The Guardian… as ever… are reporting that
British consumers have an estimated £30bn worth of clothing that they have not worn for a year in their wardrobes, a new report from the government waste body Wrap reveals today.
As a statistic, it may or may not be interesting. I work it out to be approximately £500 per person — US$777 at today’s exchange rate. And I do not find it surprising. Some of the clothes in my wardrobe are 10 years old, and no longer fit me, because over the last decade, I have eaten too much. If we assume the growth of my waistline (and the rest) to be linear, it would mean that £50 worth of clothes a year go to the back of the wardrobe. That could be as little as one shirt. In my experience — I don’t often spend that much on one shirt — it might be one shirt and one pair of trousers. If you were budgeting, it could be three such items. And if you went to Primark, you may come away with a fair bit more for £50, but it probably wouldn’t last five years.
Our outward expansion is the cause of all this redundant clothing, as the report notes.
The average UK household owns around £4,000 worth of clothes, but around 30% of that clothing – 1.7bn items – has not been worn for at least a year, most commonly because it no longer fits.
So what’s the big deal?
The report does not advocate that people should stop buying clothes, but that the active life of clothing is extended and the amount going into in landfill is cut back. Just under one-third of clothing at the end of its life goes to landfill every year – around 350,000 tonnes, worth £140m every year, based on Salvation Army estimates of their value.
Wrap said that extending the average life of clothes by just three months of active use per item would lead to a 5-10% reduction in their carbon and water footprints.
What is interesting about this is the way in which the environment is used as the pretext for expanding the role of government bodies, making it their responsibility to monitor lifestyles.
Some might say that I’m over-stating things here, and that this is just an attempt to understand how people are living, so that public services can be better organised. But the report isn’t about planning public services, as I will explain shortly.
The organisation that produced the report, WRAP — The Waste and Resources Acton Plan — are a curious form of public body that has emerged in recent years. They aren’t statutory bodies, and as such have no real authority, but are established to deliver a public function of some kind, a bit like the QUANGOs — Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisations — of previous years. Increasingly, these take the form of non-profit-making companies, financed by government. In the case of wrap, the financing is substantial. According to WRAP’s annual statement, it received £79 million in 2011. £12.4 million of that pays the salaries of its 253 staff. And it’s nice work if you can get it. Four of the senior staff at WRAP earn more that £100,000 a year. A further 25 earn more than £50,000 year. A further 104 earn between £30,000 and £50,000. And what do they do? According to their ‘about’ page
We have two priorities; minimising resource use and diverting priority materials from landfill.
Between 2011-15 we aim to:
* Encourage better design and more informed consumption which will help us all waste less
* Make it easier to recycle, repair and re-use as much of our waste as possible, wherever we are – in the home, at work, or away from home
* To enable others to recover as much value as possible from the waste that’s collected – whether as resources that can be used again and again, or as energy
* Help others to keep resources moving round the economy – the more money we save, the less the demand on ever-scarcer natural resources
Organisations like WRAP deserve our full contempt. They are established by governments at ‘arms length’, but in reality this means that they are also out of our control. Their agenda is determined by whichever minister woke up one morning with the bright idea, and then the possibility of debating the function of that organisation is kicked into the long grass. WRAP have a huge staff, and £Millions to spend on influencing the public debate and policy, but where is the possibility of countering it, or putting forward competing analyses about how to organise public services? There isn’t any. The best you can hope for is blogs like this, run without funding, in spare time, with zero budget.
This brings me to the second interesting thing. Being at ‘arms length’ from government means appearing as an actually independent organisation. And that means idiot journalists taking WRAPS’s report at face value, rather than asking questions about its mandate, its legitimacy (the mandate notwithstanding), its agenda, and the basis of its project to get us all to ‘Reduce! Re-Use! Recycle!’. Such credulity is not just naivety, it’s the signature of utter mediocrity. And it is the duty of every mediocre journalist at the epitome of mediocrity, the Guardian, to report verbatim what those in authority tell them.
Liz Godwin, chief executive officer of Wrap, said: “The way we make and use clothes consumes a huge amount of the Earth’s precious resources, and accounts for a major chunk of family spending. But by increasing the active use of clothing by an extra nine months we could reduce the water, carbon, and waste impacts by up to 20-30% each and save £5bn.”
The report cites the recently launched M&S and Oxfam “Shwopping” initiative as evidence of retail awareness and customer interest in new approaches. Retailers are being urged to set up “buy back” schemes that would enable customers to sell retailer own-brand clothes they no longer want back to the retailer to prepare for re-sale.
Lord Taylor, minister for environment, said: “Making better use of our resources is integral to economic growth, cutting carbon emissions and building a strong and sustainable green economy. This report shows that there is a huge potential for both businesses and households to save money and the environment by thinking differently about the way we produce, use and dispose of clothes. Used clothing has a massive commercial value, yet over 430,000 tonnes is thrown away in the UK every year.”
The idea that “Making better use of our resources is integral to economic growth” is green flim-flam. There has never been a need for official intervention to help individuals or companies find more efficient ways of producing or consuming. It is only necessary to spend £tens of millions a year on such ends when the idea of ‘efficiency’ has been re-conceived. Re-conceived, that is, according to the tenets of environmentalism. One of those tenets, of course, being the idea of ‘ever-scarcer natural resources’ — an idea which has no basis in material fact, and is historically illiterate. Once again, we see environmentalism, given as the operating principles of a public body, put beyond the reach of proper democratic control, such putative virtues taken for granted.
Concomitant with re-inventing ‘efficiency’ according to environmentalism’s precepts is a transformation of the relationship between the public and private spheres. So it is no surprise that we now find official bodies poking around in people’s wardrobes, and writing reports giving ‘advice’ like this…
A combination of good practice – lower wash frequency, lower wash temperature, less tumble dryer usage in summer time and larger loads – could cut the footprint by 7%.
Yes, folks, for £79 million a year, the Climate Resistance blog would also be happy to tell you to wash your clothes less, to “save the planet”. The report concludes:
This report has set out a number of opportunities for the clothing sector to reduce carbon emissions, resource use and waste – and gain business benefit from doing so. While many of the opportunities are up to businesses themselves to evaluate and take forward, one action that organisations across the sector can take is to sign up to the forthcoming Sustainable Clothing Action Plan 2020 Commitment.
Like many reports intended to influence behaviour, debate and policy, it is insipid and stuffed full of glib statements about how to produce — at best — a marginal actual benefits to the individual/company and a very contestable environmental benefit. It’s the quality we would expect from an organisation that has no real demand put on it by the public to perform, and isn’t subject to scrutiny either from above or from below. The flow of money is secure. It is the sound of a detached political class, speaking to itself, up its own arse… the bland pieties it reproduces being nothing more than echoes reverberating through public institutions… ‘save the planet’… ‘reduce our impact’… ‘scarce natural resources’… ‘2020 sustainability commitment’… uninhibited by reason.
The proper journalistic response to any official report — take note, The Guardian — is incredulity. The first job is to say ‘f*** off!’, rather than take things at face value. The job of the journalist is to ask people in authority ‘who the f*** do you think you are?’ You’re supposed to be following the money, exposing the agenda, and asking difficult questions. When you fail to do so, you turn the Fourth Estate into the first. Shame on you, the Guardian.