The climate impact of knitting

As readers of this blog might know, I knit, sew and occasionally weave and embroider. I love textile handicrafts. I think the love stems from gaining understanding of how something is made, the self-confidence you get from mastering a skill and the joy of being able to customize your wardrobe. But, as other sustainability minded makers, I have been conscious of the environmental footprint of my handicraft practices. After all, you use materials that have an environmental footprint in your handicraft practice and you sometimes tend to overproduce. You occasionally make things you do not like as much as you thought and, more frequently, you make things that you love but, truthfully, do not really need. When summarizing my slow fashion year, I have recurrently told myself that I need to limit my making. Being a slow maker is good, to produce less is a constant ambition.

Lately, I have reconsidered this bad conscious for engaging in handicrafts. A little more than a month ago I spoke on Swedish radio about the climate impact of fashion and had yet again a reason to look into the carbon footprint of fashion production. I was yet again reminded that textile fibers is only a very small part of the fashion carbon footprint. Instead, it is the (fossil) fuels in the textile and clothing production that stand for the majority of the carbon footprint (60 %). Finally, I realised that my knitting practice in fact avoids a big part of this carbon footprint . Indeed, my arm and hand muscles, doing the knitting, are very much fossil free. My hand knitting is pure renewable energy, sourced from the foods I consume. Sure in the process I emit some carbon dioxide, but I would do so anyway, whether knitting or not.

Knitters, at least the sustainably minded ones, tend to worry about the fibers, i.e. the yarn. We avoid yarn made from fossil fuels, such as nylon or acrylic yarns. We do the best we can to buy as sustainable yarn as we can find and afford. I try to only buy organic, such as Gots certified, yarn or yarn directly from the farm. Still, we worry about the environmental footprint.

As for worrying about the fibers, hand knitters mostly use wool. Wool is a side product of sheep farming in Sweden and is often burnt instead of used to make textiles, producing carbon dioxide when incinerated, which in turn negatively affects the climate. By using the wool, for example for knitting clothing, instead of incinerating we thus keep the carbon stored away in our clothes. Moreover, organic farming is more likely to have regenerative farming practices such as grazing and compost use (though of course not always!). Indeed, as I’ve blogged about, there have been successful attempts to make climate positive wool clothes. Wool, as a fiber, does not have to be bad for the climate. For knitters using cotton, there is climate beneficial cotton too.

Looking at climate calculations, textile fibre production is still only 16 % of the textile’s climate impact. See for example climate calculations for Swedish textiles by Sandin et al. (2019) in the diagram. These numbers also include climate unfriendly fibers that we avoid, such as plastic fibers from fossil fuels. This report does not, however, include wool fibers which are most commonly use by hand knitters, but cotton is included,

This diagram can still tell us something about the climate impact of textiles generally. For example that the big carbon footprint is in the fabric (14 %) and clothes production (15,6 %), which hand knitters remove by doing this part ourselves. That is to say that by hand knitting, you remove almost a third of the item’s carbon footprint. Well done knitter.

Thus if we choose climate friendly fibers, based on regenerative farming practice, hand knitters mostly need to worry about the processing of yarns (10 %) and dyeing of the yarn (23 %). This climate footprint is largely an effect of the energy mix in the factories or country of production producing the yarn and doing the dyeing. While the organic Gots certification encourages the use of renewable energy, it does not require it. Hence, the energy mix in the country of production plays a key role (33 %) for the carbon footprint. Imported organic or Gots certified yarns, thus, do not automatically have a low carbon footprint. It depends on where they are imported from and the energy mix used in the factories. Ideally, we want to avoid countries with coal and a large proportion of fossil fuels. In this context, Swedish spun yarn is likely to turn out well in any comparison, considering that we have hardly any fossil fuels in the Swedish energy mix.

Suddenly, the last sweater I knitted sounds quite environmentally friendly: knitted by hand out of undyed organic Swedish wool yarn, spun in Sweden by Stenkyrka Ullspinneri on Gotland. If I apply some of what I have learnt about regenerative farming and the climate impact of the fashion industry, my hand knitted sweater sounds even better. If the carbon stored in the fibers and the grazed lands surpass the carbon released in the production, my grey wool Gotland wool sweater might even be climate positive. Since the Swedish energy mix is almost fossil fuel free (it consists of mainly nuclear and hydropower), it could be.

