How can childrenswear become more sustainable? 

With infants outgrowing seven clothing sizes in their first two years, this segment is a significant contributor to the fashion industry’s waste problem 

There are 183 million items of outgrown baby clothes tucked away in homes around the UK, according to research by Mothercare and environmental charity Hubbub, which estimates that a typical British family spends £11,000 every year on childrenswear. 

Historically, the children’s clothing category has “acquired longevity, durability and continued reuse in the form of hand-me-downs, both within families and across friendship groups based on economy, convenience and need”. 

So says Dr Anne Peirson-Smith, senior lecturer, leader of Nottingham Trent University’s MA course in international fashion management and co-leader of its clothing sustainability research group. She observes that “the sharing trend appears to have surged recently and taken on new life. In the cost-of-living crisis, this will only become bigger.”

Despite this, Hubbub’s research also indicates that a third of British parents have binned garments that their children no longer need, simply because they don’t know what else to do with these outgrown clothes.

Opening up the wardrobe

The Little Loop is a rental service for childrenswear that was created by Charlotte Morley, who entered the BBC’s Dragons’ Den in January 2022 and convinced investors Deborah Meaden and Steven Bartlett to put £140,000 into her business. For a monthly subscription fee, users can choose clothing from a “shared wardrobe” of more than 10,000 items and then exchange these pieces for new ones whenever they wish. 

“The key to reducing the environmental impact of clothing is to increase the amount it is worn. Doubling the number of wears that a garment achieves will reduce its impact by 40%,” Morley says. “Every garment has the potential to be worn by multiple children – four to five on average. Yet the informal hand-me-down system is increasingly failing to work beyond the first few years of a child’s life, as parents become busier with their careers and less frequently connected to their network of fellow parents.”

If consumers can be made aware that there’s an easily accessible market for second-hand clothing, it can change their attitudes and increase their likelihood of continuing what she calls sharing behaviour, whereby parents and even children “take better care of their clothes as a result, increasing their lifespan further”.

Rental service providers such as The Little Loop help to “remove the inconvenience of having to sell on used items at a hugely reduced price. Parents simply swap one item for another when the time comes,” thereby making the idea of sharing rather than buying much more attractive, according to Morley. 

Designer solutions

Petit Pli, a producer of wearable tech founded in 2017 by aeronautical engineer Ryan Mario Yasin, is developing new material technologies aimed at creating clothes that will grow with a child. The firm’s COO, Arabell Turek, notes that the increasing acceptance of the sharing economy means that “a benefit of designing childrenswear that’s not for obsolescence is that the design can be shared between siblings and still enter the very important hand-me-down economy”. 

Petit Pli’s clothes are designed to grow with the child through seven sizes, preventing much of the wastage that would normally occur as the baby becomes a toddler and even a pre-schooler. The company would like its work to benefit the whole sector, says Turek, who adds: “Extending the usable life of garments is the best means for the clothing industry to reach its emission targets by 2030.”

Pursuing the very opposite of fast fashion is also giving Petit Pli the time and space to come up with ever more creative solutions. 

“By creating a longer-lasting product, we can offer users a competitively priced item over its lifespan, while pushing more innovative manufacturing capabilities,” Turek says. “We can also ensure that our supply chain adheres to the highest ethical standards, from the materials to the treatment of the people who make the garments. For instance, our manufacturing partner in Portugal derives certified 100% green energy for its facility.” 

Peirson-Smith agrees that “making children’s clothing more sustainable requires collaborative understanding, design education and community engagement throughout the value chain. There is also a need to increase consumers’ awareness of their role in enabling post-purchase solutions, from ethical purchasing to garment aftercare.”

Barriers to circularity

But she acknowledges that, as long as the high street’s standard offerings remain reasonably priced, not all parents will be keen to change their behaviour for the good of the planet. 

Peirson-Smith notes that “the largest sector for childrenswear sales is supermarket brands” such as Next (which had an 8.7% share of the UK market last year, according to Euromonitor), Primark (5.7%) and Marks & Spencer (4.7%). 

“These all offer good quality and design at low prices, along with being very convenient,” she says. “This means that small-scale circular business models are competing with the convenience and low prices available at traditional children’s clothing retailers, which also claim to be sourcing more sustainably and ethically.” 

Turek argues that the renting and reselling of children’s clothing comes with its own problems at both ends of the value chain. 

“There are huge operational costs and energy demands in managing the stock, as every garment is produced as a unique piece rather than manufactured as a batch,” she says. “Cleaning each item will have an impact on the environment. It’s also important to note the costs and emissions generated by customer returns.” 

She concedes that there are downsides to Petit Pli’s material innovation model, accepting that “the upfront costs are typically higher than with renting or resale – and the lead times are long”. 

Invention cannot be rushed, especially when its effects on the industry, the public and the environment must all be carefully weighed. The key, though, is to get consumers on board with new ways of buying, using and discarding childrenswear that will have minimal impact on the planet.