Garment making is to a large degree a model for sustainability, says David Birnbaum, adding that those working towards greater sustainability have an obligation to be transparent and accurate. What is not needed is input from those who lack the experience and knowledge to help.

An article posted by an NGO on LinkedIn: You waste 1.3 billion tonnes of fabric. What are you doing about it?

1.3 billion is indeed a very large number. just want to put this in perspective:

  • 150gr – Assume for a moment this is the weight of an average metre of fabric
  • 6667m = Total number of metres per metric tonne (1 tonne = 1000kg)
  • 1.3 billion – Article claimed number of tonnes wasted
  • 8.67 trillion = Number of metres wasted
  • 1216 = Average number of metres wasted by every person on the planet
  • 2m – Assumed average consumption per garment
  • 4.3 trillion = Number of garments wasted annually
  • 608 = Average number of garments wasted by every person on the planet
  • @$1 per metre, total fabric wasted = $867 billion = 50% of total US GDP
  • @$5 per garment, total garments wasted = $21.7 trillion = 129% of total US GDP

Bear in mind that the author is holding each and every one of us responsible for this colossal waste. 

Based on this, my wife and I have wasted either 2432 metres of fabric, 1216 garments, or some combination of the two. I must tell you that having carefully checked every room in our house, I have been unable to find either our designated 2432 metres of fabric or our 1216 garments. Assuming the article to be correct, I am forced to conclude that like so many others, my wife has become addicted to 'compulsive textile and garment purchasing syndrome.'

This story above is, of course, absurd – harmless but still absurd.

However, the data reported in the article may be absurd, but it is anything but harmless.

Our industry is involved in a serious fight over sustainability. On the one side we have stakeholders including importers, garment and textile suppliers, together with serious NGOs and some governments that are investing substantial amounts of time and money to make our industry more sustainable.

On the other side we have those living in denial, who for a variety of reasons stand against any move to make our industry more sustainable.

As in most situations involving change for the better, those moving forward face much greater problems than those adamantly opposed to change. The move towards greater sustainability is not simple. A change for the better in one area may lead directly to a change for the worse in another area.

  • The move against herbicides and insecticides often leads to greater use of genetically modified crops. In some cases, it has resulted in greater use of child labour;
  • The move against polluting chemical dyestuff may lead to the increased use of toxic natural dyestuff;
  • Governments' efforts to support development in one area may have serious negative effects in other areas. For example, the Government of India's efforts to provide free electricity to farmers has resulted in those farmers using irrigation pumps 24 hours a day, with the result that a made-in-India T-shirt requires 1300 litres of water. 

Those of us working towards greater sustainability have an obligation to be totally transparent and, more importantly, more accurate. 

Those living in denial do not face the same problems. They can avoid complexities and problems and move directly to absolutes. The deniers need not research to find accurate data, they can make it up as they go along. To support their contentions, they may resort to half-truths, quarter-truths, and no-truths-at-all. 

However, by far the absolutely worst scenario is when well-meaning supporters of sustainability themselves resort to nonsense data. This is indeed grist for the deniers' mill, offering indisputable evidence that the case for sustainability is filled with garbage data.

The good news is that garment making is to a large degree a model for sustainability. Our industry has been sustainable long before the word "sustainable" came into common usage.

  • Fabric waste on the factory cutting room floor was not thrown away, but rather sold onward to those who turned scraps into marketable products.
  • Factories sold off damaged unshippable garments to such a degree that in many cases importers at the higher end of the market paid their factory suppliers 70% of FOB to ship the damaged garments to the importers.

After sale to the consumer, the process continued:

  • The sale of used clothing is, and has always been, business. When we donate old clothes to the Salvation Army, it sells those clothes to raise money for its charitable efforts;
  •  In the last decade, resale of used clothing has become big business. China exports enormous quantities of used clothing by the bale. The quantities are so great they now have a serious impact on garment production in developing countries.
  • Returns by consumers, rather than being put back into stock or discarded, are often sold to third party discounters, who in turn resell the garments in countries where the label is not available. In a world where retail mark-ups often reach 75% or more, selling the returns at less 70% is a good deal all around.

The industry moves naturally in a downward progression: new clothing – used clothing – rags – reprocessed fibre and yarn. We are moving to a world where only after a garment undergoes 2-3 lifetimes is it relegated to the landfill.

On the factory side, there is a growing trend (started in Sri Lanka) towards zero carbon footprint factories. 

On the customer side, importers are now imposing upstream restrictions to ensure higher levels of sustainability, not only on textile mills but also on fibre producers.

Stakeholders on all sides are working together with chemical suppliers to create lists of dyestuffs and other materials deemed safe and those which will not be used in the future.

Certainly more should be done.

The industry needs more trained professionals including chemists, physicists, hydrologists, etc. In this regard qualified NGOs often coming from outside the industry have stepped in to fill the gap. For example, the World Wildlife Fund's work in water conservation in India deserves special mention. Others such as UN based organisations have been of considerable importance.

Indeed, sustainability is everybody's business, particularly those with technical knowledge and experience.

What is not needed are those with little knowledge and less experience who feel obligated to beat the already-running horse. 

The bottom line is that if you can offer real help, please join in.

If you lack the experience and knowledge to help, please do not attack those who are working hard to move ahead.