Glam­our With­out Guilt?

Samir Alam ex­plains how sus­tain­able gar­ment pro­duc­tion works, and why it is the need of the hour.

Apparel - - Contents -

Ex­plor­ing sus­tain­abil­ity in gar­ment pro­duc­tion

It may be sur­pris­ing to know that the gar­ment pro­duc­tion and tex­tile in­dus­tries are the sec­ond most pol­lut­ing in­dus­tries in the world, the first be­ing oil and petroleum. A sin­gle t-shirt or pair of jeans re­quires ap­prox­i­mately 20,000 litres of wa­ter to pro­duce. More­over, there are over 8000 va­ri­eties of chem­i­cals which are used to turn raw ma­te­ri­als into fin­ished cloth­ing. Th­ese chem­i­cals in­clude var­i­ous dyes, ton­ers and fin­ish­ing prod­ucts, with agri­cul­tural prac­tices us­ing pes­ti­cides and in­sec­ti­cides, which are just as prom­i­nent. Apart from the pro­duc­tion process, the gar­ment in­dus­try is also no­to­ri­ous for its un­sold or dis­carded goods to­wards the end of the prod­uct’s shelf life. Th­ese un­used, un­sold, dam­aged or un­fash­ion­able pieces of cloth­ing are dis­carded into land­fills and garbage waste dumps. This means that the en­tire pro­duc­tion life cy­cle of fash­ion and tex­tiles has a pro­foundly neg­a­tive ef­fect on the en­vi­ron­ment and its re­sources. In sim­ple terms, the gar­ment pro­duc­tion in­dus­try is far from sus­tain­able.

THE SCI­ENCE OF SUS­TAIN­ABIL­ITY

The no­tion of sus­tain­abil­ity is com­monly as­so­ci­ated with en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and preser­va­tion. For the gar­ment pro­duc­tion in­dus­try, this re­lates to the meth­ods and pro­cesses that are uti­lized to pro­duce the fi­nal goods. Sus­tain­able pro­cesses are based on tak­ing into ac­count fac­tors out­side the typ­i­cal busi­ness for­mula of low­est costs and in­vest­ments. Since ev­ery eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity has an in­evitable side ef­fect on the en­vi­ron­ment, there is an un­cal­cu­lated cost borne by the en­vi­ron­ment. For ex­am­ple, in case of cars, there is the is­sue of smoke and car­bon emis­sions which are not fac­tored into its price. How­ever, the ef­flu­ence from th­ese ve­hi­cles dam­ages the en­vi­ron­ment and causes prob­lems down the line in the form of smog, acid rain and gen­eral pol­lu­tion. Th­ese ef­fects not only have a di­rect im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment, but also neg­a­tively af­fect other eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties, such as agri­cul­ture. This is why sus­tain­able prac­tices at­tempt to min­imise the neg­a­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal side ef­fects of eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties, so as to re­duce the over­all bur­den across all eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties, while at the same time, pre­serv­ing the en­vi­ron­ment and en­sur­ing long term sta­bil­ity. The idea of sus­tain­abil­ity isn’t in­tended to hin­der trade, but to en­sure that it can prop­a­gate in­def­i­nitely, with­out risk of fall­ing prey to en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors.

In the gar­ment in­dus­try, the num­ber of prod­ucts and items pro­duced are many, each of which re­lies on var­i­ous seg­ments. The goal of sus­tain­abil­ity in gar­ment pro­duc­tion is to en­sure that both the so­cio-eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal as­pects of the trade are pro­tected. The sec­tor is highly de­pen­dent on agri­cul­ture and labour, which makes this goal a crit­i­cal one, in the long run. For in­stance, the avoid­able pol­lu­tion of dyes and chem­i­cals in wa­ter bod­ies can di­rectly im­pact the health of the soil and neg­a­tively af­fect cot­ton pro­duc­tion. In ac­tual prac­tice, the needs of sus­tain­able gar­ment pro­duc­tion call for con­tin­u­ous ef­fort to im­prove ev­ery stage of the gar­ment pro­duc­tion life cy­cle – in­clud­ing de­sign, raw ma­te­rial pro­duc­tion, man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­cesses, in­ven­tory man­age­ment, lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port, mar­ket­ing, sale, im­ple­men­ta­tion, re­pair and re­cy­cling. The very life cy­cle of gar­ments is com­plex, and as a re­sult, has a greater neg­a­tive im­pact, thereby re­quir­ing a com­pre­hen­sive at­tempt at cre­at­ing sus­tain­abil­ity poli­cies.

The end goal of all sus­tain­abil­ity mea­sures is to en­sure that the im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment doesn’t im­pede the nat­u­ral re­sources on which trade de­pends. In spe­cific mea­sures, it also in­cludes the pro­tec­tion of th­ese nat­u­ral re­sources in the form of wa­ter and land preser­va­tion, as well as over­all pro­tec­tion of the ecosys­tem and bio­di­ver­sity. It also calls for re­assess­ing our power gen­er­a­tion sys­tems, mov­ing from fos­sil fu­els to re­new­able en­ergy sources, such as wind and so­lar en­ergy, across the life cy­cle. Fi­nally, it also calls for en­sur­ing that goods aren’t un­nec­es­sar­ily dis­posed and in­stead re­paired, re­made, reused and re­cy­cled. Such a com­pre­hen­sive ap­proach is nec­es­sary, given the sever­ity of im­pact that the cur­rent age of ‘fast fash­ion’ has on the world.

