Remaining dressed up and preserving the planet turns out to be one of the greatest challenges of humankind

As of 2015, the global textiles market was estimated at ~$830bn, representing ~1.1% of the world GDP that year. Total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for the apparel industry stand at 3.3Gt of CO2, which represent ~6.7% of global GHG emissions. Additionally, more than $500bn worth of clothes end up in landfill or get incinerated every year due to fast fashion trends causing a dramatic fall in utilization periods, and ineffective recycling system. According to consulting firm Quantis, if the apparel & footwear industry does not adjust its practices, its impact on climate change would increase 49% by 2030. Textile production, including cotton cultivation, uses ~93 billion cubic meters of water per year, equivalent to ~4% of global freshwater withdrawal.

Key indicators of the apparel industry’s environmental & health impact

Chart 1

Source: Quantis, Insights from the Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries study, 2018

Major challenges for the apparel industry include: the rationalization of water usage when growing natural fibers and manufacturing clothes; opting out of hazardous chemicals during product preparation, dyeing, processing and finishing, and of processes harmful to human health like sand blasting for denims; finding more sustainable ways to ensure a fairer wealth allocation between workers at every step of the value chain; using renewable energy sources to power the entire product life cycle; implementing energy efficient manufacturing processes; shortening distances traveled by raw materials and finished goods during transportation; and creating a full circular loop using recycled fibers.

We can breakdown the life cycle of a cloth to better understand which steps contributing to the industry’s GHG emissions and other types of contamination should and can be tackled by the sector’s players. These can be split between 1) raw material procurement, 2) manufacturing processes, 3) distribution and maintenance, and 4) waste management.

Contribution to the apparel industry’s impact on climate change by processes

Chart 2

 Source: Quantis, Insights from the Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries study, 2018

 

1. Raw material procurement

As we are starting to transition into a more circular economy, new raw materials will still be needed in places where the waste collection and recycling systems are under developed, places which happen to be where the population will grow the fastest over the coming decades. This reminds us how focused should “western” countries and companies be on helping developing economies accelerate waste management investments.

The sustainable transition for this step of the cycle then consists in producing plastic-based fibers like nylon and polyester with renewably bio sourced materials, and any other natural material through regenerative agricultural practices such as combining organic cotton harvesting with agro-ecological technics. Regarding bio sourced plastic-based fibers, we still need to be extremely careful and tackle the microfiber issue. Indeed, we need to make sure that this new type of plant-based plastic does not imply the release of 700,000 microplastics during each washing machine cycle, which then harm marine life in ways that just begin to be studied and understood. This is also a major topic to be tackled when assessing the long term viability and relevance of upcycling projects which use recycled PET bottles to manufacture clothes. To avoid so, customers owning synthetic clothes and wishing to avoid adding microplastics into the oceans can either do their laundry using Guppyfriend bags or add a Cora Ball before starting their washing machine. Companies are also working on biological processes to engineer sustainable and natural materials. French company Carbios is known for its breakthrough in developing bio sourced polymers which are biodegradable or can be collected and recycled. Other companies working on revolutionary technologies include Mobius, which engineers a chemical process to produce pelletized resin for the polymer industry using lignin, enabling the end product to eventually biodegrade releasing water, compost and CO2; Novomer and Tethis, both of which develop sustainable plant-based chemicals and polymers from renewable feedstocks; and Orange Fibers, which synthetized a patented silk-like cellulose yarn from citrus juice byproducts that can blend with other materials. Other innovative new materials can be created out of algae (algalife, AlgiKnit), agricultural waste (Green Whisper, Agraloop), mushrooms (MycoTEX, Amadou Leather), bioengineered molecules (Provenance) and recycled fibers (Orbital).

Technological progresses are also made in order to find water & energy efficient, sustainably cultivated and economically viable natural fibers. For example, flax can be grown with less water and fewer pesticides than cotton, and at a lower cost. Sustainably cultivated, the grain is used by the food industry while the fiber is relevant to the textile and construction sectors. Hemp, a plant part of the cannabis family, offers similar perks than flax and is seeing tremendous production growth as society becomes increasingly aware of its benefits. Lyocell is another natural material gaining in popularity as it uses less water and acreage than cotton. It is made by combining wood pulp with the nontoxic solvent amine oxide, which is almost entirely recovered and reused in a closed-loop manufacturing process. However, two shadows on this material’s characteristics are its predominant eucalyptus sourcing, which destroys biodiversity around it when grown due to its toxicity, and the impact from transportation as the major producer is South Africa. Conventional grown cotton is a class-E material according to Made-BY’s environmental benchmark for fibers but becomes a Class-B when organically cultivated.