To summarise, and as a little check list for us climate conscious hand knitters, we should consider choosing (1) climate friendly fibers for example from regenerative farming, (2) undyed yarn or yarn dyed using renewable energy, (3) yarn spun/processed using renewable energy. If we do so, we might in fact do the climate a service with our hand knitting practice.

Considering that Greta Thunberg, according to Vogue Scandinavia, is a knitter, I guess we should have known all along that hand knitting is good for the climate! 😉

References:

Sandin, Gustav & Roos, Sandra & Spak, Björn & Zamani, Bahareh & Peters, Greg. (2019). Environmental assessment of Swedish clothing consumption – six garments, sustainable futures. 10.13140/RG.2.2.30502.27205.

Why textile recycling is not the answer to reducing the climate impact of fashion

The fashion industry has a big climate impact. As a potential way to reduce fashion’s carbon footprint, there are a lot of ongoing initiatives aiming to recycle textile fibers. However, if you study the fashion brands’ carbon accounting closely, you see that virgin textile fibers, which recycling aims to replace, only account for around 10% of the total carbon footprint. This means that virgin fibers have a minor climate impact. Instead, the main impact is fossil fuels used in the textile factories that produce our clothes. You can argue that it is important to address the total carbon footprint, including virgin fibers, and I would agree. However, since textile recycling also has a carbon footprint of its own, the gain from recycling fibers is even less than the 10%. Indeed, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency found that for example chemical recycling of cotton has a worse carbon footprint than incineration of used cotton fibers. I raised this issue in an article in the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet on the topic of textile recycling and the fashion industry’s climate impact earlier this year.

Needless to say, there may be other environmental gains by recycling textile fibers. By recycling fibers the land used to grow textiles can be used to grow for example food. The water use and biodiversity issue of pesticide use when growing cotton can also be an argument for recycling the fibers. But biodiversity and pesticides can also be an argument to switch to organic practices or, as will discuss here, regenerative agriculture.

An issue that is often overlooked in the fashion and climate debate is that growing fibers such as cotton can be done in a way to sequester carbon dioxide from the air in the soil and fibers. Many of you have probably heard the term regenerative agriculture. It’s a way to use agricultural practices to reverse climate change, or in less bombastic terms, sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. An early example of this, which made me aware of the issue, was the collaboration between American non-profit Fibershed and company The North Face in producing a climate beneficial wool hat. They argue that producing the wool hat had a net positive impact on the climate, i.e. it sequestered more climate gases from the atmosphere than it released. In this case, it was sheep that sequestered more carbon dioxide than they released and in the meantime produced wool for clothing. The North Face has since expanded their climate positive range but seems to be sticking to wool.

In Sweden, a group of fashion companies are looking to use Swedish wool for clothing. Although this wool might not have been farmed using regenerative agricultural practices, it is most likely still a gain for the climate as most Swedish wool is otherwise burned, releasing carbon dioxide. Moreover, many technical garments are nowadays made out of plastic fibers, from fossil fuels, and if existing wool can replace these fibers, it’s a gain for the environment.

However, it is not only wool that can sequester carbon dioxide. Fibershed and farmer Sally Fox shows that also textile fibers such as cotton, hemp and linen have this potential. Lately, luxury fashion has learned about regenerative agriculture and even started sourcing regenerative rubber. In my opinion, such regenerative agriculture appears more promising than recycling cotton, as recycling has a carbon footprint of its own and results in lower quality fibers. Of course, we can question the greenhouse gas calculations. There is indeed an ongoing debate as to when and how you can use the term climate positive but certifications are being developed. Fibershed is working with researchers to develop their calculations. Moreover, regenerative agricultural practices as a means to slow climate change has generated research interest more generally .

Regenerative or climate positive fibers are likely to be more expensive than current conventional fibers. Considering current overconsumption of textiles, buying less and of better quality, keeping the items for longer should be possible for many of us. It may not be everyones’ cup of tea, but at least the more wealthy part of the world could afford to buy less and, when we do buy clothing, go for climate positive fibers. In addition, we need to keep our clothing longer as the easiest way to reduce fashion’s carbon footprint is to buy less and reuse our items more.

Is renting clothes more environmentally friendly?