WASTE NOT, WANT NOT

It is hard to imag­ine the scale of the gar­ment in­dus­try. Cur­rently, more than 20 items of cloth­ing are pro­duced per per­son, ev­ery year. This means that, ir­re­spec­tive of how many items one per­son may ac­tu­ally pur­chase, there are over 140 bil­lion items of cloth­ing be­ing man­u­fac­tured. This is the re­sult of ‘fast fash­ion’ as a trend, where a large num­ber of goods are pro­duced at a steady rate, in order to be quickly re­placed and dis­carded with each pro­duc­tion cy­cle. This as­pect of con­sumerism en­sures that th­ese ‘fast fash­ion’ items are cheaply pro­duced and sold at a cheap price, mak­ing them more ap­peal­ing and pop­u­lar. How­ever, due to their fre­quent re­design and reis­sue, the num­ber of fash­ion sea­sons has gone from be­ing two ev­ery year, to as many as 50-100 mi­cro-sea­sons, each with new styles and trends. This has also re­sulted in con­sumers now pur­chas­ing, on av­er­age, 60 per cent more cloth­ing items than they did 20 years ago, but hold­ing on to those items for only half as long as be­fore. As a re­sult, the older items are dis­carded more fre­quently, caus­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age.

280,000 bil­lion litres of wa­ter are spent on gar­ment man­u­fac­tur­ing ev­ery year. Cot­ton ac­counts for over 33 per cent of all fi­bres used. As a re­sult, it is widely cul­ti­vated as a cash crop for trade and in it­self con­sumes 2,700 litres of wa­ter to grow. To put it in con­text, 2,700 litres of wa­ter is an av­er­age per­son’s con­sump­tion of wa­ter for two and a half years. This is the nor­mal process, at a time when ma­jor parts of the world, such as ar­eas in Cen­tral Asia, are fac­ing a se­vere wa­ter cri­sis. It should also be noted that the rea­son for this wa­ter cri­sis is di­rectly linked to wa­ter con­sump­tion, due to cot­ton cul­ti­va­tion. The Aral Sea in Cen­tral Asia has neared de­ple­tion

mainly due to ex­ces­sive and ag­gres­sive cot­ton farm­ing in the re­gion. Futher­more, this cul­ti­va­tion is also re­spon­si­ble for over 24 per cent of pes­ti­cide us­age, while oc­cu­py­ing three per cent of the world’s arable land. Dur­ing the in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion phase, lots of ef­flu­ent wa­ter is voided into the ex­ist­ing wa­ter bod­ies, fur­ther pol­lut­ing it. Nearly 20 per cent of in­dus­trial wa­ter pol­lu­tion has been traced to gar­ment man­u­fac­tur­ing, which uses over five tril­lion litres of wa­ter each year for dye­ing fab­ric.

Even in case of polyester goods, which aren’t linked to cul­ti­va­tion, there is rea­son to be con­cerned. Although they don’t have as much im­pact on soil and wa­ter, they pro­duce more green­house gasses per kilo­gram than cot­ton. For ex­am­ple, a polyester shirt has twice the amount of car­bon foot­print than a cot­ton shirt and as a part of the tex­tiles in­dus­try, it has con­trib­uted over 700 bil­lion kilo­grams of green­house gasses in 2015 – which is the same as 185 coal based power plants’ out­put for the whole year. All of th­ese cu­mu­la­tive ef­fects are in­ex­orably linked to cli­mate change and can’t be ig­nored.

GO­ING GREEN

Gar­ment pro­duc­tion isn’t ex­pected to re­duce any­time in the fu­ture. With new con­sumers in Asia in­creas­ing ev­ery year, the de­mand is only go­ing to rise. The num­ber of mid­dle-class con­sumers is pro­jected to in­crease from three bil­lion to over 5.4 bil­lion by 2030. This will lead to a 300 per cent rise in the con­sump­tion of nat­u­ral re­sources by 2050. At this rate of growth, the re­sources nec­es­sary to main­tain large scale, cheap pro­duc­tion of gar­ments will be se­verely set back. The world does not have in­fi­nite re­sources and will in­evitably col­lapse or cause wide­spread de­struc­tion.

While there are many re­forms and changes that will be needed to truly re­ori­ent the gar­ment sec­tor from its cur­rent tra­jec­tory, ev­ery small change is im­por­tant. For ex­am­ple, cor­po­ra­tions can use the Sus­tain­able Ap­parel Coali­tion’s Higg In­dex to eval­u­ate and mea­sure the im­pact their prod­ucts have on the en­vi­ron­ment. By look­ing at ma­jor play­ers, who have al­ready be­gun to move to­wards sus­tain­abil­ity, a lot more can be learnt quickly. Com­pa­nies like H&M and Zara have joined forces with 33 other com­pa­nies to work on cloth­ing re­cy­cling. Other brands are in­vest­ing re­search into how to change the de­pen­den­cies on crit­i­cal nat­u­ral re­sources like wa­ter, while some com­pa­nies like Mud Jeans and Rent the Run­way, are ex­per­i­ment­ing with a cloth­ing rental model of busi­ness. The greater goal, while dif­fi­cult and hard to achieve, needs to be­gin at ev­ery de­ci­sion point in the busi­ness. Oth­er­wise, the very vi­a­bil­ity of the ap­parel sec­tor will be at risk.

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