Sustainability – Fashion Fundamental or PR Ploy?
March 13, 2019
There is no perfect path to sustainable fashion – no brand can be totally sustainable, and consumers understand this. But the sustainability of today’s fast fashion is the hot topic in the fashion industry, and one that many brands choose to avoid. They fear accusations of ‘greenwashing’ and public dissatisfaction with their efforts.
Greenwashing is the use of marketing to falsely portray activities as environmentally friendly. With people becoming increasingly concerned about ethical and environmental standards, some brands could be accused of jumping on the ‘green’ bandwagon to score points with consumers.
In essence, a few bags made out of pineapple skin or a product range packaged in recycled card may be an easy PR win, but how are they being shipped? And what’s the carbon footprint of the hundreds of stores stocking them?
It’s about the bigger picture, and fashion and apparel brands should still be open about talking about their efforts, as they may inspire and affect further change through supply chains, competitors, and other industries. But, when it comes to true sustainability, there are many things to consider.
One of the fundamental reasons fashion struggles with sustainability is that there is no single solution to sustainable fibers. Each fiber has different impacts at different points in the life cycle. Producing synthetic fibers uses 342 million barrels of oil a year, and the production of cotton is estimated to require 200,000 tons of pesticides and 8 million tons of fertilizers.
Manufactured synthetic fibers are non-renewable, not biodegradable, and produce microplastics – tiny fibers shed through washing which end up in oceans and water sources. Some synthetics can be recycled.
Natural fibers are biodegradable, and do not produce microfibers, but often require huge amounts of water, chemicals, energy, and land to produce. Some are derived directly from animals.
‘Circularity’ with materials is the goal of the fashion industry: where no waste is created – all materials are either infinitely recyclable or biodegradable. Circularity is something that many fashion brands claim to be working towards, but the reality is that it currently exists only in small pilot projects.
Fiber and yarn processing includes multiple dry and wet methods, which can use a huge amount of water with several stages of rinsing and cleaning, as well as energy in terms of machinery. Chemicals, lubricants and oils are added at various stages, and a large amount of waste fiber is produced.
‘Eco-friendly’ fibers can lower the environmental impact in terms of material production and disposal. However, processing these still has negative impacts. For example, although organic cotton is a natural fiber, the impacts of dyeing it are higher than polyester.
There are small pilot projects to address the impact of manufacturing in the fashion industry, but a lot still to be done. DyeCoo, for example, uses a totally water and chemical-free process. It uses high-pressure tanks for dyeing polyester without a drop of water, or hazardous chemicals.
Fashion packaging largely does not get recycled, even if it is technically recyclable. This is detrimental in terms of pollution and the extraction of natural resources used to make it.
Brands need to start by using less packaging where possible, and have a responsibility to educate consumers about the importance of recycling or disposing of packaging properly, then start thinking about alternative materials. There are some new and exciting options, like biodegradable bioplastic – but much like some of the new fabrics, these are not always better due to the impacts of production.
Patagonia is a good example of a brand that is open and honest about its use of plastic packaging – publishing a case study in which it stated, “Products were damaged when they were run through the shipping system without a polybag – about 30 percent of garments were damaged beyond the point of being sellable.” Clearly there is a long way to go, but being transparent about their reasoning should be encouraged.
Some studies have found that the greatest environmental impact of clothing over its life is during customer use, which can be reduced through better care. Energy consumption can be dramatically reduced if consumers wash in cold water and swap the dryer for a clothesline. Washing clothes also contributes significantly to water contamination through detergents, plus the release of the microplastics mentioned previously.
Educating consumers on how to improve the care and usage of a garment increases its durability and prolongs its lifetime, lowering its overall footprint. A study found that extending a garment’s life by just three months would lower the water, carbon, and waste footprint by 5–10 percent.
End of Use
When a product is discarded, there are different routes it can take. Circular routes – donating clothes to charity, recycling or upcycling into a new product or material or biodegrading back into the earth – are still not a reality. The EPA estimated that the recycling rate for textiles in clothing and footwear was 15.6 percent.
The other route – incineration, or getting buried in a landfill – accounts for the remaining 84.4 percent. Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done. Fast fashion in some respects has led to a throwaway culture, but, much like the backlash against disposable coffee cups and single-use plastic, it’s up to major brands to join the conversation, and provide transparency and advice in terms of solutions.
Brands can start by clearly labelling how consumers should recycle or responsibly dispose of products. There is also an opportunity for brands to take more responsibility, through take-back or repair programs.
Nudie Jeans introduced this approach. Any pair of their jeans, no matter where they were bought, comes with a promise of free repairs. In 2018 Nudie repaired 55,173 pairs of jeans and collected 10,557 pairs for reuse, saving 44,000 kg of material and 386 million liters of water.
Sustainability also applies to the carbon footprint of retail stores, factories, warehouses, and offices, and brands should consider those of supply chains, too. Sustainable premises use less energy, less water, and create less waste. How to reduce consumption should be a major consideration. Reducing waste such as paper and single-use plastic in business operations should now be a priority. These initiatives might not grab headlines like an ‘organic’ clothing range or shoelaces made from recycled bottles, but they can have a greater impact.
Pendleton is an example of a brand willing to join the conversation across a range of sustainability factors. The company is open and honest in its ‘Our Planet’ statement, containing information on sustainable fibers, water and energy usage reduction, recycling and ongoing evaluation of processes.
The global fashion supply chain requires products and their components to be transported many times using multiple forms of travel. Whether it’s raw material moving to a factory, a product shipped to a customer, or staff commutes, transportation is a factor in sustainability, with far-reaching environmental, social, and economic impacts.
Whilst transportation is a necessity, much can be done in understanding, measuring, and minimizing its impact. Gap is a good example of a brand making positive steps with freight efficiency. It committed to using environmentally efficient SmartWay carriers, and implemented rigorous management of their supply chain network, with weekly performance reporting to promote continuous improvement.