The ecological footprint that clothes leave behind begins long before they are scrapped. For the production of raw materials from which the apparel will be made, many resources are needed: water, electricity, human labor, fuel, regardless of whether the fabric is natural or synthetic. For raw materials to grow, fertilizers and pesticides are almost always needed. Schematically, the life cycle of textiles can be represented as follows.
As a consequence of the increasing environmental impact of clothing, consumption (especially fast fashion), environmental awareness of consumers is growing, increasing the niche for slow fashion products that promote the idea of ethical clothing consumption.
Environmental Impact of the Textile Industry
Sooner or later, any clothing ends up in a landfill: according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, about 11.2 million tons of unnecessary clothing is thrown away each year in the United States alone. It is easier to understand the scale of these numbers if you try to imagine 509 thousand and 100 more trucks, fully loaded with clothes that no one will ever wear again.
According to the UNEP study, of the total amount of used textiles:
- 87% is thrown into landfills or incinerated.
- less than one percent of old clothes are recycled and used to make new ones.
- 12% are used differently.
According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, the global volume of greenhouse gases from textile production is 1.2 billion tons per year, which is more than the emissions of all international flights and shipping combined.
Let’s review what can and needs to be done to meet a more sustainable production in the textiles industry as well as the utilization of the used apparel.
- Material selection
Sustainable textiles start with sustainable materials. Many of our modern fabrics are created using synthetic fabrics. Natural materials tend to be much more sustainable. However, in addition to the choice of the material itself, the exclusion of toxic pesticides or fertilizers is necessary. The materials used in eco-design must fully comply with environmental standards, both in terms of their properties and in terms of production processes (for example, energy use, material composition, and disposal).
Some of the most popular natural materials used in the garment industry are cellulosic fibers such as cotton, linen, hemp, mulberry, and ramie. Natural cellulose fibers have a composition and biodegradability that meet environmental standards and provide superior fabric performance such as ventilation, absorption, cooling, and so on.
The eco-design approach takes into account all possible factors, for example, ergonomics, environmental friendliness, which can affect the environment. It is believed that it is necessary to minimize the harmful effects on the environment throughout the entire life cycle of products.
Recently, there have been major movements promoting eco-design approaches in the fashion industry with apparel brands and organizations that stand out: H&M, Stella McCartney, and the Fashion Designers Council of America (CFDA). Since 2013, Swedish fast-fashion brand H&M has made a commitment to producing some of its products using sustainable fabrics made from recycled materials such as plastic bottles, wool, and cotton.
- Eco-friendly alternatives to traditional production
Once we have sustainable materials that we can use, we need to make sure textiles are made responsibly. Textile manufacturing processes such as dyeing, bleaching and finishing use large amounts of water and toxic chemicals (such as benzidine, heavy metals, formaldehyde, and azo) that pollute the environment and cause various diseases (allergies, eczema, cancer).
Through the use of innovative technologies, there are environmentally friendly alternatives that are being used by textile companies to solve the environmental problems associated with traditional manufacturing processes. Such alternatives include:
- whitening (eg, water-saving air dyeing, laser whitening, and ozone whitening and finishing);
- printing (eg digital printing technology), mercerization (eg electrochemical cell mercerization);
- assembly (for example, waste-free fashion design, seamless knitting technology, and integrated 3D design technology).
Packaging is ubiquitous in our daily life. At the same time, the widespread use of disposable packaging has resulted in a heavy burden on the environment.
Sustainable packaging design is about designing a product’s packaging with the main goal of doing as little harm to the environment as possible. This can be achieved by using recycled material or by creating special packaging functionality.
For example, this shopping bag from H&M converts into a clothes hanger.
- Supply chain and transportation
Global supply chains grow and become more complex as consumer demand increases. This increased demand for products, ingredients and raw materials directly leads to increased environmental impact.
Supply chains can be improved through major changes, but more often than not, results can be seen through small improvements. Good analytics and reporting work with machine learning to continually improve processes throughout the supply chain. Each change that slightly reduces waste, speeds up delivery, or improves quality can result in small incremental improvements in sustainability.
Transportation conditions are also important because the transportation process consumes energy, which leads to the depletion of natural resources and emissions of carbon dioxide, which, in turn, negatively affects the environment.
Shorter supply chains are better for the environment. In this regard, it is worth giving preference to local manufacturers and suppliers.
- The importance of certificates
Many different certifications represent different aspects of ethical, sustainable, and transparent fashion and decor production. While many certifications check many different aspects of manufacturing, the following certifications are primarily focused on environmental impact.
Some certifications evaluate products, examples of such certifications for textiles are FSC, GreenCircle, Oeko-Tex, and manufacturing process certifications – Cradle to Cradle, ISO 14000 Family of Standards, Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), and so on.
Find your sustainable textiles suppliers at Sourcing.eco!
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