Sustainability, Circularity and Traceability in Textiles & Apparel IndustrySustainability has become a major focus of fashion brands inthe past ...Sustainability, Circularity and Traceability in Textiles & Apparel Industry
Sustainability has become a major focus of fashion brands inthe past decade. As organisations evaluate the root cause of the problem andfind solutions, a growing number of fashion companies are set to establishsupply chain transparency and adopt circular business models. The growingnumber of innovations in terms of fibres, processes, etc also point towardsthis trend.
The global textile and apparel industry, generated over $1.5 trillion in annual revenue and used 109 million tonnes of fibres in 2020. The industry employs over 300 million people, especially in developing countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Pakistan and Turkey. According to a Quantis report, textiles is only second to the oil industry in generating pollution, accounting for approximately 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually. Every year millions of tonnes of clothes are manufactured, worn, and thrown away. The textile and apparel industry is also one of the major contributors of plastic microfibres entering the oceans. It is anticipated that by 2050 the textile and apparel industry will use up to 25 per cent of the world’s carbon budget. The textile chain consumes a huge amount of water and energy, along with the use of various chemicals and harmful substances.
It is for these reasons and also because of the fierce use of natural resources, sustainability has been highlighted as a growing concern for the textile and apparel industry. While natural fibre cultivation involving pesticides results in decreased soil fertility and water pollution, the textile industry is a prevalent contributor to serious health issues and environmental concerns, including water and air pollutions. There is a dire need to adopt new methods of manufacturing, which do not hamper the environment, to help sustain not only the textile industry but the environment too.
The easiest and to an extent surest way to go sustainable is the use of eco-friendly fabrics for all textiles and clothing items. The following are the six most sustainable fabrics used in the industry.
Linen: Linen is made from the fibres of the flax plant. It was used by ancient Egyptians because of its strength and ability to keep people cool and absorb water. Nowadays, when it is grown in geographically suitable areas, such as Europe (almost three-quarters of flax is grown in the EU), there is no need for pesticides or fertilisers, and it requires much less water than cotton and is good for soil health. The material itself is hard-wearing so doesn’t need to be replaced for years and dries quicker than cotton and other fabrics.
Wool: Wool is a renewable, durable and biodegradable fabric. Additionally, some sheep farmers produce wool using techniques which sequester carbon from the atmosphere to reduce the environmental impact. The strength and resilience of the fabric – it is both flame-resistant and water-repellent – means that it lasts for a long time, reducing the need for fast fashion replacements.
Better Cotton: Cotton farming requires gallons of water and lot of pesticides. However, there are more sustainable ways of producing the fabric. The Better Cotton Initiative, for example, supports farmers across the world to care for water, soil health and natural habitats with certain specifications. It covers 12.5 per cent of the market. For apparels made from Better Cotton one must look out for products that are certified with the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) label. This means that the manufacturing process doesn’t use toxic fertilisers or pesticides which are harmful for our environment or the farmers.
Hemp: Hemp is technically a plant in the cannabis family but doesn’t have any of the psychogenic abilities of marijuana and has been used to make fabric for hundreds of years. It grows much faster and requires less water than cotton, doesn’t require pesticides, doesn’t deplete the soil the way many crops do and, it is a carbon-negative crop (i.e., it removes more CO2 from the atmosphere than it emits). Like linen, hemp fabric also has antimicrobial properties and has a natural UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) to protect skin from the sun’s harmful rays.
Tencel/Lyocell: Tencel is the trademarked name of a type of lyocell created by the Austrian manufacturer Lenzing. Lyocell is a semi-synthetic fabric made using wood pulp from eucalyptus trees. In producing Tencel only sustainably managed forests are used. It’s breathable, wicks away moisture and has anti-bacterial properties. It requires very little water and energy to produce, compared to most other fabrics, and while it is made using chemicals, the process is a “closed-loop system,” which means that more than 99 per cent of the textile waste can be recycled over and over.
Econyl: Created by the Italian company Aquafil, Econyl is made from synthetic waste like recycled plastic, waste fabric and fishing nets pulled from the ocean that are woven and spun into a new nylon yarn.
