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(Re)defining sustainability within the fashion industry

By Vivian Hendriksz


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London - Once seen as a niche part of the fashion industry, being eco-conscious has rapidly become one of the hottest 'topics' of our time. From luxury fashion houses to fast-fashion retailers, and everything in between - more and more fashion companies are responding to mounting consumer interest and 'going green.' On the surface, sustainability appears to be an easy concept to grasp, encompasses three main sectors: environmental, social and economic. For some brands ‘going green’ means cutting down on their stores greenhouse gas emissions or using recycled plastics and cardboard to ship their products. For others, it means finding suitable manufacturers closer to home, to cut down on CO2 emissions. Yet, for other companies 'going green' means creating a collection made from recycled fabrics, plastics or organic cotton. For others still, it's 3D printing items to cut down on waste.

However, in spite of all these efforts the fact remains that the global fashion and textile industry is the second most polluting and damaging industry in the world after oil. “The fashion business model is broken and we urgently need to find alternatives," proclaimed Safia Minney MBE, founder and CEO of eco-fashion brand People Tree in the documentary 'The True Cost'. So we ask, what does it mean to be sustainable within the fashion industry? And how can the industry work to become even more 'green?' In the first episode of a new series looking at sustainability and the fashion industry, FashionUnited asks what does it means to be sustainable.

What is sustainability within the fashion industry?

The most quoted definition of sustainability comes from the 1987 UN Bruntland commission, which describes the concept as followed: “Development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” At the moment it is abundantly clear that the fashion industry is able to meet the needs of the present - perhaps a little too well, as approximately 350,000 tonnes of unwanted clothing end up in UK landfills alone each year, according to WRAP. 95 percent of these dumped textiles which fill landfills across the world are then burnt, when each stage of a garment life takes resources to produce. “Fashion is as cheap as a sandwich as just as consumable,” pointed out Gwen Cunningham, founder of social entreprise Circular Economy at a recent lecture.

Consumers and the industry’s current perception of fashion as something disposable is increasingly problematic. Over 20,000 litres of water is needed to produce 1 kilogram of cotton, which is equal to a single t-shirt and pair of jeans, according to the WWF. A single pair of shoes can consist of up to 40 different materials, and at least 8,000 different chemicals are used to transform raw materials like cotton, leather and wool into clothing - just to be discarded in our landfills. It is a process, a system, which stands at odds with the very definition of sustainable development as we consume more resources than the planet can replenish for future generations. Coupled with the lack of transparency in supply chains means sourcing a garment all the way back to its origin is near to impossible.

Linear systems used by the fashion industry are unsustainable

“We cannot maintain the linear system we use now - we have already used up many of our resources,” warned Sanne van den Dongen, consultant at Mesh-works, RTB and FB-Basics, in a recent seminar at footwear institution SLEM. “Industries are already feeling the effect of it coming...we do not have an energy problem, we have a materials problem.” Take cotton for example. Grown in approximately 80 countries around the world is it a vital raw material for the fashion industry, accounting for 32 percent of all fibers used around the world. 33 million hectare of land are used to grow cotton, equal to 2.5 percent of global farmable land. According to current projects of population growth, the planet's human population is set to reach 9 billion as early as 2040.

Combined with the unprecedented amount of pesticides and chemicals used to grow normal cotton, which is damaging arable land, the amount of viable land to grow sufficient crops to feed the earth is rapidly dwindling. A growing global population will in turn place increasing demands on energy, reduce future supplies of fossil fuels, lead to a higher water consumption and more CO2 emissions, as well as other harmful substances. Climate change is not just limited to affecting the industry's resources - climate change saw fashion retailers lose out on 70 million euros in sales a last year due to unseasonable weather. Therefore both consumers as well as fashion businesses and governments are acknowledging the need to change the system - in a way that ensures their businesses models are still financially viable.

A circular economy will raise consumer awareness to see "clothing as a resource"

One system which is being rapidly embraced by a number of retailers such as H&M Filippa K, and G-Star Raw is that of a circular economy. The system is based on a number of concepts, including reducing the number of garments produced, repairing clothing already own, reusing or repurposing unwanted or discarded textiles and recycling waste and unwanted garments to make new ones. H&M recently launched a global recycling week campaign to encourage its consumers around the world to bring their old garments in for recycling in exchange for discount on their next purchase, whilst G-Star Raw has developed collection of clothing made using recycled plastics gathered from the ocean. Patagonia actively asks its consumers if they really need to buy something new, whilst Filippa K offers consumers the chance to rent out its collections - all of which are sustainable, yet profitable practices. “We need to raise consumer awareness to see all clothing as a resource and request cycled clothing,” said Cecilia Brännsten, H&M’s Sustainability Expert, during the launch of their Conscious Exclusive Collection.

However, one of the main issues concerning this concept is the lack of technology available to give garments and footwear a second, third and fourth life. At the moment only garments made from 100 percent cotton, wool, tencel or silk can be recycled - anything made from a blended material or synthetic fabric cannot be recycled. This means, that even though H&M recycles its fabrics, there will still always be a need for raw or virgin materials to be blended with the recycled fibers. Until technological advances are made which aid the sorting and separation of unwanted garments, a circular economy within the fashion industry remains “very much a concept compared to a reality,” noted Professor Shahin Rahimifar, founder and director of the centre for Sustainable Manufacturing and Recycling Technologies, at the SLEM seminar.

“Sustainability as the guide to growth”

If many of the initiatives aimed at making the fashion industry more ‘green’ are still seen as concepts, rather than realities, then “how do we know that we are on the right track for sustainability?" asks Mike Tomkin, former Director of Sustainability at Stahl at SLEM. At the moment, the majority of fashion companies have some sort of corporate social responsibility policy (CSR) as well as a sustainability policy in the place, due to globalisation, in order to maintain a global corporate standards for labour, safety, sustainability, ethical treatment and quality throughout their supply chain is a much bigger challenge. Marks & Spencer, for example, has Plan A 2020 in which the department store group outlines hundreds of commitments across its supply chain to reduce its social and environmental footprint with the goal of becoming the leading, sustainable and multi-channel, international retailer by 2020.

Swedish fashion retailer Filippa K set itself the ambitious goal of only producing sustainable and recyclable clothing by 2030, in addition to having a fully transparent supply chain, not producing more than they need, respecting their workers and turning a profit. “We realised we have to think differently and developed sustainability as the guide to our growth and challenge ourselves to think in new ways,” explained Elin Larsson, Sustainability director at Filippa K at a lecture held by AMFI. Other industry insiders agree with Larsson approach to sustainability. “We have to take a holistic approach to sustainability now,” stressed Dungen. “But we will not have the solution today or tomorrow. However, we can take steps for a better future and make a roadmap for getting where we want to be.”

Photos source: H&M, G-Star Raw, Filippa K, Fashion Revolution, the True Cost: Facebook.
Photo credit: C-Jason Childs – Jimbaran Bay

Stay tuned for part II of the series, out May 11

redefining sustainability