Awareness of the impact of these practices has grown amongst governments, shoppers and within the sector. Sustainable clothing companies able now able to make profits; more circular economies focused on the reuse and recycling of clothing have begun and organic cotton and more sustainable fibres have been developed. Mainstream fashion companies are beginning to look at more responsible sourcing but these efforts do not yet reflect the scale of the climate emergency. A good introduction into the real costs to our planet and people is documented in the ground breaking movie Truecost.
The clothing industry has an enormous impact on global heating and is responsible for 7% of global CO2 emissions today. Research by the Ellen MacArthur foundation suggests the textile industry emits more greenhouse gasses annually than all maritime shipping and international flights combined. If it continues on its current path it would use more than 26% of the global carbon budget associated with a two degree Celsius pathway by 2050. In the UK the total carbon footprint is growing by about 1 million tonnes of carbon each year according to WRAP.
Production accounts for 70% of a garment’s carbon footprint. Research from WRAP shows that simply extending the life of a piece of clothing by an extra nine months can reduce the carbon, water and waste impact of the garment by around 20-30%
As well as donating 10% of profits to environmental organisations and making clothing that is notoriously long lasting, American outdoors brand Patagonia recently launched a ‘Worn and Wear’ programme. The programme upcycles old clothes and helps keep clothes in action for longer through repair and reuse. Admirably, the company has also produced an extensive body of online content to help customers repair clothes themselves. Patagonia has also questioned the need to consume at all with its famous ad in the New York times.
Very few sectors are so influenced and dictated by consumer choice so individual action is vital. Ethical brands will often feature higher pricing so consider reducing the number of pieces of clothing you buy in a year for the same spend of money.
Make decisions based not just on whether it looks good on you, but also on the carbon impact of materials; how many times it will be worn and how likely the clothes will last for years rather than months. Before every purchase ask yourself if you will wear it more than 30 times.
There are opportunities to reduce the amount of carbon throughout the manufacturing stage of clothes but arguably the quickest action business could take is to discourage rampant consumption and create a more circular economy. For clothes manufacturers, this means a focus at the design stage on materials – making high quality clothing that will last and can be repaired. It also means investing in research around how to improve the recycling of different materials and switching to fabrics that do not create micro-fibres pollution when they are washed. For fashion buyers it is about demanding better assurances as to the true sustainability of clothes and supply chains. For brands it involves greater commitment to sustainability targets and transparency about how targets are being achieved. We are seeing the growth of instore repair services, started by pioneers Nudie, now in mainstream brands like Levi’s. we are also seeing fashion companies incorporate more second-hand clothing into their product offer and clothes rental models.
Unrealistic pricing and large-scale outsourcing of production means issues of poor working conditions and slave labour are notorious throughout the fashion industry.
A report from the UK’s parliamentary committee on environmental audit in early 2019, found manufacturers are often being left without profit margins and competing to offer the lowest prices and shortest lead times. Even in the UK, a Financial Times investigation revealed small garment factories in Leicester, supplying British online retailers, were not paying the minimum wage to workers.
Supply chains in fashion are often so complex even committed brands can find it difficult to maintain complete transparency.
Proper auditing and reporting on these issues would help maintain workers rights from the factory to the shop floor. Regular third-party inspections and enabling workers to speak out about issues without the threat of losing their job (or worse) are essential.
Membership of the Ethical Trade Initiative helps fashion companies better understand the issues around worker rights and move their businesses to compliance. Use of tools such as the International Trade Centre (ITC) standards map, based on fair trade principles, and gaining fair trade certifications would help as the process will often highlight areas of concern.
People Tree was one of the pioneers of sustainable fashion with its twin-track approach of fair-trade principles and sustainability ensuring the production of clothes became a positive influence in communities. The design process begins a year in advance, four months ahead of most conventional fashion companies, and the company is committed to fair-trade practices and payments. Designers are tasked with, wherever feasible, specifying hand weaving, embroidery and block printing to ensure artisans in rural areas of the developing world do not have to travel to the cities for work and these skills are not lost. The production of fabric using a hand loom, rather than a machine, also saves one tonne of Co2 per loom, per year
Signing up to a fair-trade initiative or certification shows a commitment to real change to workers’ conditions. Then the real work begins. Sustaining good workers’ rights means ensuring fair wages and safe working conditions are upheld in the factory environment. Frequent inspections of factories and facilitating a safe space for open dialogue with workers are two clear ways to ensure that commitments are actually upheld. The ETI offers the best support to mainstream fashion companies wanting to deliver worker rights in their value chain. Common Objective is a good platform that curates information, brands and suppliers that are pioneering sustainability.
Up to 64% of fabrics contain plastics like polyester, nylon, acrylic and polyamide. Producing these synthetics is incredibly polluting – nylon production, for instance, creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that could be 300 times more polluting than carbon dioxide. A polyester shirt has more than double the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt (5.5 kg CO2e vs. 2.1 kg CO2e) and washing synthetic garments sheds millions of microfibres that pass straight into water supplies and the sea. About 70% of synthetic fibres are made from polyester (used in 60% of garments) and the vast majority come from virgin plastics because low oil prices make them cheaper than recycled PET.
The sustainable sourcing of cotton is also a major issue in the clothing industry. Cotton is grown and picked by some of the world’s poorest people, some of whom are even forcibly removed from their normal jobs to pick cotton during the harvest. Cotton crops also use 16% of global insecticides and a pair of jeans weighing 800 grams will cost 8000 litres of water. Finally the chemicals used in dyeing fabrics and adding rips can be highly toxic to workers and to the pollution of water tables and eco-systems.
