Cotton is one of the most prolifically produced natural fibres

Cotton is one of the most prolifically produced natural fibres

Attitudes to, and awareness of, ethical trading are evolving fast – with 53% of the UK population choosing to avoid buying products or services over concerns about ethical reputation. As a result, the value of all ethical spending in the UK grew to GBP38bn (US$51.19bn) in 2015.

One of the main drivers for the change is the attitude of increasingly influential millennials, who consider themselves to have a fair degree of accountability for many of the world's largest challenges. They have far more awareness of the way in which garments are produced and sourced, and whether or not they can be recycled.

A conscious decision

This all means that consumers are more conscious than ever, and in order to capture their interest, fashion retailers need to reassess their sustainability levels. Despite this movement, a large number of fashion brands are still not placing enough focus on sustainable initiatives.

While millennials may be driving the demand, sustainability is not only important for the consumer, but also for the companies themselves and the climate. In fact, a recent report co-launched by Dame Ellen MacArthur and fashion designer Stella McCartney, found that the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is wasted every second, while less than 1% of clothing is recycled into new clothes. In a stark warning, the report predicts the fashion industry could use up to a quarter of the world's carbon budget by 2050 if nothing changes.

Systemic change needed to tackle "wasteful" fashion

Although it can't be denied that there is still significant progress to be made in this area, the market has shifted massively over the past decade. The vast majority of retailers are now at least committed to compliance with the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) code, which ensures the medical conditions, facilities and health and safety of producers across the globe.

The next focus, without doubt, is addressing the impact of that production process on the environment – with growing interest in sustainable materials including bamboo, hemp, and regenerated cellulose like viscose, as well as ethically produced cotton.

Some of the world's largest retailers, such as Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) and C&A, are actively investing in sustainability and aiming to be 100% sustainable by 2020. For some, undertaking a sustainability programme can seem like a large task, but in order to maximise their efforts, retailers and apparel producers should start with a small or specific area and then build from there. This is where advances in areas such as ethical cotton production can really start to make a difference.

A sustainable alternative

Cotton is one of the most prolifically produced natural fibres, with its production supporting the livelihoods of over 350m people. Focusing on the production of sustainable cotton is vital to the environment, with the Sustainable Trade Initiative stating that, "No commodity is as polluting as cotton". Producing just one kilo of cotton (the equivalent of one T-shirt and a pair of jeans) can require 20,000 litres of water.

Additionally, the synthetic fertilisers applied in cotton farming use 1.5% of the world's energy consumption. Ponder these figures when acknowledging that cotton makes up approximately 57% of all fibre types used in the clothing and textile industry, and it's clear that tackling the sustainability of this material could be key to improving the overall figures within the fashion industry.

Sustainable cotton can be grown carefully with economical and environmental aspects considered. The Better Cotton Initiative is helping to address the issue by working with farmers, retailers and processors to promote more sustainable cotton and its commercial feasibility. Initiatives such as this are helping to make waves in the industry as they work towards transforming worldwide cotton production into a sustainable mainstream commodity. The result is a significant reduction in chemicals, as well as better use of water resources.

Cotton produced ethically is now certified to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) – and its progress is 100% traceable through the supply chain. Indeed, between 12-15% of cotton is currently grown sustainably, but only a fifth of this is actively sourced by companies as sustainable. In order to continue to drive initiatives like this and encourage change, apparel producers and retailers need to make their voices heard and call for it, and proactively source sustainable materials.

C&A's recent 'Cradle-to-Cradle' collection is a great example of how retailers can impact the production of sustainable cotton. These T-shirts are made from 100% pure organic cotton and were designed to be used again or recycled. The pieces were also produced using sustainable energy and reused water, and if these T-shirts were thrown onto a compost heap they would compost in eleven weeks. While this could be too big a leap for all apparel producers to make, the commitment to ethics and the sustainable mindset embedded within ranges like this, should be taken away and considered.

C&A makes circular journey with C2C T-shirt launch

One concern retailers regularly express about sourcing and producing more sustainable goods is the uplift they experience in cost. What they overlook with this concern, is the increasing willingness of consumers to pay a small premium for such products. Additionally, the perceived cost escalations are usually higher than those presented in reality. The cost of ethically produced cotton is just a fraction higher than the traditional, chemical heavy alternatives. And, of course, as demand increases and this model becomes the norm, the price differential will vanish, removing any barrier to adoption.

Fashion must address its inherently unsustainable production practices. Further investment by companies is continuing to improve the quality of production, from monitoring waste bi-products in areas including dyeing or printing, to using third party auditors to assess and work with producers to achieve zero discharge. By standing firm on ethics and attacking material sustainability issues such as cotton production, retailers will not only drive an uptrend for sustainable fibres and give themselves more choice, but also enhance their reputation with consumers and begin to thrive.

About the author: Gurdev Mattu founded his family-run business, Fashion UK, 19 years ago. He has grown the organisation into an award winning SME, with the company having strongly made a mark in the UK licensed daywear sector and now actively branching out into Europe. Under his leadership, Fashion UK has added to its group with Fashion UK India, Fashion UK China, Mattu Garments, Golf Fashions (an owned factory), noisysauce.com (an e-commerce site) and Global Licensing.