H&M started renting services in 2019, caption from article in Forbes

It is often said that you should lease, rent, commercially share or pool things instead of owning them and that this is more circular. It’s called Product-Service-Systems (PSS) and the idea is that this should keep products in use and thereby lower their environmental footprint. Consumers are told to buy a function or access instead of a product. Products are this way turned into services.

A lot of research money, both corporate and public, is put into realizing these ideas in practice. The problem, as I have written about before, is that research already indicates that it is not as simple. As Tukker (2004) writes, the idea that PSS will automatically result in an environmental-economic win-win situation is a myth. In the following, I list some reasons why leasing, renting and pooling might not be more environmentally friendly than owning.

The first issue is transport. When you switch products, for example when participating in a fashion library, you need transport to pick up the new rented items and this transport and its environmental impact may off-set any benefit. Zamani et al (2017) included customer transport into their life-cycle analysis and showed that for clothing libraries transport has a higher climate impact than for example washing. The authors conclude that few customers and keeping the clothing for a long time was the most environmentally friendly. However, this is rarely the idea with such libraries or renting services.

One reason why for example renting is supposed to reduce environmental impact is because access to the product is complicated, which should reduce its use (Tukker, 2004). Renting, leasing and pooling models are most likely to have a positive environmental impact if they reduce consumption (Tunn et al. 2019). Thus because you have to take the detour and arrive within the fashion library’s opening hours you will use the service less and rent fewer new clothes. If companies knew this, however, they might be less inclined to try a PSS model. Moreover, there are many ways, apart from PSS models, to discourage from consumption.

An issue with the above argument, that renting should decrease consumption, is the rebound effect. This means that any leased, shared or rented item has to replace something you would otherwise buy to have a positive environmental impact. In the case of fashion, there is a significant risk that customers both buy what they want and then on top rent clothes or subscribe to a fashion library. Maybe you buy the basic and classic items as you have always done but then also start to rent the fun and trendy items that you never would have bought. In such cases, the rented items increase fashion consumption instead of replacing existing consumption. This is simply an increased environmental impact, there are no savings here.

There is also a risk that you treat the rented or shared items less carefully since they are not yours. Michelini et al. (2017) and Tukker (2004) argue that use-oriented business models can hinder the products from circulating longer due to careless use by the users. In such cases, less responsible user behavior increases environmental impact. The e-scooters on town are a prime example of such reckless treatment of rented products. If users paid the full price and owned the scooter, they might treat it more carefully.

The products best suited for leasing and rental are durable ones, usually sold at high prices, which also makes leasing or renting more appealing to customers who might lack the funds to buy the product (Lacy & Rutqvist, 2015). The issue here is that second hand markets have traditionally been a solution for such situations. Many of us already buy durable, rarely used and pricey items second hand and then, when we don’t need them, pass them on to someone else through second hand markets.

Susanna Alexius och Staffan Furusten addressed this issue well in a recent article in Organisation & Samhälle . Just as second hand markets, sharing or pooling is nothing new. What’s new in the sharing/circular economy debate is that this sharing and pooling should be commercialized. While traditionally you maybe shared clothes, cars, summer houses or tools with friends and acquaintances, what’s new is that you should share your belongings with strangers and that a commercial actor should earn a share every time you do so. And even this is not entirely new, holiday rentals have worked this way for a long time.

In the circular economy and PSS debate, the idea is that the producer should keep ownership of products and sell them to the customer as a service. This provides the producer with incentives to produce long lived, durable and repairable products (although this is yet be proven in practice). The risk here, as Alexius and Furusten note, is that companies will own even more and their customers less. Traditionally, owning has been a form of capital. And isn’t the sharing economy precisely evidence that owning is capital when you can easily rent your house and earn a profit. Thus ownership is in fact not all bad and – in the case of sharing, renting or pooling – someone will own the product that is to be shared.

As I see it, the risk here is that we are simply commercializing something that would take place anyway – the sharing of products we rarely or hardly use. And, at the end of the day, if you cannot recycle the product into new products, is it really circular anyway? In my opinion we should put more focus on turning waste into new products and less attention to the ownership issue.

Last spring, I reviewed a student thesis dealing with the issues of renting and leasing specifically clothing. Frida Oscarson studied the case of technical garments and interviewed representatives within the industry. To learn about what the industry thinks, you can read her findings here.

