Dr Patsy Perry
Senior Lecturer in Fashion Marketing & Retail, School of Materials The University of Manchester
Innovation is really important in achieving sustainability goals
The textile supply chain has long been under pressure from a social responsibility and environmental perspective but recently, the drive for sustainability has ramped up a notch - and rightly so.
Given that the sector is responsible for a staggering 20 per cent of global water pollution, an effective solution to the textiles industry's sustainability challenge has become of paramount importance.
In a new white paper 'Quantifying The Impact of Textiles Innovation: How A Collaborative Approach Could Help Lighten The Textile Industry's Environmental Load', stakeholders from across the supply chain offer perspectives on securing a cleaner, greener future for textiles that also delivers optimum efficiency.
Dr. Patsy Perry, Senior Lecturer in Fashion Marketing and Retail at the School of Materials at The University of Manchester, gives an academic view on managing the clothing lifecycle more responsibly - sharing industry examples of innovations and collaborations that are already making a difference.
What do you see as the key challenges facing the textile industry today?
There are environmental and social aspects of sustainability, which are both significant in the textile industry. Textiles is the second most polluting industry in the world after oil, and the fashion industry is notorious for sweatshop scandals as a result of its ongoing quest for cheap labour.
There are many well documented serious and fatal cases across the whole supply chain from field to factory to warehouse, including child labour and draining of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan's cotton farming industry, Indian cotton farmer suicides, the emergence of silicosis in Turkey's denim sandblasting sector, the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, and ongoing instances of sweatshop conditions in garment factories and distribution warehouses in the UK. There are also the issues of air and water pollution from the use of pesticides during cotton farming, and the release of dye effluent into waterways during textile processing and finishing, which can devastate the ecosystem, reduce access to clean drinking water and cause illness and birth defects in local communities.
These problems are exacerbated by the growth of fast fashion, with its ever shorter product life cycles and pressures on cost and speed. Fast fashion also contributes to increasing problems of textile waste, as clothing becomes a disposable item (in some cases priced less than a cup of coffee) and much ends up in landfill rather than being disposed of responsibly.
Finally, the textile industry's carbon footprint is an issue, due to its vast global logistics operations of moving raw materials and products between production and selling locations, use of energy in heating large amounts of water for textile processing and finishing, as well as energy used for machines, lighting and air-conditioning in developing country garment factories.
What are the barriers to sustainability in the industry, as it stands?
Geographically long, fragmented and complex supply chains often result in a lack of visibility and control beyond first tier suppliers, and an increased carbon footprint represent significant barriers. With the rise of fast fashion, it is a challenge to manage increasing demand for textiles and garments from both developed countries and emerging economies, alongside sustainability imperatives. Cost and lead time pressure lead to corners being cut.
Outdated and inefficient processes may also be used in developing countries where production takes place.
What have been some of the key developments towards a sustainable future for textiles?
The use of waste as a raw material represents a strong sustainability statement. Instances include G-Star's Raw for the Oceans denim collection in collaboration with environmental group Parley for the Oceans and textile company Bionic Yarns, and more recently Adidas' footwear and swimwear ranges in collaboration with Parley for the Oceans, both of which utilise ocean plastic waste.
Interestingly, biodegradable waste can also be used as a raw material, such as orange skins being made into a fibre which is then used by the Italian fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo. There are some really interesting developments in the removal of water from production processes, for example the waterless jeans range by Levi's in which most of the water was removed from the denim finishing process by innovatively combining multiple wet processes together, or waterless dyeing using carbon dioxide technology for example, which has been adopted by the likes of Nike and Adidas.
Greenpeace's Detox campaign has had a massive impact in pressurising brands to address toxic water pollution in the outer reaches of their supply chains, and has successfully achieved public commitments from many global brands to achieve zero discharge of harmful chemicals by 2020.
Innovations in textile recycling demonstrate the potential for a closed loop textile supply chain, for example the Recovertex ingenious colour matching process eliminates the need for dyestuffs and chemicals in the processing of recycled cotton fibre.
Finally, it's encouraging to see large global companies such as Inditex, Nike & H&M's sustainability efforts, as any meaningful move towards a sustainable future requires the participation of key industry players to achieve some kind of scale.
How does your organisation contribute to a cleaner, greener textile industry?
We do a lot of work in environmental responsibility, generally, both from a research perspective as well as implementing this into our operations, and engaging staff and students. For example, we are the world's first university to be recognised as a carbon literate organisation, and we developed the biggest environmental sustainability initiative in the higher education sector called 10,000 Actions, which is a learning and engagement programme to enable our 10,000 staff to contribute and make a difference by managing their own environmental impact.
This academic year we also offered all our 8000 first year undergraduate students the chance to take part in the Sustainability Challenge, an interactive simulation activity where teams of students worked to balance social, environmental and economic factors to build a sustainable future for a university.
Where do you see the role of innovation in achieving sustainability goals and where do you think this innovation will come from?
Innovation is really important in achieving sustainability goals. We might question whether innovation will be the driver of sustainability or vice versa, as there's an argument for both. Innovation is necessary to solve sustainability issues, for example by developing new technologies to replace PFCs in achieving liquid repellent properties on textiles.
Alternatively, I think there is potential for innovation to come from a number of stakeholders with relevant expertise and interest in the area, including universities and industry.
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 and that the impact of collective efforts can be far greater than that possible by individuals.
Published on: 17/10/2017
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