Factors in understanding textile sustainability

Sustainability has become a buzz word in the fashion and textile industry, but what do we mean when we say it? In this article we consider a few such factors and how they are significant in impacting sustainability of textiles.

Economic sustainability for farmers

Textile Plant Farmers

For cotton, farmers’ economic sustainability is a key concern. Over a half of the global supply of cotton is grown in India and China, and although West Africa produces much smaller quantities on the global scale, cotton accounts for half of exports for countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso. In the majority of cases in Africa and Asia, the crop is grown by small-scale farmers.

Individual farmers find themselves exposed to fluctuating market prices, poor trade terms, and increasing seed prices. Further pressures are then added by US cotton subsidies which artificially lower the market price, making it hard for these farmers to compete and to achieve economic viability.

Fairtrade cotton aims to alleviate this financial burden by helping farmers of small holdings to join together to form farmer-owned organisations. These organisations allow the farmers to have greater negotiating power and to give them a potential to earn a higher, more stable income.

Other natural textile fibres such as flax and hemp are strongly associated with the organic textiles movement and generally bring economic sustainability to the farmer as they have minimal growth requirements, using little water, fertilizers or pesticides. In 2013, Canadian hemp farmers were making £250 per acre while American soy farmers were making only $71.

Although these bast fibres (those coming from the fibrous materials of a plant) are recognised as being highly sustainable, they represent only 14% of natural fibres, with cotton still accounting for 77%. Commercial hemp farming is also banned in the US under the Controlled Substances Act.

Animal Textile Farmers

Animal textiles such as wool, leather and silk make up less than 9% of the global natural fibre market, but represent a larger proportion of the ‘luxury’ fashion market.

While leather and silk can be produced in farming systems which are relatively able to alter their supply to meet demand, cashmere wool farmers are much less able to sustainably increase their output.

The goats whose fleeces make cashmere wool can only be grazed in limited regions of the world, predominantly found in China and Mongolia. As the global demand for cashmere has increased, farmers have tried to keep more livestock on their pastures, resulting in overgrazing of the land.

This overgrazing, together with severe climatic events in the regions have put a significant strain on the grasslands that support the animals, and in turn on the economic sustainability of the herdsmen whose livelihoods depend upon the wool.

Environmental & Social Impact of Textile Manufacture

There are many important environmental considerations during the textile manufacturing process. These include water and energy consumption, waste generation, and potential pollution.

From a community perspective, we must consider the manufacturer’s social responsibility to their workers. Pay rates, workers rights, and the potential health effects of the dyes and chemicals used to improve the fabric’s usability are all significant concerns as we seek to determine a textile’s sustainability.

There are some key reasons as to why the manufacturing industry struggles to meet these sustainability standards, which we’ll look into below.

Fast Fashion

Retailers now seek to translate the latest catwalk trends into high-street fashion items for every season. In order to do this so quickly and at such affordable prices often requires them to manufacture in countries where wages are low and social responsibility can be more easily shirked.

More than 70% of EU imports of textile and clothing come from Asia, where many workers are still subject to poor sweatshop conditions. Retailers are under increasing pressure to enforce higher environmental and social standards in their manufacturing plants and are specifying codes of good practice in labour and environmental standards to their suppliers. However, many experience difficulties in imposing these codes throughout their supply chains, leading to concerns about worker and environmental welfare.

Demand for greater durability

Within the industries of upholstery and fittings, durability has long been a key performance indicator and in turn, a marker of sustainability. If carpet fabric is harder wearing and keeps its colour better, then it will last for longer and consumers will need to purchase new carpet less often. However, we must give consideration to how this durability is attained. The pre-treatment of carpet textiles with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) makes stains easier to lift, but there is a risk of serious potential health impacts for people living close to these chemical plants.

Organic versions of conventional textiles such as cotton are generally not as durable as their non-organic counterparts, but this should be weighed against the environmental and social impacts of the application of these performance-enhancing chemicals during the manufacturing process.

Within the fashion industry, the durability of a fabric is perhaps, at least currently, a less pressing indicator of sustainability. In the UK, consumers spend on average £780 per year on new clothes and many consumers don’t wait for their clothes to wear out or lose their colour before they throw them away and purchase new ones.

Perhaps therefore a more important current concern is what we do with textiles when we have finished with them.

Consumers lack of awareness on managing the ‘End of Life’

In the US, consumers send on average 30kg of clothing and textiles to landfill every year, where if unmanaged, they will degrade anaerobically (without the presence of oxygen) to produce methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas 20x more potent than carbon dioxide and is an important contributor to climate change. So how do we prevent textiles from ending up in landfills?

As indicated by the waste hierarchy, the most beneficial treatment for waste textiles is reuse. Giving clothes a second life carries with it the least environmental impacts and offers the greatest social benefits to those who rely on the second hand market, whether that’s domestically or internationally.

Only when textiles are deemed to be unsuitable for reuse, should they be considered for recycling. However, recycling is an important practice as it reduces our demand for raw material and the process of turning old fabrics into new clothes consumes less energy and natural resources than it does to make new clothes from virgin stock.

In order for textiles to be managed responsibly at their end of life, it is important to consider how the clothes were originally manufactured. Clothing made from a blend of textiles is considerably harder to recycle than single textile clothing. More often these blended fabrics are ‘downcycled’ into cleaning rags or insulating material. High street brand H&M have created a fund to develop technologies to recycle blended textiles back into new fabrics. If successful, this could mark a turning point in the textiles recycling industry.

Conclusions

When we are considering sustainability within the textile industry, it is important to bear all of the environmental, social and economic factors in mind. No one is mutually exclusive, but rather each is mutually reinforcing.

We cannot judge the sustainability of, for example, developments in the cotton growing industry purely on its affects on farmers’ economic viability. To do so would be to neglect the crop’s impact on pesticide use (and associated resistance), water consumption, biodiversity and worker health and safety, to name but a few.

Much work is needed to understand what we really mean when we talk about sustainability in the textiles industry. This work will help us to draw comparisons between practices, and in turn will help the industry move towards a fairer, less impactful future.

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