References

Lacy, P & Rutqvist, J., (2015) Waste to wealth: the circular economy advantage. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Michelini, G., Moraes, R., Cunha, R., Costa, J. & Ometto A., (2017) From linear to circular economy: PSS conducting the transition, Procedia CIRP, vol. 64, pp. 2-6 

Tukker, A., (2004) Eight types of product–service system: eight ways to sustainability? Experiences from SusProNet. Business Strategy and the Environment, vol. 13 (4), pp. 246-260. 

Tunn, V. S. C., Bocken, N. M. P., van den Hende, E. A. & Schoormans, J. P. L., (2019) Business models for sustainable consumption in the circular economy: An expert study. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 212, pp. 324-333.

Zamani, B., Sandin, G. and Peters, G., (2017) Life cycle assessment of clothing libraries: can collaborative consumption reduce the environmental impact of fast fashion?. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 162, pp. 1368-1375. 

The slow fashion year 2020 in review

2020 was the year of comfy clothes. The fancy blouses only got used for the occasional Zoom meeting or drinks. Since I’m using a wardrobe app (Cladwell) in order to make sure I wear all of my wardrobe, it’s been quite a challenge to keep the fancy parts of my wardrobe in rotation. In the end, I resolved to just put the high heels in storage, there was no use for them during 2020.

2020 was also my fourth year of no clothes shopping. Like last year, I made a handful of exceptions in terms of (sustainable) underwear, in particular nylon stockings from Swedish Stockings. Although this brand is more sustainable than regular ones, the stockings still tear and require regular purchases every year. A very clever business model as customers always have to come back for new ones.

In total, my wardrobe went minus 13 items and I’m now at 528 items in my wardrobe (shoes excluded). Still a lot after four years without significant wardrobe shopping. When I committed to not shopping I had a little more than 540 items. So why is my wardrobe still so big? One explanation, as the reader might know, is that I only part with clothes in sustainable ways. For example did I sell two blouses on commission and I recycled torn stockings with the Swedish Stockings recycling program. Despite the best of intentions, quite a few items still ended up in the trash (which in Sweden is burnt and turned into energy). In total, 28 items left the wardrobe (less than last two years). 15 items interestingly entered the wardrobe, out of which 8 were results of my handicraft practices (sewing and knitting). I have been more productive than usual. I blame Corona for making handicraft at home so attractive (who else knits during Zoom meetings?).

Like last years, I have also kept track of the time and money I have spent on mending clothes. This year the time spent mending reached the record breaking 8,5h (in total, over the whole year). It is still less than an hour a month. I probably could do even more mending, if I had to. I spent a total of 5000 SEK at the dry cleaner and on shoe repair last year. Between 4-6000 SEK a year seems to be my normal. Of course, I would like to reduce the use of dry cleaning in particular because of the environmental impact.

At this pace, I will wear out my wardrobe in ca 40 years, at the age of 77 (much better than 90!). Clearly, there is a strong cumulative effect and the rate at which I am wearing out my clothes is increasing quite a bit. In a way, good news.

I still think that quitting clothes shopping is one of my best decisions. The time saved, the creativity of having to do with what you have and finding new combinations from what is already there. In addition, since I am a knitter and sew the occasional skirt, I do get some fresh wardrobe input, just at a very much slower pace. Buying fabric, finding a pattern and then sewing the item can take me a few years. Knitting a sweater takes me at least half a year. It is all good, since I do not really need more clothes. So I am very much looking forward to a fifth year without shopping.

Economic ‘degrowth’ during Corona

The economic activity has decreased dramatically during Corona. We see it in our everyday life since we’re not consuming the way we used to, for example going to shows, eating out and traveling. Neither are we producing the way we used to and are instead working from home at a different pace, on temporary leave or asked to use saved vacation days. GDP, gross domestic product, summarises our consumption and production and has thus decreased during Corona. To be precise, Swedish GDP decreased 8.6% in the second quarter of the year. It is the largest single quarterly drop in modern history in Sweden, larger than the last financial crisis. We have, during Corona, a form of degrowth of our GDP.

Degrowth of economic activity is an interesting phenomenon. There are those that think GDP degrowth is at some point inevitable. In fact, GDP growth in western countries has slowed since the 1960th, especially GDP per capita. Degrowth might at some point become our new normal. A key question in a future without GDP growth is how we will finance the welfare state, which this research project discussed. Consumption taxes is one of the state’s largest income sources. Decreasing consumption and production means decreasing tax revenues. Even without actual degrowth, a slowing GDP growth might mean that the welfare state cannot expand anymore.

