The cost of consuming

Research from the Netherlands shows that each piece of clothing stays in a Dutch wardrobe for an average of 3 years 5 months, is on the body for 44 days during this time and is worn for between 2.4 and 3.1 days between washings (Uitdenbogerd et al, 1998). Based on a very similar pattern of use, a lifecycle assessment (LCA) of a woman's polyester blouse (Franklin Associates, 1993) shows that the vast majority of these impacts occur during the use phase of the blouse's life, i.e. when the blouse is laundered, and not as it is produced or discarded (see Figure 1). This information has considerable bearing on this project and questions of lifetimes for clothing. Unless we start taking account of what happens to a garment after it has been purchased, we are ignoring a major source of environmental impact – the consumer.
The realisation that most impact associated with a garment happens in the hands of the consumer suggests that the most influential environmental strategy would be to change how people wear, wash and dry clothes. Up until now, the main way people have gone about this is by designing durable clothes. Yet while durability means that one garment lasts longer and delays a replacement being made, that garment is still washed as frequently. This calls into question the benefits of exclusively pursuing the strategy of long life clothes and opens up the possibility of more creative responses to environmental impact through use.

We began to explore these possibilities by extrapolating the polyester blouse LCA data. We designed a range of scenarios that further explore the relationship between use patterns, length of product life and energy consumption. In Figure 2, the lifecycle energy consumption per wearing of a polyester blouse was calculated for four different use scenarios:

1. Standard use - the baseline pattern of use assumed in the LCA, where the blouse is worn 40 times and is laundered after every other wearing (i.e. 20 times).
2. Low wash - the blouse is worn 40 times, and laundered half as often as the standard use scenario (i.e. 10 times).
3. Long life - the blouse is worn 80 times and is laundered after every other wearing (i.e. 40 times).
4. Disposable - the blouse is never laundered and it is worn 10 times before being discarded.
What these scenarios show is that we can save energy by targeting issues surrounding consumer care, but that the most effective ways to do this might come from unconventional directions, like changing people's laundering habits or introducing disposable clothes. Yet this is only half the story – different people use garments in different ways. So rather than prescribing 'low wash' or 'disposability' as the universal answer, we need to respond to people's needs appropriately.


References

Franklin Associates (1993), Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis of a Manufactured Apparel Product: Woman's knit polyester blouse. Washington DC: American Fiber Manufacturers Association.
Uitdenbogerd, D. E., Brouwer, N. M. and Groot-Marcus, J. P. (1998), Domestic energy saving potentials for food and textiles: an empirical study. Wageningen, NL: Wageningen Agricultural University.