Many apparel brands are trying to eliminate toxic chemicals from their supply chains

Many apparel brands are trying to eliminate toxic chemicals from their supply chains

Sustainability in textiles is high on the apparel industry's agenda, and has the potential to benefit a company's bottom line. But the issue is far from clear-cut. A new report from just-style rounds up the challenges and opportunities in sustainable textiles - and suggests that being informed is the first step in the journey.

All products impact the planet in some way, and textiles more than most. Indeed, issues surrounding the design and manufacturing of sustainable textiles for apparel are not only under the spotlight just now, but are also complex and ongoing.

They are also the focus of a new report from just-style, which explores the challenges facing the industry and looks at natural, synthetic, and regenerated fibres, and many of the processes involved in their manufacture.

According to the report 'Sustainable Textiles for Apparel: Fact, Fiction and Future Prospects', a doubling in the number of consumers and an 84% hike in demand for textile fibres over the next 20 years will stretch resources to breaking point.

Yet already the discharge of hazardous chemicals used in textile manufacturing has impacted 70% of the rivers, lakes, and reservoirs in China, with similar results in other manufacturing economies.

In addition, the use of hazardous chemicals in apparel manufacturing is responsible for 17-20% of the world's industrial water pollution.

The outsourcing of fabric and apparel manufacturing to Asia and Africa has also multiplied the environmental burden of apparel worn in the West.

Options and innovation
When it comes to options, natural fibres are generally perceived as being more environmentally-friendly.

However, the report points out that traditional cotton farming relies on large quantities of water, fertilizers, and pesticides; the mulesing of sheep is considered unethical and non-sustainable; and harvesting silk requires dropping the cocoons into boiling water, killing the pupae inside.

Cellulosics such as rayon and lyocell are increasingly being substituted for cotton, but the viscose rayon production process can also damage the environment.

Likewise synthetic fibres, including polyester, polyamide and elastane, also have an impact on the environment in terms of resource depletion, energy consumption, and emissions.

The use of hazardous chemicals in the processing of fabrics for apparel is responsible for 17 to 20% of the world's industrial water pollution - putting the industry under pressure from a number of environmental groups, including Greenpeace.

This has prompted many apparel brands to try to eliminate toxic chemicals from their supply chains, and chemical companies to introduce greener alternatives. 

Other technologies such as waterless dyeing, fibre modification, and solution or "dope" dyeing, as well as digital printing are helping to reduce the environmental impact of textile dyeing and printing.

Although indigo-dyed denim accounts for high levels of global wastewater pollution, eco-friendly dyestuffs can help to eliminate many of the harmful chemicals, and reduce water and energy usage. Denim finishing techniques such as bleaching and sandblasting are now being replaced by lasering and ozone processes. 

Although apparel brands and retailers have made progress in using environmentally-preferred fibres and textiles, the proliferation of metrics can make the concept of sustainability confusing to consumers. 

Not only is there the Sustainable Apparel Coalition's Higg Index, but there are also third party certification systems and more than 24 eco-labels. However, social media makes it impossible for brands and retailers to hide, the report notes.

A collaborative supply chain is perhaps the most critical component of a sustainable business plan, it suggests. With many brands sourcing from the same suppliers, collaboration encourages the development of industry-wide standards, and adherence to those standards by the suppliers.

Companies can also improve their environmental footprint by rethinking their methods of transportation, as well as by setting up localised or regional supply chains.

And bio-based innovation - using renewables to create new sustainable fibres - including genetically modified spider silk, and polymers based on milk proteins, may transform the world of textile materials in the future.

Click here for more information on just-style's report 'Sustainable Textiles for Apparel: Fact, Fiction and Future Prospects'.