Best practice garment care
This study was one of the first of its kind to compare current consumer garment behaviour with best practices based on garment potential and recommended care practices. Wool garments have particular attributes that favour reduced environmental impacts in the garment use phase, associated with odour resistance leading to less frequent need for washing, low washing temperature requirements and suitability for air drying practices (Laitala and Klepp 2016; Laitala et al. 2020). While these favourable practices are typically used for wool garments at higher rates than other fibre types, there are opportunities to further reduce environmental impacts, as shown in this analysis. Consistent with previous research on the life cycle of garments (Muthu 2015; Yasin et al. 2016), the findings here show the use phase was a hotspot for fossil energy demand and water consumption. Across a population, variability in the washing frequency of wool garments is expected in response to factors such as garment use, perceived cleanliness and access to washing facilities (Klepp et al. 2016; Laitala and Klepp 2016). Clothes are washed for various cultural and habitual reasons, including ritual, aesthetic, practical and hygienic reasons (Shove 2003; Klepp 2007; Yates and Evans 2016). It is plausible that a reduced washing frequency (e.g. S1B) can be achieved when consumers understand the odour resistant properties of wool and its ability to remove odour through airing, and use this practice more consistently (McQueen et al. 2008). Because consumers often own fewer wool garments, it can take longer to accumulate a wool-specific laundry load (Laitala et al. 2012), which may result in less efficient washing machine loads. However, encouraging consumers to air wool garments (Laitala and Klepp 2016) may also help improve washing load efficiency by allowing more time to accumulate a full wool load. Another strategy would be to make up the rest of a wool wash with items made of other fibres as wool washing is typically more gentle than other wash settings and is therefore not detrimental to other fibre types. This simple step could increase the efficiency rate (Laitala and Klepp 2016).
Best practice drying (S3B) (i.e. line drying outdoors or inside an unheated room) was found to have modest potential to reduce impacts, largely because current practices for drying wool garments are close to best practice. Intensive drying options such as the use of clothes’ dryers are rarely used for wool garments. However, with other fibre types and other geographic regions such as the USA where use of energy intensive clothes dryers is higher (Laitala et al. 2020), drying practices may be more significant. Overall, these results show that a conservative washing frequency, and to a lesser extent, efficient washing loads and limited use of a tumble dryer, are effective ways for consumers to reduce the use phase impacts of wool garments. This is consistent with research showing that the GHG emissions from the life cycle of garments are more sensitive to washing frequency than wash load or drying frequency (Gracey and Moon 2012; Moazzem et al. 2018), and that washing machine and dryer water and energy efficiency were more effective at reducing GHG, energy and water impacts than load size and tumble drying frequency (Beton et al. 2014). Thus, although our results apply to a specific garment type, a wool sweater, many of the recommendations for reducing the environmental impacts of use phase will also apply for other types of garments. The benefits in changing care practices are likely to be even higher for garments made of cotton or synthetic fibres due to their more frequent laundering, use of higher washing temperature and higher use rate of clothes dryers. However, the inherent fibre properties on odour formation will limit how long garments can be worn and still be socially acceptable. This increases the importance of garment- and fibre-type specific inventory data for accurate modelling of use phase impacts.
Best practice garment use
Longer garment lifespans and a greater number of wears per lifespan resulted in the largest reductions in environmental impacts in this study. This was evident where the use was prolonged by a first user (S4B) or during the subsequent use phases (S5B). This is consistent with research in which scenarios of increased clothing collection and reuse showed larger reductions in environmental impacts than garment care scenarios across a broad range of indicators (Beton et al. 2014; Klepp et al. 2020). Unsurprisingly, a single wear (S4W) had high impacts across all the categories considered. The best practice wear scenario (S4B) reduced GHG emissions, fossil energy demand and freshwater consumption by at least 50%, despite increasing the number of washes from 21 (CP) to 77. These results emphasise how important it is to apply the correct functional unit and to use valid data rather than simple estimates. For example, the unit of 52 washes that is used in the current Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (PEFCR) for t-shirts in EU (Pesnel and Payet 2019) does not capture the importance of washing frequency and total number of wears properly.