There are, however, those that consider degrowth desireable. One of my summer reads is the book “Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new era” by editors Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria and Giorgos Kallis. I was curious about the book after reading a Harvard Business Review article by related scholars, encouraging companies to embrace the degrowth movement. Reading both the book and HBR article, you see that the degrowth movement is diverse, partly incoherent, what we sometimes call an umbrella concept i.e. it joins together a range of more or less coherent ideas. Some of these ideas are basic income, back to the land and occupy movements. Some of the degrowth proponents even want to abolish capitalism. Others, like Thomas Roulet and Joel Bothello in HBR are really proposing circular economy ideas under a trendy degrowth heading. As you might suspect, there is a clear political left wing tendency, especially in the book.

I find it really valuable to discuss these ideas about limited economic growth in a serious way. While many are critical of expanding production, pursuit of growth and misuse of our natural resources, few outline what the alternative would be. In this sense, the Degrowth book is a bit of a disappointment as it suggests trendy ideas that I’m sure may appeal to conscious young middle class people in western cities, but are unlikely to be embraced the rest of the world. Similarly, the scenarios sketched out by the KTH-lead researchers in the Formas project ‘Futures beyond GDP growth‘ are also more utopian than pragmatic. In my opinion, good solutions for stagnated GDP growth are still missing.

Moreover, as Giorgos Kallis notes in his chapter, if you enforce self-limitation, simplicity and equality from the top, citizens will not be loyal to the ruling power. Arguably, the reason our voluntary simplicity during Corona has worked so well is because it is perceived as something inevitable, caused by an uncontrollable virus. If political leaders had asked us to limit our consumption this way, even for the benefit of the climate, not everyone would obey. On the positive side, we have now experienced a level of voluntary simplicity and some of these habits might survive after the Corona crisis. It would be interesting to study.

On the pessimistic side, despite the sharp reduction of economic activity, CO2 emissions during this period have not decreased sufficiently. It underlines what the book also highlights, GDP degrowth is not a solution in itself. GDP as a measure does not tell you whether the economic activity that has decreased is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the climate. Simply put, despite the reduced economic activity, CO2 intense activity has not decreased sufficiently during Corona. However, there are likely some activities, with only limited climate impact, that do not need to decrease to the extent that they have during Corona.

Three myths about the circular economy

A circular, rather than linear, economy may be the solution to many of our environmental problems. A circular turn requires businesses to rethink how their business operations are organized. When striving for circularity, businesses have to take into account where their resources come from and what happens to their products after use, i.e. the end-of-life of products. This is all good. Since the circular economy has become so popular lately, however, we also find some myths within this debate. I’ve found at least three.

  1. Renting or leasing is more circular than owning. Circular companies sell services (or ‘functionality’) rather than products. This is not universally true, as Agrawal, Ferguson, Toktay and Thomas (2012) have shown. Renting or leasing is not automatically more environmentally friendly. Moreover, changing your business to a service instead of selling a product may be costly for the business, as discussed at a workshop for Vinnova-funded research projects in January. Most importantly, whether you own or lease a product says nothing about the circularity of the product itself i.e. if it is recyclable. The electric scooters that people rent are a prime example of this fact.
  2. Companies need a ‘circular business model’ to become circular. To the opposite, in our Vinnova research project, we found that most companies did not change their business model. Instead, they collaborated with others to achieve circularity for some part of their business, to achieve circular packaging or waste flows, for example. In many cases, companies depend on markets for circular materials, what some call ‘open loops’.
  3. Circularity is achieved through technical solutions. We definitely need technical solutions but they also require that customers and consumers behave a certain way, in order to close the loop. For example, when products have been used, they have to be returned somehow to be able to be reused or recycled. Financial incentives, such as deposit-refund systems, are efficient and get customers to return used products, but convenience is equally important and not least learnt social behavior. Thus new technical solutions have to be matched with necessary behavioral change to work. This is quite often overlooked in the circular economy debate.

The latter point is also what Anna Kremel and I study in our new Formas research project in collaboration with Returpack, Kantar SIFO and Ungdomsbarometern (read about it in English here).

