Opinion: Mend, Repair & Reuse

An estimated £140 million worth (350,000 tonnes) of used clothing goes to landfill in the UK every year.

The rise of cheap, fast fashion, has now made it more practical to throw away our clothes when they get damaged than it is to repair or reuse them.

The environmental cost of landfills are significant. Not just an eyesore and a demand on space, the decomposing clothing in landfills releases methane, a harmful greenhouse gas and a contributor to global warming. There are also dyes and chemicals in fabric that can leach into the soil, contaminating both surface and groundwater.

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Image via Claire Wellesley-Smith

We need to make our clothes last longer. If we all extend the average life of our clothes by just three months per item, it would lead to a 5-10% reduction in each of the carbon, water and waste footprints.

In the not-so-distant past, clothes were only disposed of when they were completely worn out, after they had been patched up a few times already, and maybe even after being used as cloths/rags.

Homemade or improvised make do and mend repairs were used to sustain the life of our garments. These techniques and practices add a history to our clothes. Worn, repaired items carry evidence of a former life, a journey on fabric.

Although knowledge of such practices does not seem to have been passed down to the current generation, lately I have noticed a surge in interest in things like sewing, embroidery, stitching and re-cycled clothing (Slow Stitch, The Great British Sewing Bee, Sew Over It, Make Do & Mend).

I think people have realised that as we struggle to come to terms with our over consumption of finite resources the concepts of reuse and recycle become ever more crucial. There is a rising concern about the environment, as well as, I think, a renewed appreciation for traditional cultural practices.

I think the growth of traditional repair and re-use techniques is very encouraging, and represents this shift in public consciousness.

The internet is full of resources for people wanting to learn how to mend their own clothes, there is a great tutorial for mending fabric on Design Sponge, Three Easy Ways To Mend Fabric.

Only the other day I was reading this blog from Tom van Deijnen, who runs the Visible Mending programme in Brighton. He eloquently explains how he makes his mending visible because rather than see them as flaws, he sees his mends as a creative opportunity:

“Over time, clothes start to develop signs of wear, of having been washed, of having been used. Inevitably, an edge starts to fray, a seat wears thin, or a hole appears, and the time comes I’ll be getting out my darning needle. By making my mends visible, I continue adding to the garment. A beautiful mend can be worn as a badge of honour, and in my view, augments and alters the garment repaired. I’ve stopped looking at repair as a chore, but as a creative challenge in its own right.”

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Image via Sarah Divi

Although the mending movement is still small, Tom seems to think it is growing and people are coming round to the idea that you can’t just throw things out any more, you need to fix them. He points out that Repair Cafés are becoming increasingly common.

Our own Professor Kate Fletcher of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, has also been spreading a similar message through her Local Wisdom project, started in 2009, which explores resourceful practices associated with using clothes.

She aims to challenge the fashion industry’s dependency on continuously making more products, by encouraging the sustained use of garments, giving them attention and encouraging their longevity. Local Wisdom gathers stories and images from the public of how people use their clothes and tries to integrate these use-practices into new business models.

However, will the industry pick up on the growth of repair and reuse? Patagonia was one of the first mainstream clothing companies to offer repairs and sell garments second-hand. Nudie Jeans also has free repair service in their Global Repair Station in Soho, where they repair some 100 pairs of Nudie Jeans every week.

Aside from the obvious environmental benefits, the consumer saves money and gets to keep their favourite garment for longer, while the retailer experiences the brand loyalty that comes with understanding their customer’s needs.

In future, more brands will recognise the long-term commercial opportunities to be had – they will take the lead from the likes of Patagonia and Nudie Jeans, and produce garments that are made to be mended, not made for obsolescence.

In ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things’ the authors argue that industrial products not designed with reuse in mind are actually down cycled. What if products were designed to be eventually dismantled, and their components reused or composted? Wouldn’t this change the way we think about our clothes?

The rise in living costs allied with consumer demand for products which last, will see the culture for repair and maintenance continue to rise, forcing the industry to again value quality and craftsmanship over immediate financial gain.

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