16 September 2021 • 5 min

Chris McNulty

Reap, Rent, Repeat: UK Leadership in Greening the Consumer Market

By Chris McNulty, Senior Trade Adviser – ODI, Creative & Retail Germany, Department for International Trade (DIT)

It’s well known that the consumer industries are among the most polluting in the world. The fashion business, for example, is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.

Great Fashion

Climate change is a top priority for the UK, and there are many British businesses and organisations working on exciting initiatives in this space.

Join us on a journey from the cotton field to the circular economy, and find out more about some of the ways the UK is striving for more sustainability in the consumer market.


Reap, reduce CO2

Let’s start with raw materials, such as cotton. Materra is a tech company working towards climate-resilient cotton agriculture from a research base in Essex. Their work involves empowering farmers to make better decisions while employing precision agriculture to make farming systems more resilient all along the supply chain.

Another service provider is the London-based Post Carbon Lab, a “science-lab-meets-fashion-studio” which works to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. How? By creating microbial dyes and textile coatings that harness photosynthesis. Imagine if our clothes were not just sustainably made, but could actively make a positive difference!


Rent, re-sell

Great ideas - socks

Looking back a few decades, we used to have a very different relationship with “stuff”: buying CDs or DVDs to consume music or films, for example. The element of ownership used to be so important, but now the focus is on the experience.

Renting clothes – rather than buying – makes sense, especially for statement pieces which are only worn a handful of times. So it’s not surprising that this business model has been growing across market segments.


MY WARDROBE HQ has made headlines as influencers and celebrities open up about renting (even Harrods is hosting their rental pop-up), while HURR is a tech-first platform and community of entrepreneurial women created on the basis that our demand for “newness” just isn’t sustainable.

When it comes to resale, too, our reluctance to wear pre-worn clothes is another wasted opportunity: plenty of items for sale in second-hand stores (call them pre-loved if you like) have barely been worn. It’s now possible to buy resale in mainstream supermarkets (Asda plans to sell vintage clothes in 50 stores) and online (ecommerce giant ASOS runs a Marketplace platform home to over 900 small businesses and vintage boutiques).

There are also high-end tie-ups in this space, such as the partnership between Beyond Retro and Selfridges to offer pre-worn pieces for sale alongside regular collections.


Restore, recycle

Innovative businesses in the luxury sector like The Restory offer consumers the chance to extend the lifespan of luxury accessories by providing expert aftercare for designer shoes, bags and leather goods. Options include reheeling, deep cleaning and colour restoration, undertaken on-demand by craftspeople using the latest tech. RETURE is the world’s first fashion upcycling platform where consumers can connect and collaborate with designers to refashion pieces into new and unique treasures.

Eventually, of course, every product will reach the end of its life, but that doesn’t mean the end of the story. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation develops and promotes the circular economy in fields ranging from cities to toys. Nottingham-based Worn Again Technologies is on a mission to replace the use of virgin resources by recapturing raw materials from non-reusable products. And WRAP works across six continents to promote sustainable use of resources; for their Textiles 2030 initiative, leading retailers including Tesco, M&S and Next are collaborating with experts on fast-tracking the circular economy across clothing retail, supply, reuse and recycling.

Ultimately, of course, much of the change will be consumer-led. Many of us found ourselves questioning our routines during the pandemic, but will this lead to longer-term change in the way we think about buying and experiencing products? Will we be able to reconcile our desire for novelty and our habit of trying to express ourselves by buying “stuff” with the need to consume more sustainably? Time will tell, but with so many innovative developments across the consumer sector right now, there’s plenty to be optimistic about.



Find out more 

Here at the UK’s Department for International Trade (DIT), we work to support UK exporters in Europe, and also to attract international investment into the UK.

Contact us to find out more, or view our upcoming events page to see current opportunities in Clean Growth.

And if you’re interested in trade between the UK and Germany specifically, feel free to reach out or listen to my podcast series Konsumkultur, which explores topics including sustainability across the consumer and creative industries.