Ican remember when the shirts I wore to the office did not come apart at the seams. Used once a week and washed each time, they lasted two to three years.

A while back, I noticed the stitching on my shirts, along the shoulders or the sleeve, had started unravelling after three months.

Abandoning the high street chains, I traded up to companies that incorporated Jermyn Street, the mark of quality shirts, in their labels. The shirts lasted for six to nine months.

Were clothes once more durable? It is hard to be sure. I have failed to turn up any decent research. Tim Cooper of Nottingham Trent University, editor of Longer Lasting Products: Alternatives to the Throwaway Society, told me: “There are no historic data out there.”

What is clear is that we throw a huge amount of clothing away. In the UK, we buy 2m tonnes of clothes a year and discard 1m tonnes, according to a government report.

Why do we throw our clothes out? Fast-fashion stores and websites that swiftly throw up versions of the clothes worn by celebrities or on catwalks are partly to blame. The government report says this “low-cost, short-lifetime” sector makes up a fifth of the UK clothing market.

The high-end fashion business, with its frequent verdicts on what is in or out, persuades people to buy new clothes even when there is nothing wrong with the old ones. People own, on average, 26 items of clothing they haven’t worn in the past 12 months, according to a survey last year for the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap), a non-profit adviser to governments and business in the UK.

But at least those unworn garments haven’t been discarded. Asked why they would throw clothes out, respondents to a 2012 YouGov poll said the biggest reason was that the clothes were damaged.

Better-made clothing, with a longer life, would benefit those of us not particularly interested in shifting trends. (The look of business shirts has not changed much since the starched collar went out of fashion.)

It would also be beneficial to the world’s environment. There is an environmental cost to washing clothes at high temperatures and tumble-drying them. Throwing them away is bad too. As Wrap points out: “Natural fibres biodegrade in landfill and emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.”

But the biggest environmental cost comes from making clothes and selling them. Wrap says the production stage, from fibre processing to retail, accounts for over three-quarters of the carbon emissions and 90 per cent of the water used during the clothing life cycle – far exceeding machine washing and drying.

And with most clothes now made in poorer countries, the huge use of water happens in parts of the world where pressure on water resources is most severe.

What can be done? One problem is that millions of jobs, many of them low-paid, depend on our buying more clothes. Company profits and the demand for ever-increasing growth require us to spend more, either because we think what we have is not good enough or because it is worn out.

The idea of “planned obsolescence” dates back to the 1920s. It is now used to talk about what happens to everything from cars to mobile phones. But, according to Longer Lasting Products, the term “obsolescence” was first used, in its original Latin form, to refer to worn-out clothes.

Can anything be done? We can give unwanted clothes to charity shops, although that assumes they are still wearable. We can learn to repair them, or get them repaired, as people used to do not that long ago.

We can send them for recycling, although as Prof Cooper’s book points out, reclaiming and re-manufacturing the materials carries its own environmental cost.

Or we can, as consumers, start searching out companies that sell more durable clothes. They may cost more, but should prove less expensive in the long run.

Some retailers insist they have already taken action. Asos, the online retailer, says it trawls “the world’s house clearances, garages and warehouse sales” for “vintage finds” to sell.

Marks and Spencer says it has a renewed drive on quality and sets “exacting standards” for suppliers, including on stitching. M&S was one of the companies whose shirts I abandoned. Perhaps I should try them again. I will report back – in either months or years.

Twitter: @Skapinker


Letters in response to this column:

In defence of shirtmakers / From Ms Pauline Mitchell

Modern economy and the manufacture of dissatisfaction / From Mr Reg Green

Can’t wait for the sales this time round / From Mr P B Johnson

Consider the shirt as a variation of the money illusion / From Mr Guy Wroble

Get alerts on Work & Careers when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article