The fashion industry has a big impact on our environment and ecological system. Climate change, biodiversity, ecological imbalance are major concerns where the fashion industry is one of the biggest contributors. On the other hand, COVID-19 has created a big impact on the business of Fashion. Today as much as nature needs a revival of industry the Fashion industry equally needs sustainability to survive.
Were you ever told how much land was used to make one T-shirt or shirt or dress you wear? How many chemicals, how much energy, how much electricity, how many man-hours were used to produce your single piece garment? How your leather jacket or woolen sweater was made? How your viscose or linen clothes were made? How polyester or nylon tracks were made? Where do used clothes land to?
The Bitter Truth about the Textile and Apparel Industry
- More than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilization and the lack of recycling, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
- By 2030 global apparel consumption is projected to rise by 63%, from 62 million tons today to 102 million tons—equivalent to more than 500 billion additional T-shirts.
- Around 300,000 tonnes of textile waste ends up in household black bins every year, sent to landfills or incinerators. Only 1% of apparel products are recycled globally.
- Above 800,000 tonnes of waste is produced during the process of fibers, yarns, fabric, and garment production.
- The annual retail value of apparel and footwear is expected to reach €2 trillion by 2030 which would be over 30% increase from now €500 billion.
- One kilogram of cotton – equivalent to the weight of a shirt and pair of jeans – can take as much as 10,000–20,000 liters of water to produce. Globally, the fashion industry consumes an estimated 79 billion cubic meters of fresh water annually.
- A polyester shirt has more than double the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt (5.5 kg CO2e vs. 2.1 kg CO2e).
- Textile production is a major contributor to climate change. It produces an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year. Across the full lifecycle of clothing globally, the industry has an annual carbon footprint of 3.3 billion tonnes CO2e.
- As per the UN, the global population may reach 9.6 billion by 2050, the equivalent of almost three planets could be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles.
- Over 90% of workers in the global garment industry have no possibility to negotiate their wages and conditions, according to the global trade union IndustriALL.
- Many factories still pay lesser than minimum wages. Even UK-based factories have been forced to pay £90,000 as a penalty for not paying minimum wages to their employees.
- Many factories still do not fulfill social compliances. This means many factories run with under 18 years age workers.
What is Sustainability in Fashion and Apparel Industry?
Sustainability is the concept of doing business where the ecological balance, optimum resource utilization, minimum wastage, and level of integrity, well being and care are maintained. Today, many reputed brands like Asos, H&M, Esprit, and Inditex have taken the initiative to implement sustainability in their products and supply chain. On the other hand, it is still shocking that luxury brands like Versace, Valentino, Guess, Benetton, and Foot Locker are non-compliant.
What needs to change?
1. Fiber Production
For the production of cotton fibers, a big land area is used. Moreover, due to chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides land is getting polluted causing irrigation loss. Organic cotton and BCI cotton are the first steps towards producing sustainable cotton fibers.
Production of fibers like wool and furs involves animal cruelty. Guidelines to produce these fibers without harming animals and recycling old clothes are ways to sustainable fiber production.
Among man-made fibers, polyester and Nylon use big amount of petroleum products which may cause petroleum scarcity in the future. Regenerated and recycled polyester are ways forward to sustainable fiber production.
Among man-made fibers from natural resources viscose, bamboo, and linen fibers are produced from trees and plants which create pollution and bio-diversity. Production of these fibers under the guideline using certified resources can help the environment and ecological imbalance.
2. Fabric Production
After the fiber production fabric production plays a vital role in the Fashion and Apparel industry. The types and amount of chemicals, amount of water, electricity and other resources used should be in a manner that minimum resource is used, used water, air, and waste material create minimum pollution to the environment. Similarly, fabric production from the recycled yarns is important to optimize resource utilization and minimize wastage.
Leather being produced from animals’ skin is causing the killing of animals which has a huge impact on ecological imbalance. Production of vegan leather on an industrial level would be a great revolution towards the sustainable fashion industry.
3. Apparel Production
As fiber is the raw material for fabric production similarly the fabric is the raw material for garment manufacturing. It is important that apparel manufacturing facility uses the technology and manpower skill to support sustainable garment production from sustainable fabric.
Garment or apparel industry 10%-20% wastage produced during the process of knitting, cutting, sewing, washing, printing, and packing. The technologies like producing the whole garment from one machine or one man (like sweaters) can minimize wastage to the great extent.
The global fashion and luxury industry are worth $2.5 trillion. As per the Centre for the Promotion of Imports, Europe imports about $200 billion worth of clothing every year. As per AFC International, the US imports $80 billion worth of clothing and textile every year. The purchase of apparel products per person is quite high in western countries. Also, due to the competitive market and cheap price customers buying frequency is very high resulting in higher consumption and products being used for much lesser time than its durability.
5. Buying Habits of Customers
Being in the industry we all know that consumption is one of the biggest concerns today as this is the origin for most of the issues. For growing population, urbanization & growing economy buying of fashion products have been one of the main activities in today’s lifestyle. But there is nothing wrong with it, the problem is when fashion started we never thought that it would grow so big in the future; we did not plan the rules to monitor the business of fashion to function as it should have been. Related to consumption, we have problems at two stages, one at the customer level & another at the retailers’ level. Usage of products by end customer has reduced; sell-through at the retail level is low causing $500 billion worth of products unused. This is concerning for our ecosystem & planet. We are contributing to climate change.
6. Using sustainable products
The biggest challenge today is the implementation of systems when the industry is so big, supply chain & production systems are not ready with the facility to make implement. They need big natural resources & funds to implement whereas most of them are struggling with the financial crisis. One main reason why factories are in bad condition is the pricing strategy brands have followed. Sales have been driven by low price strategies. This has reduced the cost and margins at the factory level. Many factories work even without margins so that they can run their production lines. Customers are used to buying at a cheaper price. This makes the situation more difficult when sustainable products are going to cost higher.
Government can play a major role in making policies that can make people aware and responsible for buying sustainable products. Brands also have a vital role to play to support the sustainable business model throughout their supply chain.
It’s high time we realize and react responsibly. Sustainable fashion is a way forward for the fashion industry. Brands would need to take initiative very seriously. Through marketing campaigns, customers need to be made aware of the importance of the sustainable products. At the same time suppliers and sub-suppliers need to be trained and encouraged to implement sustainable production systems. Transparency should be maintained in the supply chain. Systems to record and trace should be put in the place.
While the industry has been working hard across India, China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and other countries to adopt sustainable production systems but yet a lot needs to be done till we switch to 100% sustainable products. We still do not have replacements for many fabrics like polyester, viscose, silk, and animal products like leather and fur.
The governments would play a major role in upgrading technologies & innovations, setting up research centers, providing incentives, and making policies to support sustainable fashion business. Strict policies against violations and pollution directly or indirectly would require monitoring the sustainable business.
Post COVID-19 pandemic the fashion and apparel industry needs a big revolution in the business process. Sustainability is a way forward for the fashion and apparel industry to survive.