Glamour Without Guilt?
Samir Alam explains how sustainable garment production works, and why it is the need of the hour.
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.
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.