Sustainability In The Apparel World - I

June 28, 2023

Recent headlines have highlighted concerns with the environmental sustainability of the apparel industry and accusations that some apparel companies are “greenwashing” their products.

How can you determine sustainability in the apparel world? When does sustainability messaging cross the line to greenwashing? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. To help provide a clearer understanding, our next series of topics will look at our industry’s environmental footprint (sustainability) and some of the misleading claims (greenwashing) being made.

As a start, what is environmental sustainability and what is greenwashing?

Sustainability is the concept of producing and consuming clothing in a way that minimizes negative impacts on the environment, society, and economy, both now and for future generations. Sustainability involves adopting practices that consider the entire lifecycle of garments, from the sourcing of raw materials to their disposal. It is about fostering a more mindful and responsible approach to clothing production, decoration, use and disposal.

Greenwashing refers to deceptive marketing practices where companies make misleading, false or unsubstantiated claims about their products or practices to give the impression that they are ‘greener’ or more environment-friendly than they actually are.

Let's explore several apparel industry practices that have impacted environmental sustainability. As you’ll see, it’s complicated!

Keeping us clothed is a $1.5 trillion industry that casts a large and growing footprint. The average person today buys 60% more clothing than they did 20 years ago and wears them for only half as long1. This trajectory has been fueled by “fast fashion,” a phenomenon where stylish, inexpensive clothes are mass produced and discarded as soon as fashion styles change.

Synthetic FabricsTwo thirds of modern clothing is made from petroleum-derived synthetic fabrics and the use of synthetic fibers has doubled since 20002. These fabrics now make up most athletic garments and are prevalent in our everyday apparel.

Environmental Impact Apparel manufacturing casts a large environmental footprint. According to the World Bank, the fashion industry uses over 93 billion cubic meters of water. That’s enough to meet the needs of five hundred million people. An estimated 20% of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric treatments alone. The fashion industry contributes 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. At its current rate, the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions are expected to increase by more than 50% in the next 10 years.

Waste Less than 1% of used clothing today is recycled or reused. The United Nations terms the large volumes of apparel waste being generated as “an environmental and social emergency” for the planet. The numbers are staggering. Three-fifths of all clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators within a year of production. This translates to a truckload of discarded clothing being dumped or burned every second. Most used clothing finds its way to countries in Africa, South America or southern Asia - countries that are now overwhelmed by the amounts of clothing they have collected. In Ghana, the pile of discarded clothing on the outskirts of the capital has risen to 65 feet. The Atacama Desert in Chile, once NASA’s testing site for the Mars Rovers, is now better known for being the world’s fastest-growing dump for discarded clothing1.

Looking for ‘Greener’ Choices Now that we've examined the apparel industry’s impact on our environment. The good news is that major brands and retailers have been moving to more sustainable and environment-friendly practices. But are these practices as ‘green’ as they appear? It’s complicated - here are some facts to consider. Major brands and retailers have focused much of their efforts on materials, not on the efficiencies that might be gained from processes involved in their supply chains. Textile mills, for example, are responsible for three-quarters of a garment’s lifecycle emissions.3 Any efficiency gained from processing fibers into yarns and then into textiles could have a significant impact on a garment’s lifecycle environmental footprint.

Cotton farm

Fabrics today may or may not be as environment-friendly as you think. As we noted above, most garments today are made with synthetic fabrics. It might seem that organic cotton would be a greener choice. Would your perception change if you knew that it takes hundreds of gallons of water to grow, dye and treat one cotton shirt, and that many polyester shirts are now being spun from recycled plastic bottles?  What if you then consider that synthetic fabrics made from recycled plastic may speed that plastic’s path to a landfill. PET bottles can be recycled over 10 times.3 The same cannot be said for recycled plastic that is used just once to make a fast-fashion synthetic garment that is likely worn a few times before being discarded.

Many brands and retailers have environmental initiatives directed to the materials used to decorate apparel. They have limited their materials to conform to regulatory requirements and to ‘greener’ choices. But are these choices truly ‘greener’?

Textile screen inks, for example, are plastic based. Plastisols are the most notable example. Many people view waterbase inks as greener, thinking it’s a choice of water over plastic; but waterbase inks, like plastisols, are plastic based. Regardless, the attention paid to textile inks often masks the fact that they typically represent less than 5% of a finished garment by weight, and the balance is often the non-degradable synthetic fabric. In our next installment, we’ll take a closer look at apparel inks and explore the differences and impacts of the most popular screen inks and their print processes.

1Source: National Geographic
3Source: The Guardian - Are clothes made from recycled materials really more sustainable?