How Ethical and Sustainable is Your Workwear?
If you are responsible for purchasing the corporate uniform and workwear in your organisation, you have a duty to take care of those wearing it by providing quality garments that are comfortable, durable and fit for purpose. But there are also other responsibilities; to those that manufacture the clothing and to the environment.
These should all be key considerations when selecting your staff uniform and form part of your company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). By extension, they should influence your choice of uniform supplier, as it’s important to ensure their ethical standards are in line with your own.
For those responsible for the upkeep of work clothing, there are steps you can take to reduce the impact it has on the environment, both during its life cycle and once it needs to be disposed of.
We’ve produced this guide on how you can source ethical and sustainable workwear for your company, and consider the effect your workwear has throughout its journey from manufacture to disposal.
How much do you know about the people making your uniform? Just like the issues in the fashion industry, If you’re regularly purchasing cheap workwear garments, the chances are someone somewhere is paying the price.
Consider the conditions that those constructing these garments are in on a daily basis; are they on very poor wages, for example? What are their working hours? Does the factory take part in forced labour or child labour? Are they discriminated against or facing health and safety concerns?
The truth is many of us aren’t sure who is making our clothing, but the first step is to take a keen interest in the Ethical Policy of the brand behind it. Look out for their statement on the Modern Slavery Act 2015, for example. The Regatta Group have published their Modern Slavery Statement, which outlines how they take responsibility for working conditions throughout the supply chain.
At WISE Worksafe, we ensure that our prime sources of supply are from companies where the following policies are in evidence:
Employment can be chosen freely
There is freedom of association
The right to collective bargaining is respected
Working conditions are safe and hygienic
Child labour is not used
Living wages are paid
Working hours are not excessive
No discrimination of any kind is allowed for
We have a responsibility to everyone who contributes towards our success, including those who are not directly employed by us. By working closely with our suppliers, we develop a long-term, sustainable and environmental standard in the factories that manufacture our products.
Brand focus | Regatta & Craghoppers - Part of The Regatta Group
A priority for The Regatta Group, whose brands include Regatta and Craghoppers, is to ensure workers in their partner factories are treated fairly, with good working conditions. Since 2012, The Regatta Group has been a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and thereby agree to adopt the ETI Base Code of labour practice. They regularly evaluate their factories against set standards and pilot new initiatives across the supply chain to establish good ethical practice.
When you’re looking for uniform brands, look out for those that are part of the Ethical Trading Initiative.
Ethical standards to look out for
Determining whether a workwear supplier’s practices, supply chain and products are ethical, sustainable and environmentally friendly is not always easy. However, something you can do is look out for accreditation or compliance to the following standards:
ISO 9001 Quality Management and ISO 14001 Environmental Management
The ISO 9001:2015 standard provides guidance, tools and criteria to help organisations achieve a consistent standard for their products and services, which meet customer expectations, and that quality is continuously improved.
ISO 14001:2015 assists companies with creating a management system for their environmental responsibilities, and ensures certain standards are met.
WISE Worksafe is both ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 certified.
This identifies products and services that have a reduced environmental impact throughout their life cycle, from the extraction of raw material through to production, use and disposal.
Not for profit organisation that works with companies and factories to improve labour conditions for garment workers.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
Worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain.
A movement for change that works directly with businesses, consumers and campaigners to make trade deliver for farmers and workers. A Fairtrade product offers a minimum price to producers.
Not for profit membership organisation dedicated to driving improvements in ethical and responsible business practices in global supply chains.
Independent testing and certification system for textile raw materials, testing for harmful substances.
European standard that stands for the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation & Restriction of CHemicals.
Are you aware of the carbon footprint of your corporate clothing?
When shopping for your uniforms you should opt for brands that are actively aiming to lower the carbon footprint of their production processes. This would involve paying special attention to renewable energy, harmful emissions and water usage. Any products that are deemed ‘quality’ should only be labelled as such if they are manufactured in a way that is environmentally and socially sustainable.
Workwear has an environmental impact from production (energy usage and toxic chemicals) through to disposal (landfill and incineration). Here are some of the key impacts your work clothing has throughout its life cycle according to the European Clothing Action Plan (ECAP):
Greenhouse gas emissions
Fossil fuels are burned in order to create the electricity needed in the manufacturing process, as well as being used in agricultural machinery. Workwear is typically of a higher quality than similar fashion garments, and this means the under-utilisation of functional life has proportionally greater impacts.
The production of workwear and uniform includes the use of fossil fuels through transport, electricity and manufacture of synthetic fibres, and water through the cultivation of crops, wet processes during manufacturing, cleaning. Many of these garments end up being sent to landfill or are incinerated.
Air and water pollution
Air acidification due to sulphur oxides (SOx) emissions (fossil fuel combustion) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions (electricity production).
Water consumption and pollution impacts
This is particularly prevalent in the production of natural cotton fibres through the extensive use of water in cotton crop cultivation.
Aquatic, sedimentary and soil toxicity comes as a result of the use of chemicals during crop cultivation (defoliants and pesticides) and in many manufacturing stages such as pre-treatment, dyeing and printing.
Microplastic fibres in the ocean
Many of our clothes contain plastics such as polyester, nylon, acrylic and polyamide and these shed tiny bits of plastic throughout their life. The implications of these tiny microplastic fibres are becoming more and more apparent.
