The Recycled Uniform: Sustainability in Practice

31 October 2016 | 0 Comments | Industry Research, Inspiration, News, Uniform Design

How can you make sure your uniform is manufactured ethically? 

Exciting developments in eco textiles and recycled fabrics have allowed corporate wear suppliers to showcase a wider range of sustainable design possibilities for customers, but these materials are often expensive and not easily mass-produced. In the UK, around 90% of old corporate uniforms still go to landfill or are incinerated. That’s around 30 million items or 15,000 tonnes.

The Holy Grail of fully sustainable work wear looks to be a long way off but there are ways to move closer to this goal.

Sustainable Corporate Clothing – what can you do?

There are significant barriers to disposing of old uniforms sustainably. The logistics of recovering used corporate clothing can be complex, costly and may even end up creating a larger carbon footprint, as uniforms have to be shipped back to a central collection point.

Given the obstacles, it’s understandable that well-intentioned companies are forced to dismiss or postpone decisions to adopt more ambitious plans for sustainable corporate clothing.

Stella McCartney, one of the flag bearers of eco design, takes a pragmatic approach to sustainability. “Our philosophy is that it is better to do something than nothing. For me, it’s about the basic principles: sustainability is important, as is recycling. Everyone can do simple things to make a difference, and every little bit really does count.”

There are many ways companies can adopt more sustainable practices. A bespoke uniform supplier can offer a wider range of solutions in terms of ethical compliance and sourcing, eco-friendly design, and achievable, environmentally friendly, end-of-life solutions for work wear.

Ethical Supply Chain – demand transparency from your supplier

A very important and achievable starting point for all companies is ethical compliance. Commit to working with
uniform suppliers who follow ethical codes of conduct to treat and compensate workers fairly, source materials sustainably and protect the environment. Some suppliers claim to do this but to guarantee your peace of mind, demand transparency in your supply chain by ensuring your suppliers are independently audited or members of accredited schemes like the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (SEDEX) or SA8000.

Sustainable Uniforms  – from initial designs to end-of-life 

The best way to maximise the sustainability of corporate wear is to work closely with your uniform supplier during the initial design stage. This will give you more cost-effective, practical options, even if you don’t have an end-of-life strategy for the garments yet.

Agree how many items you really need to clothe your staff, how the items are to be washed (dry clean or machine wash), how long you want them to last and how you want to dispose of your uniforms. It needn’t mean a complete closed loop sustainable uniform. You can aim for EU Ecolabel accreditation or start small and make just one change.

Designed to Last  – what is the lifespan of your work wear? 

Just by increasing the durability and lifespan of uniforms, companies are contributing to sustainability. Look at your growth plans: how long do you need your garments to last? Consider the lifespan of garments in relation to staff turnover and rebranding initiatives. Decide how garments will be packaged and delivered: Are the bags recyclable? How much packaging do you need? Can they be shipped rather than air freighted?

Pick Wisely – how will you de-brand your uniform?

De-branding old uniforms is necessary for corporate security but can be time-consuming and a resource drainer. Branding your work wear so that it’s easier to take apart will make garments simpler to donate to local charities or back-to-work organisations like SmartWorks and SuitedandBooted.  Minimise the use of embroidery to remove the need for unpicking.

A Capsule Uniform – keep things simple!

Create a capsule uniform wardrobe so there are fewer types of garments to dispose of when they’re at the end of their life. This can reduce the complexity of preparing old uniforms for recycling. Source garments locally to reduce your carbon footprint.

Recycle or Upcycle? – Choosing material for your corporate wear

Simple tweaks to the choice of material and the design of your uniform can make a big difference to how easy they are to recycle or upcycle. Discuss the options with your uniform designer and ask them about environmentally friendly fabrics. When it comes to recycling, single fibre (100%) fabrics like cotton or wool are easily recycled and 100% polyester linings can be turned into liquid fuel while blended fabrics are more difficult to recycle.

Next steps for Sustainable Uniform Design

Taking sustainability to the next level in corporate wear will not happen overnight. By partnering with their uniform suppliers, customers can plan and take incremental steps towards reducing the volume of old uniforms that go to landfill or are incinerated. Over time, this will increase demand from customers for more ambitious change, and accelerate the industry’s response with better initiatives and solutions.


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