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20th November 2015

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Marna Fox

Samantha Lyster finds that the fashion world is finally waking up to the environmental nightmare it has created

With clothing production behind only oil as the planet's most polluting industry, Samantha Lyster finds that the fashion world is finally waking up to the environmental nightmare it has created

Every year news reports of post-Christmas sales and, more recently, Black Friday are accompanied by images of frenzied shoppers storming department stores. Sales of clothing and footwear account for much of this consumer activity. Aside from the environmental problems associated with mass consumption, before the average chain store garment even hits the rails it will have racked up an impressive list of ecological damage.

Such is the scale of the natural degradation associated with the manufacture of clothing, the Danish Fashion Institute (DAFI) ranked it second only to the oil industry in terms of polluting the planet. However, many of the larger brands are also facing up to the fact they are running out of resources and are trying to clean up their act.

Changing business model

"The clothing industry is facing a lot of challenges that have been caused by the changes in its business model," says Stella Claxton, lecturer in international fashion business at Nottingham Trent University. "In 1995 the average cost of a man's jumper was around £29; today it costs the same, and that's due to the globalisation of production.

"Consumers only think of the increases in volumes of textiles, but behind that is an increase in production processes. More growing of fibres means increased use of pesticides and herbicides, more dying of material, and more shipping of products."

Claxton, who is part of the university's sustainable consumption research group, adds that the clothing industry is now looking to use fibres that are more sustainable than cotton, which is a difficult crop to grow and requires large quantities of chemicals and water. According to conservation NGO WWF, 2.4% of the world's cropland is planted with cotton, yet it accounts for 24% and 11% of the global sales of insecticide and pesticides respectively. Conventional cotton (rather than the organic variety) for one T-shirt can consume as much as 2,700 litres of water, says WWF.

"There's not enough organic cotton in the world, so brands are looking for materials made from sustainable sources," Claxton says. "There is also a lot of work going on in the industry around the lifecycle of clothing, looking at materials that compost."

Sustainable fibres include bamboo, pineapple plant fibre and Tencel, which is made from fast-growing eucalyptus trees. Amsterdam-based jeans brand G-Star Raw has pioneered the use of Tencel in its manufacturing, and it is also one of the first to use another new fibre, bionic yarn. Made by Return Textiles, which counts the US music mogul Pharrell among its investors, bionic yarn is spun out of discarded ocean plastic. The South African chain store Woolworths announced in April that it had appointed Pharrell as style director for its sustainability initiatives, which will include selling T-shirts made from bionic yarn.

The use of recycled plastics in clothing manufacturing is quickly moving from a celebrity-backed niche to the mainstream thanks to the idea being taken up by Levi Strauss. The company, famed for its 501 denim jeans, introduced its Waste Less men's collection in 2013, with 20% of the material made from recycled plastic bottles. Sportswear brand Nike also turns discarded plastic bottles in clothing. At the 2014 World Cup, each of the kits worn by the footballers of Brazil, France, Greece, Portugal, the US, Australia, South Korea, Croatia, England and Holland contained 13 recycled bottles.

Levi's Waste Less collection is one of many projects by the company to reduce its ecological impact, including helping to launch the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) alongside several other retailers. Not only does BCI include research into improved cotton-growing practices, it has also halted the buying of cotton from Uzbekistan, where water mismanagement had reduced the Aral Sea to 10% of its original size by 2007 and, according to images released by NASA in 2014, had almost completely dried out in parts. "Sustainability is at the core of everything we do at Levi Strauss Co," says Michael Kobori, vice-president of sustainability. "There is huge potential to drive new breakthroughs in our industry, business and products through sustainable innovation."

A European plan

While brands are working together for solutions, UK waste and resource body Wrap is leading a Europe-wide plan to significantly change the way clothing is made and disposed of. The European Clothing Action Plan (ECAP) is a €3.6 million pilot project funded through LIFE, the EU's financial instrument supporting environmental, nature conservation and climate action projects, and will work with brands, retailers, manufacturers, reuse and recycling organisations, charities and consumers (see panel, p.14). One of its missions is to support the design of garments and products in closed-loop production processes to reduce carbon, water and waste footprints by turning old clothes into new garments. Wrap is working with sustainability consultancy MADE-BY, Rijkswaterstaat (part of the Dutch environment and infrastructure ministry), DAFI and the London Waste and Recycling Board. All of the ECAP partners have experience in the field.

In the Netherlands, Rijkswaterstaat is working on the Dutch national programme, From waste to resource, which supports the creation of a circular economy, recycling and resource efficiency in several supply chains. It is hoped this work can be an example for clothing companies throughout Europe. DAFI will contribute by educating designers and manufacturers in the area of sustainable design.

Jonas Eder-Hansen, vice-president and development director at DAFI, says this is important because many of the problems associated with clothing production could be averted at the start of the process. "Up to 80% of a garment's environmental impact is decided in the design phase," he says. "Only a few designers and product developers realise their potential to create sustainable change through their decision. As part of ECAP, DAFI is creating an online learning platform for designers and product developers to fulfil their potential and design for longevity. The results will build on DAFI's long tradition of working with designers through its fashion source library of eco and innovative materials."