There are several actions that consumers, authorities and the fashion industry can take to ensure the longevity of clothing. Ertz et al. (2019) have analysed the efforts industry has put into developing business models on product lifespan extensions. These authors found a lack of prolonged-life design strategies, and that most companies prefer product nurturing strategies such as maintenance, recovery, redistribution and remanufacturing, which generates more income. Circular business models require products that are worth circulating, thereby minimising consumer dissatisfaction, returns and discarding of clothing, and make secondary use, rental and repair possible. This calls for business models that put product nature strategies first, where improvements in product design and product quality are essential. For this, appropriate information about product quality and properties is required. Product properties, for example that clothing sizes broadly match the size and shape of the population’s body shape, are important. Similarly, garments that are flexible enough to be used in several occasions and by several users enable longer lifespans with more garment wears. For best practice garment use, the products need to be usable both technically and socially over a long period of time and many times, as well as by more than one user to maximise environmental outcomes.
Authorities can contribute with consumer rights legislation, where the right to make a complaint and the right for informed choices are followed up (Brennan et al. 2017). This will ensure that it will be easier to find and select good products, and to complain about the poor ones. Authorities can also set minimum standards to phase out the worst products on the market, akin to energy labelling requirements for electrical appliances (Boyano et al. 2020).
Consumers can contribute by putting more effort into finding suitable products that they like and need, and by using their rights to make complaints (Chebat et al. 2005; Bodey and Grace 2007). They can also ensure that clothes get a new user either in their own circle of family and friends, through charity organisations or through commercial solutions for clothes circulation (Fisher et al. 2011; Sandin and Peters 2018).
And last but not least, consumers can choose the best practice by purchasing garments requiring less washing, washing less frequently and drying in an energy-saving way. The fact that best practice also extends garment lifetime and saves money and time for housework can make the changes more appealing. Knowledge about environmental impacts and conditions around cleanliness and hygiene are important to bring about change, as it is possible that some consumers do not appreciate the capabilities of wool garments and therefore wash these garments too frequently, increasing environmental impacts and also potentially reducing garment life time because of the abrasive nature of washing.
Although this study highlighted the importance of impacts arising from consumer practices during the use phase of a wool garment, the results are based on inventory data for consumers in Western Europe, particularly those in Germany and the UK. Processes such as laundering vary geographically (Laitala et al. 2020), and more representative use phase inventory data may increase the robustness of future research. This data should focus on washing frequency, garment lifespan, washing machine performance and selected drying method (which may be of greater relevance to garments made from fibres other than wool).
In this study, the end-of-life phase (EoL) contribution to full life cycle impacts was minor (< 1.5%). Garments were disposed of as municipal waste, and impacts were excluded for co-products from incineration with energy recovery. Higher environmental benefits can be achieved from the EoL when garments are close-loop recycled (Cobbing and Vicaire 2017; Yousef et al. 2019).
This research showed some contrasts between impact categories. The use phase was a more important hotspot for fossil energy demand and water impacts than GHG emissions, with the latter result being largely influenced by the nature of the energy grid in Western Europe. Countries that utilise higher proportions of fossil fuels in the energy grid than Europe, such as Australia, China and the USA, would have higher GHG impacts than reported here. Across a full life garment life cycle, CED impacts were up to 11% greater than fossil energy demand, and the European use phase contributed approximately 2% of this increase. Impacts derived from a more expansive set of impact categories, such as those of the Product Environmental Footprint scheme (European Commission 2017), may help prioritise actions that reduce the impact of the garment life cycle. Future research should explore the impact of fibre type on full life cycle impacts because contrasts in impacts upstream of the use phase may contrast with those of wool.