My fashion footprint: Is your wardrobe bad for the planet?

A new website helps you measure the environmental impact of your clothes, from the factory to the tumble dryer. Matilda Lee takes the test

Phil Patterson is not your average wardrobe consultant. For a start, he's clueless about designer labels, trends and fashion in general. He refers to "textiles" rather than clothes. His advice will, at best, raise eyebrows and, at worst, induce cardiac arrest among the fashion conscious and can be summed up as follows: wear antimicrobial socks because they needn't be washed after use and the perfect wardrobe staple is anything made from Eucalyptus trees. Perhaps the only area with which he wouldn't come to blows with a fashionista is a mutual disregard for Lycra.

Thank goodness, then, that Phil's visit to my house isn't an attempt to fashion me forward. Instead, after rummaging through my closet, Phil will rate my clothes using his "textile ecometric". I'll then be the very first person to have a number of Environmental Damage Units, or EDUs, attached to my wardrobe.

Sound a bit grim? Behind its glossy veneer, the truth is that the business of fashion and clothing, from production, to consumption, care and disposal, is among the world's most environmentally damaging. Ninety per cent of our clothes are imported, and it's not just the children labouring in sweatshop conditions we may not see – it's the 2 million tons of waste, 3.1 million tons of CO2 and 70 million tons of waste water that the industry produces in a single year.

Enter Phil who, after 10 years managing clothes dyeing, printing and finishing at Marks & Spencer, took off with his own initiative, Colour Connections, set up last year. Phil claims that dyeing is one of the most environmentally harmful steps in the clothes making process, and his consultancy advises manufacturers and retailers on becoming more energy efficient, less wasteful and less toxic.

A label won't ever tell you how much energy, waste and water went into making an item of clothing. But, as Phil says, just in the dyeing process, water use can range wildly from a best-case scenario of 80 litres per kilo of fabric to a sloppy and careless 800 litres. But the story doesn't end when clothes reach the racks. It's what we buy and how we care for and dispose of our clothes that can dictate a garment's full environmental footprint. I'm intrigued to know what my score is, but I hardly expected anything more than an emphatic thumbs up from Phil. And I was wrong.

We begin by analysing everything I've purchased over the past year. With laptop in hand, the screen presents an exhaustive list of clothing types to chose from, from cotton socks to jeans to silk shirts to wool suits. Having been in maternity clothes for 12 months, it's easy enough to remember what I've bought, although I need to think hard when it comes to household linen. I can count on one hand the number of clothes my husband's bought this year, even though he's a style-conscious Italian.

Admittedly, this is what differentiates us from the "average" household where a woman buys 34 new items of clothes a year, a figure that has nearly doubled in the past decade. What makes this possible is that, in that same time, the average cost of clothes has dropped by 36 per cent, with £1 in every £4 now spent on bargain fashion. Retailers exacerbate our obsession with "newness" by producing up to 20 different clothing collections a year. In this constantly revolving carousel, getting on the clothing treadmill has become too easy.

The next part is where I get into trouble. Over the following screens, I answer a rapid-fire set of questions. How many clothing washes do I do a week? About one wash a day. At what temperature? 40 degrees (I don't have a 30 degree setting). How many times do I tumble dry a week? None, we don't even have a tumble dryer. What about ironing? About seven hours a week. Phil gasps...

A couple clicks of the mouse, then a figure appears at the bottom of the screen. Our household EDUs is 1,282. A breakdown shows that our actual clothing EDUs is quite low at 558. But then there's the laundry, which at 724 EDUs is slightly alarming. It includes 324 from washing and a whopping 400 from ironing.

The ironing is what did us in, more environmentally damaging than our washing. "It's like having the kettle switched on for seven hours straight," says Phil. But more shocking, if we add seven tumble-dryer loads a week. The figure more than doubles.

Phil kicks in, "From an energy point of view, it's good to wash lower, but the difference between 30 degrees and 40 degrees is small. The difference between tumble drying and not tumble drying, is huge." According to Phil, a more average household, with more purchases per year and four hours per week tumble drying, would have a score somewhere in the ballpark of 1,900.

Most of my kids' clothes have come to us second-hand. How does that figure in the ecometric? Second-hand clothes, he says, incur only half the EDUs. Equally, if you give away your cast-off clothes to be worn by someone else you get half the production EDU's back for reducing demand for a new item.

This is another area where the national wardrobe is setting off alarm bells. The vast majority of our cast-offs don't get a second lease on life and are just chucked in the bin. More than one million tons ending up buried in landfill in 2005. Phil's ecometric favours quality over quantity. "If you currently buy 50 cotton T-shirts a year, at £2 each, and throw them all away, moving to buy 10 high-quality and higher-priced T-shirts will make a huge environmental impact."

The other problem with cheap clothes is their simply not economical to maintain. Less than two per cent of our clothing budget goes on things that will extend the life of a garment – such as repair and mending. Yet, as Phil says, even turning them into rags "...means you're not buying cleaning cloths – which also need to be made, bleached, dyed and transported."

So far, so clear. But then I ask him about choosing "greener" clothes, and it gets complicated. "Take Lycra, it's revolutionised people's wardrobes, it makes fabrics comfortable and reduces irons – but you can't recycle it as it melts and sticks to the yarn of the fabric." The same is true for non-iron finishes – it's very difficult to recover the fibre "because they're covered in glue". Yuck.

Phil's favourite fabric is Lyocell [trademarked name Tencel] "It is the most sustainable fabric. It's made from eucalyptus plantations, which produce more fibre per acre than, say, cotton. There are no pesticides and processing and dyeing Lyocell is relatively clean."

The big message from Phil's visit is: I already have a "sustainable wardrobe" in the sense that my hard-earned cash is spent on necessities and not fashion. Having said that, I need not feel guilty shopping for clothes, so long as they are bought, ideally, with the idea of passing them on to my daughter. So the glossies' endless "must-haves" and much of the low-budget retailers' offerings are essentially out of the equation.

A full morning of soul-bearing leaves me feeling a bit devilish. Later on, I indulge a strong urge to browse for clothes online and to my surprise, discover that Marc Jacobs and Philip Lim both make clothes from Lyocell. Fashion may just be catching up with Phil Patterson.

Matilda Lee is an editor at 'The Ecologist' magazine and author of 'Eco Chic: the Savvy Shopper's Guide to Ethical Fashion (Gaia, £7.99)

Textile ecometric can be found on

How to detox your clothing

* Line dry instead of tumble dry to drastically reduce clothing environmental impact

* Wash at low temperatures using environmentally friendly detergent and iron only where necessary – ironing uses large amounts of energy

* Make do and mend. Prolong the lifespan of a garment by finding a local tailor or buying a sewing kit to fix rips and lost buttons. Dry cleaners often offer low-cost repairs

* Never chuck clothes in the bin. Gift them to charity, pass them on or turn them into cleaning rags

* See new clothes as an investment. Pay more for higher quality clothes that will last season after season

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
The dress can be seen in different colours
Wes Brown is sent-off
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

    £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

    Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

    Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

    £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?