Worn Out: new research on clothing durability raises big questions

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Worn Out: new research on clothing durability raises big questions

By Alex Robinson 20th July, 2023

When you buy clothes, how do you know if they’ll last a long time? If you’re like most people*, you’ll think price is a decent proxy: expensive clothes will be more durable than cheap ones. Our new research on durability with the University of Leeds shows it’s not that simple.

In light of this work, and as the true costs of fashion mount up, we’re calling for a greater focus on durability, for the industry to design clothes to last longer, and for a major effort to make people aware of the simple steps that they can take to help all their clothes last as long as possible.

In the wider discussion about sustainability in fashion, durability has had relatively little attention – partly because while anecdotal evidence is easy to find, there’s no standard to judge our clothes by. This matters, because our perception of how long an item will last us affects our purchasing decisions, as well as how we treat the clothes we have.

We’ve all heard it said that low-cost clothing will fall apart after a few wears or washes. Does that mean we should only bother to care for our clothes if they are high end? That isn’t particularly useful to most people, most of the time. Our findings are clear on this: clothes at all price points can be durable and are worth looking after.

It all comes out in the wash

We have been working with the School of Design at the University of Leeds to test out the durability of a range of garments from various brands, at different price points. The work was supported by Primark, and the results are mixed. Across 65 garments from women’s and men’s tees, hoodies and jeans, we saw the following:

  • Women’s t-shirts priced under £10 outperformed one retailing at around £40.
  • Women’s hoodies priced between £11 - £20 were ranked higher on the durability scale than those priced at just under £50 and around £100.
  • Only negligible differences in durability were found for a pair of women’s jeans priced at around £15 compared to a pair retailing at more than ten times the price.
  • A men’s t-shirt costing under £5 was ranked as the second most durable out of 17 items tested, outperforming one at ten times the price.
  • Of the garments tested, only menswear hoodies showed consistently higher performance than the lower priced.

Wear next?

The typical adult already has 118 items of clothing in their wardrobe, with a quarter unworn for over a year. We want campaigns to inspire people to ‘shop their wardrobe’ and to love, and look after, what they already own.

There are no easy headlines here. Frustratingly, the results reveal that there are few guarantees of durability at any price point. Given that textiles are notoriously difficult to recycle into new clothing that can be worn again, we really do need to encourage everyone to wear their clothes for as long as possible and buy less.

We can also recommend that everyone cares for their clothes in the best possible way, regardless of whether they spent £5 or £50 on a t-shirt. This means washing on cooler and shorter cycles, air drying if possible, turning garments inside out to wash and hanging or folding them carefully to store. We’re currently running an eight-week in-depth behavioural insight trial with 100 fashion lovers to find out how likely they are to adopt these new habits, the benefits they see and the best way to frame the change needed.

And we join Primark in calling for a durability standard across all the fashion industry, which will give shoppers greater confidence that their clothing will last longer with the right care.

Note: The durability research project was conducted by Dr Mark Sumner, Dr Mark Taylor, Dr Yue Guo and Kate Morris at the University of Leeds (School of Design). Find a summary report based on their findings below.

Style Counsel

We know that textile production and waste are some of the knottiest challenges that we face, but we hope that this insight can spark further discussion. As with all complex environmental issues, sharing information and building collaborations are key to our next steps.

This work builds on our history of fashion and textiles projects, from supporting families to pass on baby clothes with Gift a Bundle to highlighting microplastic pollution with What's In My Wash? Our vision is for a society where there is high awareness of the environmental impact of fashion; people buy far fewer new items of clothing, and everyone takes better care of clothing and put what they don’t wear back into the mix by reselling. And we want to support communities, businesses and government to be part of the solution.

If you’d like to learn more about the research or our ambitions for a more responsible approach to fashion, drop us a line.

What can you do?

Or to get started now and make sure your clothes are getting the care and wear they deserve, check out these tips for rediscovering your wardrobe and caring for clothes.

*67% of UK adults. Polling conducted by Censuswide with 3002 Respondents (Nat Rep) between 22.03.2023 - 27.03.2023.

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