Fashion

What is sustainable fashion

Sustainability in fashion

We love fashion as it is a way to express ourselves and our creativity. And we usually think of fashion in terms of finding the right pieces of clothing for us, but there are many steps beneath the curtain and numerous processes in place until we get to see the physical product. And though we keep hearing about sustainability in fashion, many times it is being used lightly and without really understanding that it takes more than just producing or wearing an organic cotton T-shirt.   

When we talk about sustainable fashion, we don’t only talk about the product we bought but about the entire lifecycle of the product, from the moment the idea appeared, to the production and harvesting of the raw material until the product waste has disappeared. And we take into consideration the environmental and socio-economic aspects.

From the environmental perspective, we want to minimize the detrimental effects the product might have over the environment at any stage of its lifecycle. We can do that by: 

  • Efficient and responsible use of the resources it requires, such as but not limited to water, soil and ecosystem   
  • Using renewable energy sources 
  • Maximizing the five R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Rot and Recycle  

From a socio-economic perspective, all the people involved, from the agriculture stage, to factories, transportation, storage and stores should be treated fair and ethically, by aligning to industry codes and regulations.  

Therefore, we need to consider all stages of the product’s lifecycle:
– design
– raw material production and extraction
– yarn preparation
– fabric preparation
– wet processes and finishings
– garment production 
– transport
– storage
– marketing
– sale 
– use
– after use (recycle, repair, donate, upcycling etc.) 

There can be more or less stages, depending on the specific needs of each product.  

Let’s see some of the aspects involved in sustainable fashion.

 

CO2  footprint 

According to the Fashion on Climate report, in 2018 the fashion industry produced 2.1 billion tonnes CO2eq. This represents 4% of global carbon emissions or, in other words, more emissions than France, Germany and the UK combined.

In order to have a better idea of how this amount is being produced, we’ll see the effect on each stage of the product lifecycle:
– raw material production 38%
– yarn preparation 8%
– fabric preparation 6%
– wet processes and finishings 15%
– garment production  4%
– transport 3%
– retail 3%
– product use 20%
– after use 3% 

Therefore, 61% (roughly 2bn ton C02eq) of the impact comes from upstream production  while around a fifth relies on what we, as consumers, do with the product while we use it and after we are done with it. 

co2 for fashion industry
Photo by Cherie Birkner on Unsplash

 

Energy  

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s report, the textiles industry relies mostly on non-renewable resources (a total of 98 million tonnes  per year),  including oil to produce synthetic fibres, fertilisers to grow cotton, and chemicals to produce, dye, and finish fibres and textiles

Fortunately, there are some intentions towards using more renewable energy sources. 

RE100 is a global corporate renewable energy initiative that aims to bring together hundreds of businesses that want to commit to 100% renewable electricity. Among the members we find Chanel, which wants to achieve 100% renewable electricity by 2025, H&M with a target of 100% renewable power by 2030, Nike by 2025 and Burberry, which is aiming to procure 100% of electricity from renewable resources to power its whole business by 2022 

energy - sustainable fashion
Photo by Chelsea on Unsplash

 

Water used responsibly  

When we think of a T-shirt, a dress or a pair of jeans, we don’t usually think of water. Maybe only the water we use to wash it. It might shock you to know that a pair of jeans requires around 10.850 litres of water and a T-shirt 2.720. Most of the water is used in wet processing and finishings. 

Textiles production (including cotton farming) uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water annually, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s report

When we consider that over 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress, the numbers seem outrageous. 

sustainable fashion jeans
Photo by Maude Frédérique Lavoie on Unsplash

 

Human rights and values 

How are all the people involved in the process treated? Do they have decent wages, are they treated with respect and do they have safe work conditions?

As a consumer, you have the power to choose where you money goes – does it go to a hardworking person who enjoys creating that dress for you and the company that sees their value within the company or does it go to someone who literally pours their sweat and blood to create the same dress and the company that doesn’t take responsibility for the people who help them achieve the profit they have? 

Chemicals

The textile production processes use a large amount and variety of chemicals, around 3 500 substances. These are both damaging us and the planet: 750 have been classified as hazardous for human health and 440 as hazardous for the environment. 

Dyeing and finishing textile products are responsible for about 20 % of global water pollution, which directly affects all the people in contact with the polluted areas.  

EEA’s European Topic Centre on Waste and Materials in a Green Economy (ETC/WMGE) stated in their “Textiles and the environment in a circular economy” report that washing releases chemicals and microplastics into household waste water. It is estimated that about half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres are released into the ocean annually from washing plastic-based textiles.

Moreover, some of the chemicals used during the manufacturing process may be contained in the final products, affecting consumers’ health.Based on the non-organic raw material that is used, the list of chemicals can grow with the insecticides and pesticides. For example, in a 2017 report on pesticide use in global cotton production, 4% of all world pesticides and 10% of insecticides are used in cotton production (other sources state the percentages might be higher). You can read more about these substances’ effect on our health in the PAN UK report.

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