Given that synthetic fibers are expected to represent 75% of global apparel fibers by 2030, it is absolutely key to find sustainable ways to manufacture and discard / reuse them. According to IHS Markit, the biodegradable plastics market could grow from $1.1bn in 2018 to $1.7bn by 2023.

 

2. Manufacturing processes

According to Quantis, the combined impact on climate change of the apparel industry’s manufacturing processes amounts to ~5.6% (cf. image above), representing the strategic phases to optimize in order to reduce the industry’s current 6.7% figure. From yarn preparation to assembly, there are tremendous improvements that can be made to reduce manufacturing processes’ water and carbon footprint. Although lacking data on the hazardous chemicals used across the industry, 20% of industrial water contamination globally is attributable to the dyeing and treatment of textiles. As of 2012, China’s textile industry expelled 2.5 trillion liters of wastewater into its rivers annually. Considering that global demand for water is expected to increase by 20% to 30% between 2016 and 2050, and that the textile industry consumes over 6 trillion liters of water annually (third biggest behind the energy and agriculture sectors), reducing its water needs going forward is critical.

Global material flows for clothing in 2015

 Chart 3

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, November 2017

Innovations allowing for less or no water usage during manufacturing processes include companies like DyeCoo and WeaReSpinDye, which developed a water free dyeing process; AirDye for plastic-based material, which enables reduction of up to 95% in water consumption, 86% in energy use and 84% in GHG emissions compared to traditional printing and dyeing technologies; and ColorZen for cotton, allowing dyeing facilities to reduce water and chemicals consumption by 90% and 95%, respectively, while increasing their production capacity by up to 300%. Dragon developed a water purification technology using lightning, which would help textile manufacturing facility clean their wastewater and close the loop. Acticell develops environment friendly and economically interesting solutions for textile dyeing and bleaching during the manufacturing process, avoiding the use of sand, water, chemicals and energy which are harmful to workers’ health and Nature. Finally, Reverse Resources enables manufacturing facilities to understand how they could extract value from leftovers instead of discarding them.

Biology can also help in the manufacturing process step of a cloth, especially the coloring as explained by designer Natsai Audrey Chieza in her Ted talk appearance. Startups revolutionizing the color industry include Pili, Nature Coatings and Vienna Textile Lab. Other innovations like Dropel’s enable natural fabrics like cotton to match synthetic fibers’ performance while preserving its natural features.

Nanotechnology developments are also laying the ground for advanced textile applications, creating new materials with smart capabilities. These need to be integrated into a sustainable manufacturing process and to enter the circular economy. Another breakthrough innovation, 3D printing, may also soon disrupt the entire apparel and footwear industry. 3D U-Knit is a technology co-developed by Uniqlo’s parent company which performs a 3D knitting process, eliminating seams, thus making the product less vulnerable and reducing scrap fabrics. 3D printing technology being developed by Loughborough University or Reebok could radically change the way current supply chains are structured in the industry today. Although these technologies would reduce the need for finish goods’ transportation and the constant use of mold in shoe manufacturing, impacts from chemicals and fabrics involved in the process need to be properly assessed.

 

3. Distribution and maintenance

The Distribution and Maintenance phase is when the item’s life as a finished product begins. This step includes transportation, distribution channels and usage of the product. If apparel brands and their suppliers can have an impact on carbon emissions generated by the transportation phase of their goods by choosing lower emission fleets of vehicles, they can also opt for a supply chain “closer to home” from an end customer perspective. That means that apparel brands would outsource the various steps of the value chain to suppliers located in areas optimally spread from raw material procurement to retail distribution based on a product or group of products life cycle’s environmental footprint while remaining economically sensical.

Chart 4

Innovative technologies like augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) can also deeply modify purchasing habits and potentially help reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. Instead of going to a shop the customer would put his VR mask and use the brand’s app to scroll and try clothes, looking at a virtual mirror. Once done filling up the shopping cart, placing the order and paying, the brand can calculate algorithmically how to optimize the financial and environmental cost of delivering the order either at pickup points or at home. Depending on transportation habits, the avoidance of a shopping trip can lower emissions. Also, the impact of such a trend could impact a brand’s strategy regarding new store openings. However, the benefits of AR in this case are probably counterproductive as adding energy consumption to the balance while not curbing down mobility linked to the product’s selling process.

