We all know what sustainability is, at least related to ecology and “the idea that goods and services should be produced in ways that do not use resources that cannot be replaced and that do not damage the environment”. But, what does sustainability mean in the fashion industry and what does it involve? It may be useful to start with some facts:
- Fashion industry is the second most polluting in the world (after petroleum industry), with around 20% of global industrial water pollution coming exclusively from textile treatment and dyes.
- Fashion industry is also the second largest consumer of water, requiring around 3400 litres of water to produce a pair of jeans or around 2600 litres to produce a simple cotton T-shirt (yes, even those T-shirts given away freely as a means of advertising).
- About 10% of global CO2 emission comes from the textile industry, it not being the only polluting gas emitted. Polyester, nylon and other petroleum-based materials emit N2O, a 300 times more polluting gas than CO2.
- 15.1 million tons of textile waste were generated in 2013 in USA according to the EPA, of which 12.8 million tons where directly discarded. Clothes can take around 30 to 40 years to biodegrade in landfills. It can even take up to 200 years in the case of polyester, producing highly polluting gasses and leaks to groundwater during the process.
- 80 billion new garments are consumed every year worldwide, of which a really high percentage is discarded extremely fast (in UK in 2008, around 74%).
- Conventional cotton fields consume 11% of the world’s pesticides and 24% of the world’s insecticides, even though it only uses 2.4% of total arable land.
Many other alarming points exist with unimaginable numbers for most of us. However, what we can imagine is that these facts we’ve just shown are unsustainable from an ecological point of view. The worst part of this is that there’s yet another point of view, just as important as the previous, to be taken into consideration: the social one. Even though it may seem incredible, 1 person out of 6 works in the fashion industry. 85% of which are women and a great number are living in poverty and work under inhuman conditions. Renowned fashion brands have motivated a crazy rhythm of consumption for the last 15 years that have resulted in terrible environmental and social repercussions.
Everything considered, yes, sustainability in the fashion industry points to an alternative in our consumer habit, a much slower and rational one. But, what other measurements can be taken to contribute to the positive change? In the first place, regarding the just mentioned facts, companies could radically minimize the production of petroleum-based textile and go for less polluting ones which need fewer resources than, for example, conventional cotton. Consumers, on the other hand, could reduce the amount of discarded garments and prolong their life length by taking better care of them.
A key factor of globalization we cannot ignore is transportation and the emissions it produces. Nowadays the percentage of garments we consume that come from thousands of kilometres away is huge (in USA 98% of the clothes sold come from abroad). Neither can we forget the amount of transport also involved and the substantial amount of emissions generated by sending the clothes we no longer want to third world countries. Countries which have not only seen their economy affected by this, but also can’t take anymore garments, resulting in their landfills being covered by mountains of decomposing textile. The present system is not just producing enormous quantities of clothes in terrible conditions in these countries, but it’s also dumping on them the negative consequences of system and contributing to poverty both socially and environmentally.
To conclude, given the complexity and broadness of the textile and fashion industry, we believe that sustainability should be carried out in many different aspects, always starting with a more informed consumption. Here we synthesize briefly the points we consider most important:
- Water — Reducing its use and waste in the entire production chain, treating and filtering wastewater and using exemplary methods of wet processing.
- Waste — Identifying waste in the production chain to reduce and recycle it at the different stages.
- Energy — Reducing CO2 impact in the supply chain by using renewable energy and production methods that minimise dependency on petrochemical products.
- Emissions — Decrease transportation miles by each garment, backing local production or at least reducing distances in the global production chain.
- Quality — Increasing the manufacturing of quality garments with longer life length than most of present garments, stimulating good care of them and minimizing the amount disposed by each person.
- Reuse — Promoting a second life for all garments already produced, but also promoting research to create new materials which use what seems to be marginable by investing very little resources to generate textile.
- Human Rights — Urge better working conditions in developing countries which are greatly involved in the textile industry. Not only regarding safety and health regulations, but also regarding salaries, education and quality of life. Likewise, decreasing support to the fast fashion industry, as it places great pressure on the production of every time larger amounts of clothes for incessantly smaller amounts of money.