We need to move towards sourcing and developing more sustainable fabrics, including sourcing organic and fair-trade cotton, phasing out plastics and developing technology to enable better recycling of textiles. Moving to vegan alternatives should be considered, as a means of ending animal slaughter through the leather and fur trade, but be wary of plastic options often marketed as vegan alternatives. Plastic shoes, for example, can take up to 400 years to break down. Consider shoe brands using more innovative and sustainable fabrics such as Po-zu, All birds and Veja.
Organic and certified cotton means cotton is produced and certified to organic agricultural standards. The soil retains water more effectively due to organic matter in the soil and beneficial insects control pests. Farmers are not exposed to toxic chemicals in the field or in local water supply. Overall, organic farming practices promote better livelihoods for farmers and far less environmental damage whilst helping to create local resilience to climate change.
Swiss fashion firm Freitag has created their own material, F-ABRIC, made from a combination of hemp, linen and a material derived from beechwood cellulose they call modal. F-ABRIC is fully biodegradable. The company change the compositions of the different compounds to make fabrics that range from soft and breathable to hardy and denim-like.
Numerous companies including Marks and Spencer and SeaSalt now use organic and fair trade cotton.
Know your fabrics and the associated impact of them. Plastic based fabrics are polyester, polyamide and acrylic. Other synthetic textiles are made from plant materials that are chemically dissolved and spun into fibres including rayon, viscose, lyocell, modal and cupro. Tencel is a sustainably sourced material made from wood that is often combined with other fibres. Natural fabrics are made from cotton, wool, leather, linen, cashmere, silk and pineapple leaf fibre. While these natural fibres can still have ethical issues, as they require the use of land, water, animals, feed and chemicals, ensuring companies are sourcing them ethically can reduce the harmful impacts. Items bought with pre-existing rips have probably used highly toxic chemicals to make them look that way.
Research also suggests that many of the microfibres released from plastic based fabrics are released during the first few washes. You can collect the fibres by washing clothes in a Guppy Bag which collects the micro fibre litter. Lengthening the time you wear clothes and lengthening the time between washes that you wear your clothes, will all reduce the amount of plastic your clothes release.
Moving away from polluting fabrics needs a switch not just in buying and pricing policies but also in the design and technical construction stage of making clothes. Resources to help are available through Common Objective, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Future Fabrics Expo. Ask your design and buying team to research and come up with a long-term design and sourcing strategy. This can be built into a plan with the merchandising team and help a company board build a bold action plan on reducing carbon and promoting the sustainable development goals through supply chains. Membership of the ETI helps organisational learning to meet workers rights and there are many books providing guidance to designers and brand owners on sustainable design and reinventing the fashion model.
Lastly, REAL Sustainability runs courses to help senior leaders in fashion lead their teams through this transition.
Every garment we buy has to end up somewhere. And over 80% of it ends up in landfill. In fact, a shocking amount of clothing ends up in waste without being being sold. In 2018, H&M admitted that they were sitting on $4.3 billion of unsold stock. Luxury brands like Burberry have come under public pressure to stop burning unsold clothes to maintain exclusivity.
Conventional clothes recycling might not be enough when taking a stand against waste in fashion. It is estimated that just 1% of the material in clothes is recycled into new clothing and just 12% is recycled for other purposes, such as insulation or mattress stuffing. Donations of second hand clothes are also responsible for disrupting the local manufacturing of clothes in countries of the global south. Closed-loop recycling programmes are a viable alternative. There a number of brands upcycling materials from pre-loved clothes into fresh new garments.
Increasingly fashion companies are also looking to include second hand clothes reselling as part of their retail offer, but we need to slow down fashion production to reduce waste and its ecological footprint. Buying second-hand and renting clothes are expected to increase rapidly as a sharing economy moves more mainstream and it becomes cool to know the origin of your clothes and the story of how it was made.
RE/DONE is a jeans brand which upcycles pre-worn pairs of Levi’s jeans. The company takes Levi’s jeans apart at the seams and then repurposes them as the fabric for new pairs. Instead of marketing the ‘individuality’ through consumption that fast fashion brands use to drive rampant consumption, RE/DONE sell products that are individual because of the story that their multiple owners have marked on the denim.
Consider how you can upcycle or recycle clothes to extend their life. Investigate the options available at charity or second-hand clothing channels such as Depop and Ebay before turning to shops that sell new stock.
Learn to repair, sew and knit is becoming much easier with online and workshop courses. Alternatively find out where your nearest seamstress is to change clothes that aren’t ‘quite right’ or club together with friends to host a ‘swishing’ party where everyone brings old clothes to swap.
Before throwing clothes into the bin investigate other options such as charity shops and recycling initiatives with your local council. Some high-street stores such as H&M and Marks and Spencer also host ‘shwop’ boxes to put donations in where clothes are either sold as second-hand, reused in other clothes or recycled.
Developing the technology and market for recycled fibres is a key challenge in the move to a more circular fashion system. There is research and development going on to develop new techniques to recycle post-consumer polyester and cotton waste. It is already possible to produce a wool yarn from recycled fibres that performs as well as one made from virgin fibres. However, this is perhaps one of the key areas where the industry must move quickly and make real investment in for matters to progress quickly. Check Common Objective for more information on potential suppliers.
REAL is a community interest company that aims to support citizens and organisational leaders to transition to carbon zero and sustainability, founded by Safia Minney & friends.