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Durability standards - the missing piece in the sustainability puzzle?

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Developing standardised measurements for clothing durability would be an effective way to improve the sustainability and transparency of the global fashion industry.


The link between durability and sustainability


360,000 tonnes of clothing is thrown away from households in the UK each year. Just extending the average lifespan of clothes by 1/3rd could reduce the environmental footprint of the fashion industry by 20%, which is potentially the single action with the most positive environmental impact for the industry. (NTU, 2021)


Consumers' purchasing behaviours are changing, they are now more than ever interested in making sustainable choices, this means clothing with greater durability and quality amongst other things. Creating products with longer lifetimes is also a UK government policy objective. Additionally companies can benefit from this trend, by building customer loyalty by designing high quality products that consumers trust will last a long time, and present value for money in the medium to long-term.


The durability standard (or lack thereof)


As things currently stand, customers are faced with a challenge when it comes to determining the durability of potential clothing purchases. There are no standards when it comes to durability, as there are for other clothing qualities. Testing practices vary quite a lot, depending on the end-use of the product, material type, and the degree to which brands trust manufacturers and suppliers. Variability in testing aside, very little independent testing even occurs, calling into question the veracity of many claims of longevity. For example, there is no single industry standard test for the likelihood of pilling, in fact, there are at least 4 methods in use today, including the Martindale method, Pill box, ASTM method, D3512 Random Tumble Pilling (NTU, 2021).


Understanding and assessing durability


Reducing the rate of garment failures and ensuring that standards of durability are achieved will extend the physical life of clothes which in turn increases consumer satisfaction and brand confidence.


A considerable part of regular wear, contributing to the degradation of clothing over time, is regular wash cycles. When designing standards for longevity, trials should include wash and wear at a realistic interval to make it clear to potential consumers that the piece of clothing they are considering is able to withstand real life usage for the guaranteed or expected period of time. Extended wash trials and objectively measured fabric or yarn tests could provide a cost effective, realistic way to show the effects of prolonged wash and wear when wearer trials may not be possible, such as for seasonal items or short lead time products. A more consistent testing routine could provide a basis for durability labelling.


Tracing durability through supply chains


The fragmented, global nature of many fashion supply chains means that it is often difficult for some brands and retailers to trace the origin of each fibre in a garment. However, even small changes in the creation process of these fibres can result in significant changes to the durability of the end product. Smaller brands, with more intimate and localised supply chains will have an easier time of maintaining durability and monitoring the entire supply chain and manufacturing process.


Labelling


A confounding factor in customer understanding of durability is the labels themselves, they are often confusing, or misunderstood. They can also be uncomfortable when the clothing is worn if designed poorly. All this results in improper washing and care of the clothing by customers. Customers can sometimes lack the confidence to properly assess the durability of a garment at the point of purchase, for example whether it will pill or not. This is made even more difficult to assess with online shopping. A standardised durability index rating system would help overcome this issue. This could be integrated with more intuitive and understandable wash and care instructions in the labels. The garments durability rating could inform a potential customer of a garment’s performance in a set of standardised tests, allowing better decision making and product comparisons online and in person.


Developing metrics for durability


In terms of metrics, a useful example may be estimated life expectancy in months and years, for a given average usage, this may be difficult to use as the basis of a guarantee, given the variable nature of how much wash and wear our clothes get. Product guarantees must be supported by lifetime durability testing and this should take realistic consumer wash and wear patterns into consideration.


Improving durability of garments


Another way that brands are increasing their garments lifetime, is by using materials that require less regular washing, for example merino wool, which has natural antibacterial properties. Items of clothing with breathable sections and looser fitting also reduce how often items need to be washed. Including advice in labels on good practice for washing these garments is important. An often ignored factor in this area is storage. Few clothing labels include storage instructions, while almost every item of clothing will benefit greatly from being stored in a dry moisture free environment with plenty of air movement and moth prevention.


If consumers are confident in the durability of more expensive, but longer lasting products and choose these over low quality cheap items, a greater number of products will remain in active use, and reduce the amount of waste generated.




In summary, improving the durability of items is only one side of the coin when it comes to sustainability and reducing consumption and waste, the other comes in developing a rating system for that durability that customers can trust, allowing them to make more sustainable choices safe in the knowledge that their product won’t give up the ghost in a few weeks with little or no form of recourse.






References


Multala B, Wagner J, Wang Y., (2022) Durability standards and clothing libraries for strengthening sustainable clothing markets,

Ecological Economics, Volume 194.


Clothing durability dozen - STRATEGIES TO IMPROVE DESIGN AND TESTING FOR CLOTHING LONGEVITY

Nottingham Trent University, 2021


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