The Future of Fashion Fabrics – Reducing Environmental Impacts

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Charlotte Turner from The Sustainable Angle reports on how companies can assess the environmental impact of the fabrics they source, where to start in understanding the whole fabric value chain and a look at some fabric suppliers.

The Sustainable Angle is a not for profit organization whose project The Future Fabrics Expo focuses on how environmental impact in the fashion industry can be lowered through innovation in the textile industry. The expo addresses the need for sustainable fibre diversification – in 2010 45% of all fibres produced globally were polyester and 32% were cotton. (Oerlikon Textile Report)

In this article, Charlotte Turner from The Sustainable Angle reports on how companies can assess the environmental impact of the fabrics they source and where to start in understanding the whole fabric value chain. She also highlights some of the latest commercial sustainable fabric suppliers who will be showcasing at the upcoming Future Fabrics Expo.

The Textiles Industry – The Need to Reduce Negative Environmental Impact“There is a pressing need to transform the way clothes are made. With water, mineral oil and fertile soil being a limited and dwindling resource, all important ingredients for the domineering fibres polyester and cotton, alternative fibre choices are essential. A designer’s informed choice of a sustainable textile means a reduction of water use and wastage across the supply chain, reduced chemical pollution, reduced loss of biodiversity, reduced waste production and minimized use of non-renewable resources.” – Nina Marenzi, Founder, The Sustainable Angle

Environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry are growing, but there are many ways that you can not only reduce negative environmental impact, but also increase positive environmental and social benefits through informed choices of materials and intelligent design. Thinking critically about materials is just one option, which is not an isolated solution, but part of a considered and linked chain of positive choices along the supply chain.

According to the Oerlikon Textile Report; The Fibre Year 2009/10:

  • 58% of all fibres produced globally were synthetic, 42% were naturally derived
  • 45% of all fibres produced were polyester, 32% were cotton
  • 23% were other fibres – of which 13% were polyamide, polypropolene, acrylic and other synthetics (1%), and 10% were wool, viscoses, other naturals and cellulosics.

Therefore there is a massive need for fibre diversification to avoid natural resource depletion and support thriving eco-systems, in light of the overwhelming global use of such a small range of fibres despite growing availability of innovative fibres and fabrics.

In 2010 the global textile industry ‘experienced the most potent growth in 25 years’ (Oerlikon Textile Report), with an increase of 8.6% – with such a rapid growth of textiles on offer, it is imperative to make informed and responsible choices.

Where to Start – Understanding the Supply Chain

In production fashion and textiles undergo a chain of processes from raw material to finished product, “one of the longest and most complicated industrial chains in manufacturing industry.” The time consuming and resource intensive processes “draw on labour, energy, water and other resources and cumulatively make for a high-impact sector.” (Fletcher, 2008:41) Traceability is therefore key to understanding the textile supply chain and reducing environmental impact.

Key sustainability challenges in fibre production vary for different materials, so it is important to assess individual processes, resources consumed and impacts such as:

  • Significant use of energy and non-renewable resources for synthetics
  • Emissions to air and water from producing synthetic and cellulosic fibres
  • Adverse impacts to water linked to natural fibre production

To get the best (and most accurate) understanding of the supply chain, continuous and transparent communication with suppliers is imperative, asking questions such as:

  • What traceable and verifiable information can you get from your suppliers regarding environmental impacts as well as animal husbandry?
  • Do you use mechanical or chemical methods to process your fibres/fabrics?
  • If you are using chemical methods for fibre processing, what measures are you undertaking to minimize pollution to air and water?
  • How are you working to reduce the impact of wet processing and finishing?

Article written by Charlotte Turner for Ethical Fashion Forum. Read the full article here.

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