As part of the initiative, Wrap will be launching campaigns targeting consumers in association with recycle and reuse charities and organisations. The Love Your Clothes campaign, which is coordinated by Wrap and has been developed with the industry as part of the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), aims to raise awareness of the value of clothes, how to take care of them so they last longer, as well as what to do with unwanted items. SCAP was launched in 2013 and, in a progress report in November, Wrap said the sector was beginning to make positive changes to the way it designed and manufactured products. For example, there is a move towards more sustainable fibre choices where recycled material is chosen over virgin options, particularly for polyester. It also reported that the industry was moving away from conventional to lower impact cottons.

According to Zero Waste Scotland, about 350,000 tonnes of clothing are sent to landfill in the UK each year, while in the US the Council for Textile Waste claims 85% of discarded clothing goes straight to landfill sites.

Several clothing retailers, including HM and Marks Spencer, are pioneering efforts to collect and reuse garments. In February 2013, HM launched its garment collection initiative, which the Swedish-owned retailer claims was the first global scheme. It estimates that 95% of the textiles thrown away each year can be reworn or recycled, and reported earlier this year that it had collected 18,000 tonnes of clothing worldwide. In September, HM launched its first "close the loop" range of denim clothing, made using recycled cotton from the textiles collected. "Creating a closed loop for textiles, in which unwanted clothes can be recycled into new ones, will not only minimise textile waste, but also significantly reduce the need for virgin resources as well as other impacts fashion has on our planet," said Karl-Johan Persson, chief executive of HM.

The firm says it can use 20% recycled cotton from collected clothes and is investing in technology to increase this share without losing quality.

MS launched its "shwopping" scheme in partnership with Oxfam in 2012 as part of its Plan A sustainability strategy. It encourages customers take an old item of clothing into an MS store when they buy something new. The clothing is sent to Oxfam and sold in the charity's stores. Some items are forwarded to people in developing countries or they are recycled, with the fibre turned into new material. In the first year of the scheme, Oxfam reported that more than 6.9 million garments had been donated, worth up to £4.5 million to the charity.

Barriers to change

Claxton says there is so much to be done that many companies are unsure where to start. But price will always be a sticking point for many, especially in a climate in which stores are still competing through cost. "We have in a sense let the genie out of the bottle, and shoppers are now used to cheap, disposable clothes," she says. "Therefore we have to look at the manufacturing, and how that can not only lessen the consumption of energy and water, but also reduce costs."

MS has been concentrating on this as part of Plan A. Since 2007, under the guidance of the retailer, 102 of its largest clothing factories have adopted energy-efficiency measures, reducing costs by 10%. The retailer is also trying to tackle the problems associated with dyeing materials by working with four "eco dyehouses" – one in China, three in Turkey – to develop best practice on chemical management, water use, energy efficiency and waste.

Mike Barry, director of Plan A, says there remains more work to be done to achieve the sustainability goals the business has set for 2020. "In the months ahead we'll step up our efforts to help create a circular economy by joining up many existing initiatives and filling a few gaps with new ones," he says.

The fashion industry in the UK contributes £26 billion to the economy so it is understandable that measures to stem consumption may not be welcome, but with the right support it is hoped that the sector will continue to find ways to reduce the ecological impact while offering exciting new clothes.

Recycling materials

The problems of discarded textiles are well documented, from ending up in landfill to unsold charity donations flooding the developing world's local markets, and having an impact on homegrown clothing businesses.

However, there is now an emerging economy in recycled fibres, turning the waste material into new threads with which to create future fashion collections, or even provide insulation for housing.

US-based I:CO, which stands for I Collect, has partnered with brands including HM, American Eagle, Levi, North Face and Puma to replace materials with recycled options over the next five years. The company was founded in 2009 by Stephan Wiegand to tackle the mounting problem of textile waste.

Consumers donate unwanted items to local retailers, and these are delivered to an I:CO facility where there is a team of sorters. Any clothes good enough to be worn again are resold. The rest is sent to different stations depending on quality. Absorbent fabrics are put through a shredder and will eventually become windshield wipers. Others are pulled through massive rollers, and before fabrics are pressed, hard materials such as buttons are removed. The material is used to fill stuffed animals or turned into insulation

Meanwhile, Finnish company Pure Waste Textiles sources textile waste from global supply chains and reuses it to create new fabrics. Its flagship product is recycled denim, which has already been dyed, and therefore eliminates this particularly damaging aspect of making a pair of jeans.

Design systems

One aim of the European Clothing Action Plan is to encourage designers to take into account sustainability at the start of the creative process. New York-based designer June Sohn is an example of what can be achieved by thinking in sustainable terms. Her contemporary outwear line JUNGWON uses 100% recycled materials, and is worn by celebrities such as the singer Sam Smith, whose song Writing's on the wall features in the latest James Bond film, Spectre.

"After working at a fashion outerwear company, I moved to a company that launched alineof organic productsranging from baby
to adult," Sohn says. "During this time my eyes were opened to considering organic products more and their benefits. It made me realise we have to take more responsibility for the environment.Europe is very advanced in this area, and I studied [there] from the yarns to production to the complete product.

"From this I learnedI could make the choice to design with nature and the future world in mind – even though it costs more. Consumersappreciate the design and productbut I feel they need to be more educated about sustainable fashion.[They] are keen to learn more about eco-products for children but the mindset changes when adults shop for themselves as many have the priority to look good first; the ethical element is appreciated, but secondary."

Sohn says designers and manufacturers should continue to create collections that appeal to the consumer, yet ensure the clothes are sustainable.


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