Alternatively and using existing mass market technologies, there are a number of companies selling products manufactured by ethical and sustainable fashion brands like platforms WeDressFair, Avenir 02, Sloweare, Market45, or also soon Clothparency. These enable customers to buy sustainable fashion products, whose respect to workers and the environment during its life cycle relies on labels or proprietary assessments. Customers’ behavior is an extremely powerful driver to change this industry as the act to buy could be less frequent but more expensive, enabling people to afford sustainably designed, made and distributed apparel products for an even budget.

During the wearing phase, new technologies can save water, energy, and reduce chemicals’ contamination. Tersus Solutions developed an industrial washing machine for the dry-cleaning industry using liquid carbon dioxide that consumes less water, removes the need for drying and is cheaper per unit of solvent used.

 

4. Waste management

Fast fashion created considerably more “waste” as the average consumer purchased 60% more garments per year in 2014 compared to 2000, while keeping them half as long. Collected textile waste can be either recycled or upcycled within the apparel industry either as yarn or knitted products, but can also be used for new applications including building insulation materials, wiping cloths or mattress stuffing.

Growth of clothing sales and decline in clothing utilization since 2000

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Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, November 2017

Companies like Worn Again, Texloop recycling, or Blue Jeans Go Green are developing innovative technics to extract valuable materials from used clothes and thus foster the circular economy. For such high volumes, the Fibersort technology allows for fast sorting by fiber composition. Others startups such as La vie est belt or Les Recuperables upcycle bicycle tires or old clothes and pieces of textile and sell the new products directly to customers, while concurrently having a positive social impact. For end customers willing to put their old clothes into the recycling/upcycling loop, they can drop them off in containers operated by Le Relais in France, which will then be either resold as is in stores at low prices, or recycled for the industrial or building insulation sectors, or eventually destroyed using an energy recovery process. Even dominant brands like H&M now have garment-collecting boxes in all their stores globally, accepting any cloth & textiles from any brand.

Outside of the traditional brick & mortar network of second-hand stores, apparel reuse is expanding through a “cloth renting” model. Depending on shipping volumes and practices (home delivery vs. pickup points regarding transportation and packaging), these models can help reduce the apparel industry’s environmental impact by developing predictive software tools for manufacturing needs based on user growth and rental frequency, while keeping the product in a closed loop as long as the customer does not exercise his purchase option. Startups offering such services include Le Tote, Gwynnie Bee, Flyrobe, The Mr. & Ms. Collection, Style Lend, or Tale Me.

 

Conclusion

Most experts on this matter, like the European initiative TCBL Textile & Clothing Business Labs or the non-profit organization Ethique sur l’étiquette, acknowledge that the decrease in clothing prices is unprecedented and that the discount benefiting customers is taken from lower production costs with disastrous impacts on workers’ health and the environment. Policies and initiatives launched by the EU will foster the change from the top as companies understand the need for a more sustainable industry. However, other countries like China currently hosting manufacturing facilities supplying major apparel brands worldwide are not especially fond of letting this source of wealth and employment move abroad. Even though losing shares of the global textile and clothing market, predominantly to Vietnam, China still represents more than a third of this market. In textile fiber production terms, China represented more than half of the world’s production in 2016. In 2015, the production value of textile industry accounted for 7% of China’s GDP. In addition, considering the investments made in this sector, textile and clothing appears to be a highly strategic industry to preserve for Chinese officials.

Logically, companies are starting to tackle such issues with the cheapest solutions and involving customers as much as possible, often through greenwashing projects. Like plastic collection promoted by industrials, major apparel brands like H&M start to push consumers to act by bringing their clothes back in stores. However, when thinking about major investments involving relocations of some manufacturing lines or significant supply chain efficiency measures to minimize environmental impacts, such decisions are in essence made and implemented in the long term, seemingly dealt with too slowly.

A number of initiatives emerged in the textile industry to label sustainable fibers. Ecolabel Index counts 107 ecolabels on textiles. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition developed the Higg Index, enabling industry players to assess their environmental footprint of their production cycle, in their manufacturing facilities and during the retail phase. Like designer Martine Jarlgaard and startup Provenance, blockchain technology has already started to help end customers understand where their clothes are coming from, thus opening new ways to consume responsibly.

Such initiatives promote transparent, understandable, comparable and publicly released information from industry participants, which is a major step toward a sustainable product or brand life-cycle analysis searchable by a customer. In order to foster this commendable behavior and apart from second-hand clothes, consumers should always privilege brands which effectively implement as many best practices as possible from a social and environmental perspective, thus usually paying a higher price but less often.

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