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Lynn Wilson, Adam Smith Business School: 'In a time of consumer confusion, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals provide a thread to hold onto'

Our blogs highlight a range of consumer issues from different perspectives. Unless otherwise stated they do not represent the position of Consumers International.

AUTHORS: Lynn Wilson

As part of our blog series for World Consumer Rights Day, we asked thought leaders across the world to provide insight into the campaign theme 'The Sustainable Consumer'. 

Lynn Wilson is a circular economy business consultant and PhD researcher at the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow. The title of her PhD research is ‘Closing the loop. Driving circularity in post-consumer clothing disposal’.

When I was growing up in the 1970s it seemed liked everyone could knit: my mum, my gran, our neighbours, everybody! Not only could they knit but they could unravel jumpers that no longer fitted due to growth spurts and reknit them to fit us, reusing the same yarn. Darning and repair such as invisible mending was a regular activity for them, that happened after tea watching television. Gran and her friends (who all shared a strong sense of community spirit) couldn’t afford to keep buying new, but they could reuse and repair to solve the problem. This was my first contact with what we now call ‘a circular economy’.

By the time I was 10 learning basic hand sewing skills was part of the junior school curriculum and continued into secondary school taught within the home economics curriculum. Combined with art and design these subjects fuelled my passion for eventually training as a textile designer. Today, basic repair skills are not part of the school curriculum.

Charity shops were not as prevalent on the high street as they are now, and clothing seemed to last a lot longer. The preferred method of clothing disposal today is donating to the charity shop, an important and worthy destination. The problem is when asked about the need to dispose in the first place, the main reason consumers say is to make room for new clothing. 60% of clothing donated to charity shops today ends up in the global south where we have no idea what happens to it at the end of life and the value is lost from our local communities.

As a global society we are facing a resource crisis. By 2025 there will be over 8 billion people on the planet who all need clothing. WRAP report that since a baseline of 2012 consumers in the UK have increased clothing consumption by 200,000 tonnes per year. The numerous problems with the production of ‘fast fashion’ and clothing waste are spiralling out of control. It is estimated that a staggering 92 million tonnes of textiles goes into landfill globally every year, 300,000 tonnes in the UK alone at a value of £140 million. Roughly a third of our clothing, £30 BILLION worth, is estimated to be hanging in our wardrobes unused.

But what can we do as consumers to change things and who can help us? At a time of unprecedented political uncertainty, where can we turn for some clear guidance and some shared goals to get behind?

SDG 12 and me

Should the global population reach 9.6 billion by 2050, it’s estimated that the equivalent of almost three planets would be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles. In response, the United Nations has developed 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide governments and other stakeholders globally on the changes required to guarantee a sustainable future.

Of these 17 SDGs, the one most relevant to my own work is Goal 12, which relates to ‘Sustainable Consumption and Production’.  As someone who has spent my professional life in textile design and manufacturing, I’m particularly interested why we as consumers throw away millions of tonnes of clothing every year and how we can reduce the negative ecological impacts and levels of waste associated with textile production.

SDG 12 seeks to implement a 10-year framework of programmes of activity, with developed countries taking the lead.

Key objectives of SDG 12 include:

  • to substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse by 2030;
  • to encourage companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle;
  • to ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature by 2030.

As a partner in the UN Consumers International platform, all of my work is now underpinned and contributes towards the achievement of SDG 12.

I’ve been involved in the development of ‘circular economy’ government strategies and now academia since 2012 at a national and international level. Right now, for example, I am in the middle of my PhD research fieldwork which involves recruiting and interviewing consumers about their clothing disposal habits and destinations. It is essential that we begin to understand at a deeper level beyond the quantitative data quoted what consumers are actually doing that leads to the staggering consumption and landfill figures.

There’s little doubt that conversations around the need for a circular economy are gathering pace but, at times, it’s been frustrating to see how fragmented these conversations have been. Little positive action has been taken, particularly in relation to our outdated waste management systems. The charity sector has evolved to ‘manage’ post-consumer clothing disposal as the fashion industry has been allowed to design in obsolescence in name of ‘fast fashion’.

As a fellow of the RSA, I’m delighted to be helping to promote and judge their annual Student Design Awards, which challenges emerging designers to tackle a range of design briefs focused on pressing social, environmental and economic issues. This year the Make Fashion Circular award is focused on challenging fashion related students to develop new circular clothing systems. Research suggest 80% of a product’s environmental impact can be determined at the design stage. By understanding consumer behaviour better, designers like myself can begin to work on new circular systems that enable and support consumers to reuse, repair and circulate clothing for longer, just like my mum and gran when I was growing up.

At a time of almost unprecedented political turbulence, I find it reassuring to have the UN’s SDGs as a guide, a thread to pull everything together and make sure every project I devote time to is in service of a better – and more ‘circular’ - world for everyone.