Like Tencel, it uses a closed-loop system that prevents significant chemical runoff and requires very little water to produce. It is a durable and more sustainable alternative to synthetics like nylon or polyester. One downside, however, is that because Econyl is made from plastic it can release microplastics, or tiny non-biodegradable particles, into the ocean and waterways through washing cycles. However, a sustainable washing bag like GuppyFriend can help trap those tiny pieces before they hit the pipes.
Fast fashion refers to the mass production of inexpensive clothing in response to the latest trends and high-fashion designs. With manufacturing becoming cheaper and abundance of labour, there has been a continuous rise in fast fashion in the last few years. Fast fashion has negative effects on the environment and is reportedly unethical in terms of production.
As per a United Nations report, global clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014. The report also revealed that the clothing industry is responsible for approximately 20 per cent of water wastage on a global level. It takes 10,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of cotton or approximately 3,000 litres of water for one cotton shirt. Furthermore, textile dyeing requires toxic chemicals that subsequently end up in our oceans.
A separate study by the University of California at Santa Barbara found that polyester fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of plastic microfibres each time they go into the wash. Overall, the textiles economy is expected to have released over 20 million tonnes of plastic microfibres into the ocean by 2050. The discarded clothes that are often left behind in deserts such as in the Chile’s Atacama, take hundreds of years to biodegrade, polluting the environment and water.
A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, titled A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future states that every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned.
These alarming statistics call for greater urgency in integrating sustainability into textile and apparel production. Sustainability in the textile and clothing industry goes beyond using just organic materials and efficient processes. It means addressing the entire chain in which clothing is produced, the people who produce, and increasing the longevity of a product before it reaches the landfill.
One way of tackling the adverse effects of the textile industry is through circular economy-based approach. By moving to a circular system, the textile and apparel industry can unlock an enormous economic opportunity. Realising this opportunity requires new business models and collaboration across the value chain (e.g., production, marketing, and after-sales care), to keep safe materials in use.
Closing The Loop Through Circularity
A circular economy for textiles and apparel is the one that creates better products and services for customers, contributes to a resilient and blooming industry, and rejuvenates the environment. It prioritises the rights and equity of each person involved in the textile and apparel industry and creates new opportunities for a distributed, diverse, and inclusive growth.
Recycling of textiles, a crucial part of the circular economy for textiles and apparel, has the potential to reduce GHG emissions and freeing precious land for other uses. To this end, several countries have outlined plans to increase recycling and reduce textile waste. For example, China aims to recycle 25 per cent of all its textile waste and churn out 2 million tonnes of recycled fibre by 2025. This is part of its push to peak its carbon emissions by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2060, according to a document jointly released by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the Ministry of Commerce of China.
The European Union has also released its Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles which sets out the vision and concrete actions to ensure that by 2030 textile products based on the EU market are long lived and recyclable, use recycled fibres as much as possible, free of hazardous substances and produced in respect of social rights and the environment. The Strategy proposes actions for the entire lifecycle of textiles products, while supporting the ecosystem in the green and digital transitions. It addresses the way textiles are designed and consumed, including by looking also at sustainable technological solutions and innovative business models.
Meanwhile, the EU’s Waste Directive Framework requires countries to separate all textile waste by 2025, and several European nations have implemented extended producer responsibility schemes, making brands and retailers responsible for post-consumer waste and requiring financial contributions from producers for the collection, recycling and reuse of products. New design requirements for textiles under the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation has set mandatory minimums for the inclusion of recycled fibres in textiles, making them longer lasting, and easier to repair and recycle. Under the proposed regulation, sustainable textiles products will become the norm in the EU. The proposal would also ban the destruction of unsold products under certain conditions, including unsold or returned textiles.
If all countries frame such policies for circular textiles and implement them, it will tremendously accelerate the process of textile industry going circular. According to a new report from the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), the fashion industry can become 80 per cent circular by 2030 with increased investment in existing recycling technologies and infrastructures. Companies are required to increase their uptake of recycled inputs and explore circular models and invest in new technologies that can close the loop efficiently and cost-effectively.