MANY people have begun to acknowledge that the phone in your pocket, the trousers that carry that pocket and many other features of our daily lives need to be made to last for longer. A culture of use and move on is driving us to crisis – and it is a feature of many consumer sectors, but particularly fast fashion and mobile phone technology. Such possessions seem part of who we are, extensions of our bodies, yet we moult off these skins with astonishing frequency. Sometimes I think that’s a sign of how unhappy we are with ourselves.
Of course, this turnover isn’t just about our desires. Sometimes it’s just that the thing itself has been made to fall apart and we grieve its loss. We rage when it grinds to a halt, fails to update or no longer works, and is unfixable.
The good news is that things are already changing. Last year, the European Union voted for “right to repair” rules on consumer electrical goods. In order to continue trading, the UK will have to match those standards.
A first wave of rules introduced in March means that all new washing machines, hairdryers, refrigerators and televisions sold in EU countries must be repairable for up to 10 years. Also in the pipeline is a similar set of requirements around smartphones, laptops and other consumer electronics.
Smartphones are used on average for less than three years before they are replaced. Eighty per cent of their carbon footprint is created during the production process and extending their use by just one more year, according to the European Environmental Bureau, could save the equivalent CO2 emissions of taking a million cars off the road. Not yet covered by these new rules is the glaring problem of fast fashion. A 2016 Kinsey report stated that consumers were keeping clothing items about half as long as they did 15 years ago. Meanwhile, the fashion industry is responsible for 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than aviation and shipping combined.
Neil Kitching, a Scottish energy specialist and author of Carbon Choices, suggests that governments should work with businesses to create what he calls “long product guarantees”. He believes such compulsory long guarantees would have a transformational effect and could be part of a shift away from fast fashion, as well as fast electronics. “The best solution is for consumers to be willing to pay more for higher quality and durable clothes, and then to keep and wear clothes for longer. The retailer can supplement this by offering long guarantees, backed up with repair and refurbishment services”.
There is a gathering movement for change in the fashion industry. In Europe, for instance, the Wardrobe Change campaign, formed by a group of NGOs, is calling for new policies to stop runaway overproduction of textiles. These include minimum standards for how long clothes should last, a ban on the destruction of unsold and returned goods, and ambitious targets around reduction of natural resources used. And here in Scotland, campaigning groups, including Fashion Revolution Scotland, are pushing for change while brands like Arkdefo and Rejean are pioneering circular economy fashion.
But we need to put more muscle into this. Given the globalised nature of the industry, a global co-ordinated effort involving legislation and targets is needed – but there are things we can do locally. One piece of government legislation that could help in Scotland, the Circular Economy Bill, was put on hold at the start of the pandemic. The Bill is mostly focused on the most disposable elements of our lives – packaging and food waste – but it does include actions around tackling fast fashion. My hope for the Bill is that it, and the recent creation of a new minister for circular economy, sets us on the course for a new way of looking at everything we use and consume. The phone in our pocket, the pocket in our trousers, the machine that we wash those in. All of our lives, built to last longer and then recycle.
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