Every time we wash our synthetic uniforms the fabric sheds thousands or millions of these plastic microfibres, which can escape into the ocean and potentially enter the food chain. The threads are so small that they can drain out of our washing machines and pass straight through wastewater treatment plants into the sea. When they make it to the ocean they absorb nasty chemicals and a multitude of sea creatures are at risk of ingesting these and passing them up the food chain.
Friends of the Earth claim that “One washing load of clothes could be shedding up to 17 million plastic fibres,” demonstrating the responsibility each of us has to reevaluate how we take care of our work clothes.
We’ve put together a list of suggestions from the recommendations of Friends of the Earth and Plastic Pollution Coalition on how you can reduce the amount of tiny plastic fibres that reach the ocean:
Put your washing in a special bag. A Guppyfriend Washing Bag will help collect the microfibres that your clothes shed.
Fill the washing machine. A full machine reduces the amount of friction between items.
Wash your workwear at low temperatures. This is less aggressive and therefore less likely to shake out plastic fibres.
Reduce spin speeds. Faster spins may dry clothes quicker but they also shake them up more.
Air dry rather than tumble dry. Tumble drying is more aggressive and likely to cause friction between garments.
Keep your workwear for longer. Synthetic clothes are likely to shed more plastic in the first few washes, so frequently changing your workwear will probably increase the amount of plastic you’re sending out into the environment. Buy quality workwear and corporate clothing that’s built to last!
Choose uniform that’s made from natural fibres like cotton, linen and wool. These will eventually break down in the environment whereas synthetic fabrics will not.
A number of garment manufacturers are working on finding solutions to the microplastic fibre problem, including looking to alternative fabrics such as organic cotton, recycled plastic fabrics, Tencel (made using recycled tree pulp), 100% wool, hemp and jute.
There are a number of more ethical and sustainable textiles on the market, these include:
Organic cotton is a popular choice, with no synthetic toxic fertilisers, pesticides, insecticides, or herbicides that affect other plants, wildlife, lakes and waterways. As well as its dramatically reduced impact on the environment organic cotton is also better for the health of the farm workers.
Linen is made from flax, which can be grown on rough terrain that’s unsuitable for food production and can also be cultivated without the use of chemicals. Whilst conventional processing methods result in pollutants making their way into rivers or waterways, there are more eco-friendly methods arising (dew-retting and enzyme-retting) that turn the raw crop into fibre while avoiding water pollution.
Fabrics from animal hair
Wool is a tough, resilient textile that can hold colourful dyes easily without the use of chemicals. It can replace many of the water-resistant synthetic fibres, and its biggest environmental issue is the methane emissions from the sheep themselves.
Fabrics made from recycled plastic
High profile brands like Craghoppers offer workwear made from recycled fabrics, including the Craghoppers recycled fleece, made using recycled plastic bottles. Watch the video below to see how the Craghoppers recycled fleece jacket is made.
DGrade is a company that works solely on supplying high-quality eco-friendly products, including clothing, all made from recycled plastic bottles.
Every workwear brand should be able to demonstrate full traceability, showing that they are aware of where their products originate, what they are made of, and the component supply chains. They should have full visibility of those suppliers who assemble the products as well as the fabric and accessories included.
For more guidance, check out this Guide to Sustainable Fabrics.
Buying workwear to last
By choosing quality workwear that you are going to get a lot of use out of, you’re making an environmentally friendly decision. Favour quality and durability rather than cost and you’ll get garments that are fit for purpose and will last longer - meaning over time fewer garments will need to be purchased and that means less fabric sent to landfill.
Communicating with staff effectively on the correct sizing and specification for uniforms is also crucial in the buying process. If ill-fitting or unsuitable garments are purchased they could end up not being used and then disposed of, which is a valuable waste of resources.
Once you have the uniform it’s important to make sure you’re taking care to follow the manufacturer’s instructions on care, washing and storage. You can extend the life of workwear by checking regularly for damage so that small damage can be repaired as you go. Try not to wash it more often than necessary, as this wears out the garments quicker, contributes to more water and energy consumption and releases more microplastic fibres into the ocean.
Disposing of workwear responsibly
When uniform has reached the end of its life, which is when it is irreparable or no longer fit for purpose, it’s time to consider how to dispose of this clothing responsibly.
Nearly 33 million corporate garments are provided each year and around 90% of these go to landfill or incineration, which in turn contributes to the release of harmful greenhouse gases.
If you’re regularly disposing of workwear there are a variety of recycling routes to go down to reduce your environmental impact. These include:
Work with a recycling company to set up a recycling programme, including regular on-site collections. Contact WISE Worksafe for further details on this service.
Send the garments to a textile processor who can cut them up to be used for cleaning rags.
Upcycle uniforms by deconstructing them to create new garments.
If there are no brand security issues like there may be with logoed garments, take the clothing to a textile bank, where they will determine what can be sent to developing countries for re-use.
Donate old clothing to charities who may be able to sell them to raise funds and extend the garment life.
Here at WISE Worksafe we take our environmental responsibility seriously and encourage our customers to do the same. By sourcing ethical and sustainable workwear you can not only make a difference to the lives of those who are making the garments, but you’re also showing your employees, customers and clients that you are taking clear steps to reduce your environmental impact.
If you have any questions about how the products we stock are made or would like guidance on how to make the most of your workwear both during use and after it’s no longer suitable, then please get in touch with our team today.