My slow fashion year 2019 in review

It’s a tradition now, to summarise my slow fashion year. I started this tradition the first year of my no-shopping challenge and while doing so I also made a wardrobe audit i.e. calculated all the clothes in my wardrobe and put them into an excel sheet. Since then, I have a very good overview of what I own and keep track of how much is added to and leaves the wardrobe each year. But my wardrobe statistics do not stop there, in fact this was just the beginning. The second year without shopping I started keeping track of how much time I spent mending clothes each month as well as how much money I spend at the dry cleaner (paying for mending and cleaning) and also at the shoemaker.

As if this was not enough, during 2018 I also started using the app Cladwell, inspired by slow fashion guru Elizabeth Cline. This app took my wardrobe statistics to another level as I now know how many times I wear each item in my wardrobe, which colors I wear more and which combinations of clothes I wear the most. I log my outfits, as on the picture, in the app daily and check my statistics unnecessarily often (so proud that I wear 98% of my wardrobe!).

Do you need all of these statistics and apps to do slow fashion or for a year no-shopping? Of course not. It’s absolutely not necessary. I didn’t start this way either. But on the other hand, if like me, you are the type that enjoys numbers and statistics, or also admired Alicia Silverstone’s computerized wardrobe in Clueless in your teenage years, then go ahead and do a wardrobe audit and/or use a wardrobe app that keeps track of the wardrobe and suggests outfits for you. Slow fashion should be fun and stress free. Not shopping reduces stress and saves time for me. The app helps me to get creative with what I own and to come up with outfits I didn’t think of before.

So what did I learn from all these numbers and tracking, what happened in my wardrobe during 2019? On the inflow side, I made two items. I sewed an Ogden cami in some silk fabric I bought and a Twiggy dress from a torn Laura Ashley duvet and dyed it with onion skins. I didn’t knit anything for myself, quite an achievement for an avid knitter. I was gifted some stockings from family members who know that this is always welcome as I don’t shop but wear a lot of stockings. I inherited four items from my mom. New this year is that I bought a bit of underwear for myself, choosing more sustainable alternatives such as Swedish Stockings. As I noted at the beginning of this year, it’s silly to ask others to buy for me just to keep the no-shopping record. Moreover, this year, like previous ones, I overestimated the need to buy clothing and apart from underwear, I’ve kept the no-shopping habit. In total, 28 items were added to the wardrobe, which is similar to last year.

On the outflow side, 38 items left the wardrobe, 8 more than last year. I sold a few items (on tradera, on commission at second hand stores and Vestiaire Collective) and gave a few to family members. I recycled some (mainly stockings in Swedish Stockings recycling program). I wore out and threw away 25 items (always after already mending), which is also similar to last year. I unravelled two knitwear, using this tutorial, and recovered the yarn so I can use it to knit with. In total, I am finally under 540 items, at 538, in my wardrobe, which feels like an achievement. At this rate, I will wear out my wardrobe in 54 years’ time, by the age of 90.

In the mending department, I spent approximately 3h mending during the whole year. It’s half the time I spent mending last year. This is very much a sign that my mending pile is now of a reasonable size. When I got interested in slow fashion, I had years of accumulated mending needs, i.e. lots of clothing in the wardrobe that needed mending in some measure. These past two years, it’s seemed as if mending is never ending. At some point, I decided to prioritize clothes in season when mending, as a season could go by and I couldn’t wear certain items because they were stuck in the endless mending pile. But, finally, things have changed and I’m up to date. I only have three or four items waiting to be mended, also an achievement.

As for outsourcing of mending and cleaning, I have spent 3800 SEK at the dry cleaner, also less than last year. A big part of those 3800 SEK went to changing the lining of a 1980s coat I once inherited from my mom. Basically, I could have bought a new cheap coat at the same price but chose to hand in the old one to get a new lining. It’s a decent coat, made in England, you couldn’t get that today for the 1600 SEK I spent on the lining. In terms of shoe repair, I only spent 500 SEK which is also less than last year.

To summarise, my friends, things are looking good. I am getting closer to a manageable size wardrobe that I might even wear out during my lifetime. I’m getting closer to a number of items that might actually fit in my cabinet and drawers. I wear most of my clothes on a regular basis. I spend very little money and time on the wardrobe. When I do spend time on it, it’s because I enjoy sewing/knitting things for myself. And, to tell the truth, I have been looking forward to writing this review of my wardrobe/slow fashion year for months. It’s one of my favorite end-of-the-year things to do. So big thanks to you people who read and ask how my no-shopping commitment is going, as I love to tell.

