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Sustainable clothing: towards sustainable clothing consumption

Funded by:

  • ESRC Festival of Social Science
  • The Institute for Social Marketing (ISM) at The Open University
  • The Open University Business School


Fashion is a fundamental part of how people express themselves and is also used to signal membership of a group. How individuals purchase and consume fashion is deeply embedded in these social processes. Each year, UK households spend around £1,700 on clothing, accounting for 5% (£44 billion) of retail expenditure. High levels of consumption, driven by trends towards clothing that is more disposable, worn less, and thrown away more quickly, are at odds with the needs to manage raw materials and resources more sustainably.

Research for the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), concludes that the key aspects of making clothing more sustainable are keeping clothes for longer by buying items that last longer and have less environmental impact; repairing clothes; washing and drying clothes more sustainably; and reusing and recycling rather than disposing of unwanted clothes (Gracey and Moon, 2012). Of these, extending the lifetime of clothing is likely to have the greatest impact on reducing the carbon, water and waste footprint over the lifecycle of a garment.

Previous research though has found a lack of understanding amongst UK citizens of the sustainability impacts of clothing production, use and disposal (Fisher et al., 2008). Changing these behaviour patterns and raising awareness of the issues requires a deeper understanding of the needs and aspirations which drive these behaviours and of the attitudes which consumers have towards the clothes they buy.


Research in the Institute for Social Marketing (ISM-Open) has focussed on developing this deeper understanding of the issues facing consumers and the industry.

To help develop this understanding, the team in ISM-Open has undertaken a range of research activities, including:

  • Key informant interviews with retailers, academics and practitioner experts.
  • A Wardrobe Audit as part of the ESRCs Festival of Social Science in 2013.
  • Focus groups with consumers.
  • In-depth interviews with consumers.

After the success of the Wardrobe Audit as part of 2013 Festival of Social Science, the team will be running a further online event as part of the 2015 ESRCs Festival of Social Science week in November.

The research will also continue as part of one of The Open University’s priority research areas in International Development. To support this work a short video explaining some of the issues has been produced.


Key Informant Interviews

One of the key findings from the key informant interviews was the low levels of consumers’ understanding of what sustainability is in relation to clothing and that the priority when purchasing is placed on price and style. While retailers are already doing many commendable activities to improve the social and environmental aspects of clothing, the big problem of over consumption and trends such as ‘fast fashion’ are still not being addressed.

Wardrobe Audit

Over 450 people took part in the Wardrobe Audit, which is hosted on The Open University’s OpenLearn website. The activity included the opportunity for people to first estimate and then count items of clothing in their wardrobe. Visitors to the site could also read blogs from a range of experts on issues relating to the sustainability of clothing.

The preliminary findings show that 36% of participants under-estimated the number of jeans they owned; with 59% under-estimating T-shirts and 56% socks. However, there was little variation amongst the participants, either by age, gender or clothing style.

The data on washing clothes – answering the question as to how many days an item is worn before washing it – showed, as might be expected, that participants were more likely to wear jeans longer before washing than T-shirts or socks. Very few (6%) said they washed jeans after one day’s wear, with 70% wearing for more than 3 days – and men more likely to wear jeans for longer than women. The majority of participants washed T-shirts and socks after 1 day’s wear.

Focus Groups with Consumers

Two focus groups were run with 10-12 people in each to further explore these issues. The groups examined the extent of spill over between other sustainable behaviours, such as recycling, saving electricity and reducing unnecessary car travel, and clothing purchasing behaviours. What information is needed and where it should be provided when looking to buy a sustainable item of clothing online was also considered.  Group participants also took part in a t-shirt exercise to try to identify from existing labelling which item was the most sustainable.

A key finding from these focus groups was the complexity in identifying what made an item of clothing sustainable and a general lack of knowledge of the impacts that different fibres had on sustainability.

In-depth Interviews with Consumers

Interviews were conducted with both men and women, spanning a range of ages. Again these showed limited knowledge of what sustainability in relation to clothing means, with many focussing on how long lasting and durable the clothes were. When asked about labelling, most admitted they only ever looked at the price label, but would be interested in a simple labelling system, for example a kite mark or traffic light system.

Research team

  • Professor Sally Dibb (The Open University Business School)
  • Dr Fiona Harris (The Open University Business School)
  • Dr Helen Roby (The Open University Business School)
  • Dr Christine Thomas (The Open University Business School)


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