Perspective - Managers' views
The material consequences of choosing sustainable fashion
More and more consumers are voting with their wallets to demand more sustainable textiles. The shift has huge implications for one of the planet’s largest industries.
The textile industry - primarily the business of cloth and clothing - produces close to 100 million tonnes of fibres every year. This number is only set to grow as purchasing power in emerging markets rises.
The industry - and its growth - has huge consequences for the environment and climate change, producing some 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. However, an increasing number of consumers, aware of the impact that clothing choices can have on the environment, are changing their buying habits.
For an industry that makes $3 trillion per year in revenues and employs nearly 60 million workers globally, this has material consequences for investors too.
In facts and figures
- 66% of global consumers say they are willing to pay more for sustainable goods – up from 55% in 2014 and 50% in 2013, according to Nielsen data.
- Millennials continue to be most willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings – almost three-out-of-four respondents in the latest findings, up from approximately half in 2014.
- In emerging markets, more than 65% of emerging consumers have been found to actively seek out sustainable fashion1.
What’s wrong with textiles?
Even if we focus just on carbon emissions and water consumption, textile production is one of the most polluting industries globally.
The textile industry produces more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping. The production of 1 tonne of textiles generates 17 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, compared to 3.5 tonnes for plastic and less than 1 tonne for paper2.
Over 60% of textiles are used in the clothing industry, and a large proportion of clothing manufacturing occurs in China and India, countries that rely on coal-fuelled power plants. This increases the carbon footprint of each garment.
The materials produced also has a noticeable effect on emissions from manufacturing. It is estimated that a single polyester t-shirt has emissions of 5.5 kg CO2, compared with 2.1 kg CO2 for one made from cotton3.
If the industry continues on its current path, by 2050, it could use more than 26% of the carbon budget “allowed” by the Paris Accord4 to keep global temperature rises to the 2°C target.
Textiles production (including cotton farming) uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water annually, representing 4% of global freshwater withdrawal5. Cotton, while less carbon intensive than polyester, is the most water intensive fibre to produce.
Beyond production, washing clothing using washing machines is estimated to require an additional 20 billion cubic metres of water per year globally6.
Furthermore, while there is little data on ”substances of concern” used across the industry, it is recognised that textile production discharges high volumes of water containing hazardous chemicals into the environment. As an example, the World Bank estimates that 20% of industrial water pollution globally is attributable to the dyeing and treatment of textiles7.
What are the solutions?
For one, fibre producers that have sustainable sourcing (i.e. that have certified & controlled sources), have “closed loop” systems avoiding waste, and have sustainable processing of biomass, have the best carbon footprints.
There are also emerging innovations that change the way textiles are dyed in order to save water, chemical and energy use. Digital printing is one example.
One of the most effective changes could be promoting wood-based “cellulosic” fibre use. Wood-based cellulosic fibres are only 6% of fibres in use today, but their use is outgrowing other fibres such as cotton, polyester, and synthetics.
Modal fibres are a type of cellulosic fibre that are made from regenerated cellulose fibre. It is 50% more water absorbent per unit volume than cotton, and consumes less water in production. Modal is also resistant to shrinkage, stays colour fast when washed in warm water, and is breathable and silky smooth to the touch. Another would be Lyocell, which is a fibre made from the natural polymer cellulose found in wood. It is 100% biodegradable, and it is made in a closed loop process, which means the water and non-toxic solvents are virtually all reused.
Cellulosic fibres like lyocell and modal consume far less energy than synthetic fibres, and consequently are lower carbon emitters than the main alternatives on the market. They also don’t have the water withdrawal issues that cotton possesses.
Using these types of fibres could further limit the climate damage from textiles or clothes through their life cycle. Most life cycle emissions of clothes arise from the “use” phase. Washing and drying clothing alone is estimated to account for 120 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent8. Fast drying products – able to improve appliance efficiency through lower temperature washing – could offer a major improvement upon the emissions associated with existing fibres.
Some fibres can enable faster drying, mainly cellulose and wool blends. Home appliances are also getting more efficient, which will help reduce carbon emissions. More recycling of fibres/extension of garment life – i.e. “slower” fashion and better-quality items – will also help.
What is being done?
Change, encouragingly, is looking more likely now than ever. The UK Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee published its proposals for improving the sustainability of the fashion industry in February. Recommendations include strengthening the Modern Slavery Act, using taxation as a way to penalise companies selling products with higher environmental impacts, and introducing an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme to reduce waste.
There is growing momentum in China too, which has focused on building a greener supply chain within the fashion and textile industries for some time, via its five-year plan. In January, the China National Textile and Apparel Council revealed national ambitions to forge a new image under three new labels “Technology, Fashion and Green” and it specified intentions to tighten its grip on environmental issues.
1 Source: Cotton Lifestyle Monitor (n.d.) as cited in Business of Fashion (2016), The State of Fashion 2017
2 Source: Eunomia, The potential contribution of waste management to a low carbon economy (2015)
3 This is because the former is produced from fossil fuels such as crude oil. In 2015, production of polyester for textiles use results in more than 706 billion kg of CO2e
4 Compared to the IEA 2°C pathway 2050 which allows for 15.3 giga tonnes of CO2 equivalent
5 Source: World Bank, AQUASTAT, and FAO, Dataset: Annual freshwater withdrawals, total (2014)
6 Calculation based on Circular Fibres Initiative analysis and following sources: Pakula, C., Stamminger, R., Electricity and water consumption for laundry washing by washing machine worldwide (2009)
7 Source: Kant, R., Textile dyeing industry: An environmental hazard, Natural Science, Vol. 4, 1 (2012), p.23
8 Source: Calculation based on Circular Fibres Initiative analysis and following sources: Pakula, C., Stamminger, R., Electricity and water consumption for laundry washing by washing machine worldwide (2009); Dupont, Consumer Laundry Study (2013)
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