Happy new 2020 to you all!

Can sustainability reports regulate companies’ conduct?

Browsing articles in the research journal AAAJ the other day, I noticed that my own article, published over a year ago, was on their list of ‘most read in the past 7 days’. This fact made my week. It is more than great when your research matters to the research community, however, sometimes there are learning point for non-academic society too. Rereading the paper, I do think there are points in the paper that could be interesting for non-researchers as well. Hence this blog post.

In recent years, it has become mandatory for large companies to produce a sustainability report each year. In Sweden, it became mandatory because of an EU directive. The idea behind this kind of regulation is that the company’s sustainability report will inform its stakeholders- such as customers, local community, employees and investors- about what the company does in relation to sustainability issues such as climate change, human rights, anti-corruption etc. The stakeholders can then use this information, if they are unhappy with what the company does, to exert pressure on the company. The stakeholders can thus hold the company accountable for its actions. In this way, corporate conduct is regulated; the company will want to change its corporate conduct because of the stakeholder pressure. It is called ‘civil regulation’.

Interestingly, there are a number of cases in the research literature, specifically studying sustainability reporting, where civil regulation does not work as planned. There are cases of stakeholders, for example NGOs, that receive the sustainability reports and read them but do not feel equipped to exert pressure on the company. The company reports and the stakeholders receive it, but there is no civil regulation taking place. The company can continue with business as usual.

Reviewing these cases of ‘failed’ civil regulation, I try to explain why the reported information may not be enough to produce such civil regulation. My article argues that we, in these cases, tend to overestimate the ‘power’ of information and confuse it with knowledge. I use the example of ESG investor analysts, i.e. analysts that focus on how companies handle sustainability issues such as energy consumption, pollution, human rights etc. These investors do attempt to hold companies accountable for their unacceptable sustainability performance, a practice the industry calls ‘company engagement’. In my study I find that when the analysts do so, not all information is alike and the analysts rely on several other types of information, for example from consultants and media, plus many other types of resources such as theories, calculations etc. to show that they know what the company does and how it should change its practices.

Consequently, I argue that we need to carefully distinguish between information and knowledge. Information, such as sustainability reports, may indeed contribute to knowledge but is rarely enough on its own to hold the company accountable. We cannot assume that if someone has information about someone’s actions s/he will be able to hold this person accountable. What kind of information we hold matters: where it comes from, if it contradicts or confirms other accounts. It matters how it is used, together with other resources or to disprove other statements. Moreover, in some cases other resources other than information, for example theories, helped the analysts to hold the company accountable.

This study does not, however, show that sustainability reports are not useful for regulating companies’ conduct. It just illustrates that information in the form of a sustainability report is not enough on its own. If we construct this kind of reporting-based civil regulation, like the EU-directive, we should not overestimate the power of a single source of information. In this context, empirical studies such as the one in AAAJ can inform us about the role the reported sustainability information plays in practice.

Sustainability news of the week

There are so many interesting sustainability-related things happening so this post will summarise some of the ‘sustainability news’ from this week:

Swedish radio started a discussion about researchers’ flying habits. Apparently, Swedish universities (especially Karolinska Institutet, Uppsala and Lund) stand for a large part of the flight related CO2 emissions  from  public  authorities. Students at Lund university have called for professors to practice what they preach i.e. to reduce the climate impact of universities. It was also noted that research funders currently do not encourage environmental friendly travels.

Some positive news: the worlds first 100% recycled nylon stockings was launched today by Swedish Stockings. Previously, the stockings contained a small amount of new material.

Also very promising: Swedish researchers at Chalmers are working on constructing batteries with common and ready available metals such as steel. The switch from fossil fuels to electric batteries will, as batteries are designed today, require lots of rare earth metals. New battery design could make us less dependent on these rare metals. This is a good thing because, as you might know, there are lots of social problems around the mining of some of these rare metals such as cobalt.

