing: Everything has a price, and we must be willing to discuss that price. I am for example of the opinion that we would have been better off if a global product like jeans were produced in half the numbers, but lasted twice as long", Ingun Klepp said. Photo credit: Sonja Balci / OsloMet