There is much debate over where taking greater environmental and social responsibility within apparel should lie, but the truth is we all have a part to play.
To help drive innovation and sustainability in textiles to move towards a cleaner, greener, more efficient future, a collaborative approach between all stakeholders is needed. A stance taken in a new industry white paper puts the spotlight on different perspectives from across the supply chain.
The sustainability challenge
Textiles is the second most polluting industry on the planet, second only to energy production, and is responsible for a staggering 20 per cent of global water pollution (Bank, 2014). Liz Manning, Business Development Manager at Catexel believes water scarcity is a pressing issue and management of wastewater is another challenge. According to her, "If the effluent from the dyeing process is not dealt with properly it can cause serious environmental problems when released back into the system."
Consumer addiction to cheap, fast fashion has had a worrying impact on our environment. In the last 15 years, Greenpeace estimates that the average EU consumer is buying 60 per cent more clothes but keeping them for half as long vs. 2001 (Roloff, 2016). The average American throws away around 30kg of textile waste each year (Ecouterre, 2012) and 30 per cent of clothing in UK wardrobes hasn't been worn in over 12 months (WRAP, 2016).
Valued at between $1 and 3 trillion (Sinointeractive, 2016), (Huang, 2012), and employing almost 1 per cent of the world's population (Kane, 2015), the global textiles and apparel market is not only huge but diverse and fragmented with multiple stakeholders, bringing challenges when trying to instigate change. With multiple regulatory bodies, ecological labels, individual brand standards and consumer demands, carving a more sustainable way forward is a challenge but a necessary one which must involve the entire value chain.
Barriers to change
Due to the multiple processing stages and sheer number of stakeholders involved, assessing the green credentials of a particular garment is a complex process. The source of the fabric, how it was processed into a textile, how it was prepared for dyeing, the dyeing process itself, then finishing, garment production and the labour conditions throughout the supply chain all need to be taken into account.
Once sold to the consumer, the sustainability journey continues, particularly as the quality and lifetime of a garment has an impact on burgeoning levels of textile waste. Textile and apparel suppliers vary greatly in size, technical capability, and financial security which means game-changing technologies that could enable greener production often struggle to reach large proportions of the market.
According to Jorge Faria, Managing Director at Aquitex, "to resolve the pressing issues that are really impacting the environment, game-changing technologies will be needed. They must deliver the required performance and sustainably benefits all at a competitive cost."
Any innovation must be economically, as well as environmentally sustainable. With vast variations in skills at the end-user level, any new technologies should be robust and require minimal alterations to current production processes, to minimise the need for re-training. There are indeed a vast number of parameters that need to be considered in the search for an operationally viable way forward for textiles. How can we reduce the effluent load from garment production? How can we address the serious issues around labour practices? How can we encourage consumers to purchase more mindfully and reduce levels of waste? How can we do all this whilst still meeting profitability targets?
James Carnahan, Sustainability Manager, Color & Specialty Chemicals, Archroma believes that the textiles industry is ripe for disruption but a fear of rising costs or changes in established processes means there is a strong resistance to change. But rather than shying away from innovation altogether, the industry can start by making small, high-impact improvements."
A number of industry bodies have emerged to try to find a more sustainable path for what is perceived to be a relatively slow moving sector. But in doing so, they have tended to take a disjointed approach with an emphasis on reaching apparel brands and end-user audiences.
New initiatives such as Cotton 2040 and the Circular Fibres Initiative from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation represent a promising start for a serious move within the textiles industry towards a cleaner, safer future born out of collaboration and innovation. A more inclusive and collaborative approach - encompassing all aspects of the supply chain - is the only way to achieve true systemic change and forge a more sustainable future for the textiles industry.
There is a need for a different way of doing things and, together, the textiles supply chain must find systems that stand up to scrutiny and support the entire industry in being inherently more environmentally friendly.
Patsy Perry - Senior Lecturer in Fashion Marketing and Retail at the School of Materials at The University of Manchester in her interview for the white paper says, "Collaboration between stakeholders is important in terms of managing discovery, commercialisation and scaling of innovation for the best impact. I would expect to see increasing collaboration on sustainability between competitors in the fashion industry, as more industry players realise this challenge is too great to solve in isolation."
Founded in 2012 as a Unilever Ventures portfolio company, Catexel is an expert oxidation catalysis company that has developed unique technology platforms based on manganese and iron compounds for use in global manufacturing. Its solutions have been commercially harnessed for coatings, textiles and industrial detergent and cleaning applications, but new opportunities, in new markets, are continuously under exploration.