Lively discussion of the week: researchers debating the climate impact of meat. A large group of researchers at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) wrote that ruminants, such as cows, have an important role in food production in Sweden and criticized the life-cycle analyses the climate calculations often are based on. Today Chalmers researchers responded. The SLU researchers study animal husbandry, whereas the Chalmers researchers belong to a space, geoscience and environment department at Chalmers. Despite this fact, the engineers accused the agricultural researchers for speaking about things “outside of their expertise” when discussing food and climate impact. The engineer researchers, one of them a former animal rights activist, also called the SLU researchers “animal researchers”. The debate is getting heated.

Swedish sustainability manager of the year was awarded yesterday to Anna Denell at Vasakronan. My researcher colleague Tommy Borglund was part of the jury.

While Tommy was handing out prices, I attended the release of SB Insight report of the Nordic market for circular economy. The report shows some interesting trends, for example that the awareness of what circular economy is is much greater in Finland than in Sweden.

Yet other researchers at Örebro University spend their days studying microplastics in Swedish lakes. There were higher concentrations in the inflows to the lakes, for example in Stockholm and Mälaren, than elsewhere. We often think of microplastics in the sea, however, they are also present in our lakes.

Other water news came from Water aid that released the report “Beneath the surface” highlighting how our imported foods, clothes and other products contribute to water scarcity in other countries.

A third year of no-shopping?

Two years have passed without any clothes shopping on my part and you might wonder if I am embarking on a third year. Truth be told, I am wondering too. I would like to continue another year without shopping, these past two years have been a joy. When shopping is not an option you don’t even enter stores and don’t have to investigate if a potential purchase is a sustainable choice. You don’t need to worry about whether you really will wear that thing as much as desire tells you that you will. Lots of energy, thinking and money saved. Such a relief. And, as a bonus, I have gotten creative with my rarely worn clothes to find combinations and outfits where these things do work after all. So these two no-shopping years have been truly great for me and my wardrobe.

However, less than a month into the new year, I violated the no-shopping rule. I simply had to buy nylon stockings because it would be silly, frankly, to ask somebody to buy them for me just to keep the no-shopping record. As I’ve written about before, to me the purchase or financial transaction is not really the problem, it’s acquiring things you do not need. So, this year, I’m allowed to buy recycled nylon stockings from Swedish Stockings. And, if the urgent need arises, I might be allowed to buy other things too.

This, however, is murky waters and arguably more difficult to navigate. Shortly after buying the Swedish Stockings, I thought I needed to replace an item that is slowly getting worn out. I started googling what to replace it with and, as a result, fashion adds started popping up all over my internet. After not being able to sort out what would be a sustainable replacement, I, annoyed with the adds and fruitless time spent googling, returned to my closet only to find that I did in fact already own something similar enough that a purchase was not really warranted. Surely, I am not the only one who can’t memorise everything that’s in the closet? Now that shopping suddenly is an option again, if there is a need, I imagine there will be several similar situations this year. And how do you decide if there is a wardrobe need anyway? Murky waters.

Entering 2019, I’m proud to say that my mending pile is smaller than it’s ever been. This is a result of the 7h and 14 min I spent mending last year, on average 36min/month. I also spent 4900 SEK during the year at the dry cleaner/mender, ca 400 SEK/month. This is something I could potentially reduce if I got better at sewing buttonholes, hemming and thinking twice before dry cleaning clothes. On the other hand, sometimes it’s worth getting help rather than not gettings things done at all. I also spent 1600 SEK on repair at the shoemaker, an unavoidable cost.

Despite not shopping, my wardrobe experienced an increased in- and outflow during 2018. In total, 29 items entered the wardrobe, mostly things I inherited from family members. Six items I made, either knitted or sewed, for myself. While, as I concluded during last year’s wardrobe audit, I logically don’t need to make any clothes, I have enough as it is, these items still ended up becoming favorites. So while I need to be mindful of making too much or too fast, a little might be ok, I tell myself, as sewing and knitting is also a recreational practice. I do my best to only source sustainable fabric and yarn or, even better, use what’s already in my possession. For example, I sewed two Ogden camis last year, one from fabric scraps and the other from an old Laura Ashley pillow case and I very much love both of these.

As for the outflow, 30 items, I sold a few (which I’ve written about before) and wore out the rest. So not shopping does have a slow accumulative effect where things do get worn more and, eventually, even worn out. Overall though, I’m still in the ‘upper end’ of wardrobe size with 540+ items. And my prediction is that I’ll stay there for quite some time.

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