The fashion industry is having a profoundly negative effect on the environment. Unsustainable practices lurk in every stage of garment manufacture. From the huge amounts of water and hazardous toxins involved in producing textile fibres to the excessive waste driven by consumer culture and fast fashion. The good news is that the public and media are showing a growing interest in sustainable fashion and new sustainable fabrications and practices are constantly being developed. There are, however, numerous issues still present within these sustainable advancements, and many options that are presented as sustainable are not all that they seem.
When considering sustainable practices in the fashion industry it is important to investigate all stages of the product cycle, beginning with fabric production. In recent years, there have been many advancements in sustainable fabrications. While many of these advancements are genuine progress in sustainability it is important to consider both the positive and negative impacts of different fabrics. Organic cotton is marketed as an alternative to conventional cotton that has a significantly lower negative impact on the environment. However, there is considerable evidence to suggest that organic farming is not more environmentally friendly than conventional farming at all. One of the larger concerns regarding organic cotton is that it is significantly less efficient. Multiple studies have shown that organic farming produces an average of 25% less yield than conventional agriculture. This means that similar resources and land are producing considerably less product. This leads to more deforestation and loss of biodiversity (Foley, J A, Ramankutty, N & Seufert, V, 2012). There are many different definitions of organic farming and significant variance in organic farming regulations (Yarina, T, 2015). The common focus among all organic farming certifications is the use of synthetic substances and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Organic farming still uses both natural and some synthetic pesticides in moderated amounts (Yarina, T, 2015). Additionally, studies have shown that natural pesticides can be more toxic than synthetic versions (Bahlai, C A, et al. 2010). While public opinion of GMOs is predominantly negative, there is minimal scientific evidence to suggest they are dangerous or a risk to health. (Mayer, S & Stirling, A, 2004) Genetic modification has the potential to actually improve sustainability of crops by reducing the need for pesticides, or creating crops which grow more quickly and use less resources (Yarina, T, 2015). One of the biggest environmental problems with conventional cotton farming is that it requires enormous amounts of water. Cotton is the second most water intensive crop in industrialised countries and the fourth in developing nations (Davis, T, 2003). None of the organic farming regulations mention water use, meaning that organic cotton is still an extremely water intensive crop, and therefore not very environmental friendly. While reducing the toxins used in cotton farming is a step in the right direction it is important to be looking for other alternatives. The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is a non-profit organisation that is encouraging more sustainable practices in cotton farming. BCI takes a more thorough approach than organic certifications and is working to reduce the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and GMOs as well as improving irrigation practices in order to reduce water use (Page, S & Ritchie, B, 2009).
Another fibre which has been heralded as a green alternative is bamboo. The plant can grow up to a metre a day with small amounts of water and very few pesticides. This makes for an extremely sustainable crop, however there are some environmental issues involved in processing the crop into fibres which can be turned into textiles. Upon analysing some of the bamboo fabric that is available in Australia, scientist Tara Afrin found that it is in fact mostly viscose. Viscose is a cellulose fibre usually unsustainably sourced from woodchips. It is processed into textile fibres using sodium hydroxide and carbon disulphide. Carbon disulphide in particular is highly toxic and hazardous to workers health. Actual bamboo fibres are often processed using the same dangerous chemicals. There is however, an environmentally friendly alternative. Mechanical processing and the use of bio-enzymes is a method of processing bamboo that uses less water, energy, and harmful chemicals. (Ha, T, McKenna, G, 2011) It is important for designers and manufactures to be aware of the source of the bamboo fabrics they are using; how it’s processed and whether it is in fact nothing but rayon.
Some other sustainable textiles which are gaining popularity include Hemp, linen, Lyocell, and recycled polyester. Hemp is fast growing, water efficient, and doesn’t require chemicals. It’s shared traits with marijuana have led to unfortunate social stigma, despite hemp not having psychoactive properties (Twomey, D, 2015). Flax, which is used to make Linen, can grow well in poor soil, is very water efficient and doesn’t require fertilisers or pesticides. The process of turning flax into textiles is a mechanical process which doesn’t use chemicals. (Oijala, L, 2013). Linen and Hemp are both extremely durable fibres. This means that garments made from these fabrics will last significantly longer than garments made from something like cotton or polyester. This will reduce the frequency with which clothing needs to be replace and lessen the amount of worn out clothing in landfill. Consumers often disregard these fibres due to their rough appearance or tendency to wrinkle however new fabric manufacturing processes are creating linen and hemp fabrics with a great variety of handles, texture and properties (Oijala, L, 2013). Lyocell, also known as Tencel, is a biodegradable, renewable fibre created from eucalyptus trees. These trees are very fast growing, water efficient and can be grown without the use of pesticides. The process of turning the wood into fibre involves soaking it in a non-toxic petrochemical solution called amine oxide. 99.5% of this solution is reclaimed and is then repeatedly reused. Lyocell is also naturally white, meaning that bleaching isn’t required before dying. Unfortunately, Lyocell production is energy intensive. Using renewable energy to manufacture the fibre would make it a completely ecofriendly fabric (Donatelli, J, 2013). Recycled polyester is made from reclaimed PET bottles that would otherwise be destined for landfill. Manufacturing recycled polyester requires 74-80% less energy than virgin polyester and does not require drilling for oil. While it is significantly more sustainable than conventional polyester production, creating recycled polyester fibres does require the use of chemicals and toxins which can be hazardous to health and result in air pollution. (Dale, S, 2010)
As public interest in sustainable and ethical fashion increases, designers, manufactures, and consumers must be increasingly vigilant of the positive and negative aspects of sustainable alternatives. As with any trend, corporations will seek to make a profit by advertising their products as sustainable even if they do have negative environmental effects. It is important that stakeholders research the processes that are used to create these sustainable alternatives so they can make informed choices. While materials like organic cotton, bamboo, and recycled polyester may seem like fantastic eco-friendly options there are many downsides to the materials that also need to be considered so improvements can continue to be made and better alternatives can be found. It is entirely possible for the fashion industry to be sustainable but it is unlikely to be a reality in the near future. Any industry that exists to fulfil consumers wants rather than needs is inherently unsustainable. Creating a completely sustainable fashion industry would require a commitment to eliminate negative environmental impacts from every person involved. While this is very unlikely, we can still hope for sustainable practices within the fashion industry to become much more common. For now, a sustainable fashion industry is very much a work in progress, but hopefully we’ll continue seeing positive change.
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