Employees revamping their office wardrobe could have big effects on the environment

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  • With the return of in-person work, consumers are expected to spend more on office clothes.
  • Plastic-based clothing items and the practice of “bracketing” contribute to landfill waste.
  • Resale sites such as Poshmark and ThredUp help alleviate fashion’s harmful environmental effects.
  • Subscribe to our biweekly newsletter, Insider Sustainability.

For many workers, a return to in-person work means trading in-house clothes and sweatpants for new business-casual outfits. Companies are reporting sales also being driven by summer outings, size differences, and vaccination-related comfort with in-store shopping. In the UK, clothing sales rose by 70% in April and are expected to rise by 78% in the US over the summer, driven largely by back-to-school purchases.

While these increases are indications of an economic recovery for the global fashion industry, there are also significant environmental downsides to new clothing purchases. And the popularity of fast fashion has only exacerbated matters.

According to a report from the World Economic Forum, the fashion industry produces 10% of “all humanity’s carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply.” In addition to toxic chemicals, dyes, and noxious emissions from the production process, modern global textile production is primarily not biodegradable, with more than 52% of fabrics being made from polyester in 2019, according to an industry report from Textile Exchange.

After production, clothing and textiles are transported from facilities in developing countries to stores worldwide. But many of the common office-attire items sold – blouses, dresses, suits, and accessories – are made of harmful plastic-based materials like nylon, acrylic, and fleece. The unsustainable impact of these materials is worsened by bracketing, a common practice in which consumers buy several items with the intention of returning most of them. Bracketing contributes to billions of tons of nonbiodegradable landfill waste, higher restocking costs, and carbon emissions from additional transportation.

Cleaning clothing also has a dirty side. Every time plastic-based textiles are washed, it results in the release of microplastics, many of which aren’t caught by wastewater-treatment facilities. Moreover, dress shirts and other officewear sent to the dry cleaner often involve the use of a chemical known as PERC, which has “serious environmental effects” and is a known neurotoxin.

According to the EPA, when consumers are tired of their clothing, including their go-to office garb, only 15% of it gets recycled. And donations to charities such as Goodwill, The Salvation Army, and TRAID? Those often end up in landfills. It all contributes to textiles being the second-largest source of global plastic waste at 42 million metric tons.

While some might go back to their prepandemic spending habits, others might be more conscious of their shopping routines. More sustainable options that help reduce the production of new clothing items include shopping on online resale sites like Poshmark, Mercari, ThredUp, and Grailed. There are also rental services like Rent the Runway, Nuuly, as well a variety of mall chains and brands. These offer consumers the option of new looks with lower environmental footprints, a choice that’s always in style.

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A market-analytics expert says it’s too early to gauge how reopening offices might affect transportation and energy consumption

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The return to traditional office life could shed a light on corporate responsibility in the climate crisis.

  • The return to in-person office life could fuel changes in transportation and energy consumption.
  • How those changes might reflect corporate roles in the climate crisis remains to be determined.
  • Jan Freitag, a market-analytics expert, says an accurate assessment can be made around Labor Day.
  • Subscribe to our biweekly newsletter, Insider Sustainability.

With more people getting vaccinated in the US, discussions about employees physically returning to offices (whether full time or in a hybrid of remote and in-person work) are well underway. Signs of getting back to traditional office life raise the question: How might transportation and energy usage be affected?

Before COVID-19, Americans spent an average of 200 hours a year commuting to work. And although most of the country went into lockdown last year, causing people to ditch their regular commutes, demand for larger vehicles continued to grow, in part because of consumer perceptions about safety and greater cargo capacity. The International Energy Agency’s 2020 report said that “transportation is still responsible for 24% of direct CO2 emissions from fuel combustion.”

Traditional corporate travel for in-person meetings, conferences, and events has also been a massive source of annual CO2 emissions. For example, in 2019, Salesforce staff traveled enough to generate 146,000 metric tons of CO2, equivalent to the output of 17,500 homes in a year.

Jan Freitag, the national director of hospitality market analytics at CoStar Group, said it’s too early to tell if work-related expeditions will drastically increase this year. “After Labor Day, we expect a clear demarcated line in the sand about whether people will return to the office or not, restart business travel, as well as whether group travel will happen,” Freitag said.

The Labor Day benchmark is used in relation to the beginning of the school year when parents and children will return to the drop-off, pickup schedule. “That drives employers to say, ‘You’re back to where you were because your kids are back to school, so let’s go back to normal where you commute to work,'” Freitag said.

Purchase trends showed that regardless of commute changes, the pandemic hasn’t deterred Americans from hitting the road. Not only did electric-bike sales grow by 145% between 2019 and 2020, but this past April, 18.5 million light vehicles were sold – the highest number since 2005 – and electric-car sales saw a 249% increase compared to the same period last year.

One report predicted that electric-car sales will grow significantly in 2022 because of greater affordability and price parity with nonelectric vehicles. The sustainable effects of these trends may depend largely on subsidies and infrastructure investments, such as additional bike lanes, EV charging stations, and parking spaces at office complexes.

Regarding energy usage, as more people return to the office, the biggest difference may pertain to air-conditioning. Out of all commercial buildings, offices consume the most cooling energy. And that’s expected to intensify, as a recent report from the US Energy Information Administration predicted that energy consumption for air-conditioning will rise by 29% between 2020 and 2050 because of expectations of warmer temperatures.

Hopefully, companies will focus on sustainable business operations, including preferable work arrangements for employees, that lead to responsible corporate influence on transportation and energy usage. Otherwise, they’ll risk significant talent drain.

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