Isn’t it funny that when we think of sustainability or climate crises, what immediately comes to mind is the ozone layer, deforestation, green energy, fossil fuels and electric cars? How often do we as people think of the fashion industry and the clothes we wear when the word sustainability or climate change is mentioned?
This blog entry is based on a short and intense internship experience at the sustainable products & material flows department (P&S) of Oeko-Institut where I worked on a project aimed at the revision and further development of the Blue Angel Eco-labelling for Textiles which includes extensive research on the textile fibre industry. Here I will be sharing part of my experience during this time.
Most people including myself until quite recently won’t be quick to connect words such as sustainability with the clothes we wear. Hence this post aims to paint a picture that connects these words in our minds. Concurrently informing us on how our shopping choices could make a difference.
While the world is paying attention to electric cars, clean energy, land use and reforestation. Most average consumers have continued to neglect the fashion industry. Even though the environmental impact of this industry is enormous. This industry employs more than 75 million workers worldwide and had an estimated market worth of 2.4 trillion US dollar in 2020. At the same time, the textile industry causes 10 percent of global carbon emission more than all international flight and maritime shipping.
Dyeing, drying, finishing - nothing without chemistry
These emissions result mainly from the production and processing stages of fabrics along the life cycle of textile products. Particularly the processes of dyeing, drying and finishing use intensive chemical products, water, energy and other natural resources that may cause high environmental impact. Textile fibres have a varying degree of environmental hotspots depending on the category being considered.
Polyester and other synthetic fibres have a considerable share in the textile market because they are in many cases a cheaper alternative to other natural fibres and also offer good technical properties for a wide range of applications. Yet, depending on the region and production technology used, synthetic fibres may require massive amounts of energy in their production process which might come from carbon intensive sources such as like coal and fossil fuels. Besides, the input materials for polyester itself just like acrylic and nylon are non-renewable fossil fuels.
What about traditional natural fibres like cotton and wool? Well, for these the hotspots are concentraded in other stages of their production. Cotton, for example, is among the fibres with a high environmental impact, due to its high water and fertilizer requirements during cultivation phase, while wool’s impacts are linked to land use and risks related to animal welfare.
However, the global scale of production requires textiles produced from low labour cost regions to be transported to consumers in Europe and the US causing impacts due to transportation. Companies also get raw materials from various sources where they might not be produced sustainably.
Apart from environmental issues, there are growing ethical concerns in the industry, as working conditions of textile workers in many developing countries producing the majority of the world textiles are oftentimes underpaid and overworked.
The continued growth of the fashion industry has also led to the mass production of cheaper apparels, thus enabling fast fashion trends.
Due to concerns associated with the textile industry, it became apparent to reduce the environmental footprints of textiles and the fashion industry in general. In consequence, the role of Eco-labelling becomes more relevant as these standards aim to establish requirements that motivate companies and manufacturers to use environmentally responsible methods in apparel production.
One example of such requirements is the sourcing of raw materials from farmers or producers that use sustainable methods of cultivation and production. Eco-labelling programs certify products that are proven to be environmentally preferable or ethically friendly after they meet certain criteria of environmental, social or moral standards in specific processes of their life cycle chain. They are predominantly voluntary labels that help to set ethically produced products apart from the others and at the same time helping consumers to know what kind of products they buy or support.
In the textile and apparel industry, labels like Blue Angel, , Oeko-tex, fair-trade and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) are some examples of initiatives that provide textile eco-labelling based on different principles and standards that may be social, environmental or ethical. However, it should be noted that the extent to which environmental and social aspects are covered in a standard can vary considerably between different labels and certifications schemes. This has been concluded by comparing Cotton standards in previous projects conducted by the Öko-Institute (see Biomacht Report: https://www.oeko.de/fileadmin/oekodoc/BioMacht-cotton-research.pdf)
Are innovative fibers environmentally friendly?
Like other industries, textile manufacturers are now switching to innovative and searching for climate-friendly approaches in making new textile apparels. Myriads of innovative new fibres are entering the market. These are proudly displayed at fashion fairs around the globe or featured in fashion reports and publications.
Clothes made from orange peel waste, coffee grounds, pineapple leaf and even rice or wheat straw are innovative ways of converting agricultural waste and food residues into promising materials for the textile industry. However, enough information is not yet publicly available to understand their environmental performance or how they may compete with food and other uses in certain cases. Although many of these innovators are championed by small companies and start-ups, big brands are also beginning to buy into these innovations by utilizing such fibres and including them in their collections.
Other fibres used in productslike dirt-resistant and self-cleaning fabrics are mainly in development phases or its use limited to technical applications. Not to mention smart textiles, these have electronic devices and functions woven into them. They may have sensors that detect heart rate, temperature or react when they get in contact with germs or certain organisms. There is currently an emerging interest in this area.
So, the next time you are out shopping for new clothes think of what cause you might be supporting. And how your decision might affect our world. Cheers
Raymond Asimhi was an intern in the Institute’s Product & Material Flows department between January and March 2021 and worked under supervision of Viviana López and Jenny Teufel supporting the revision and further development of the Blue Angel Eco-labelling criteria for Textiles.