For too long, sustainability loitered outside of the c-suite, by the water cooler and on the cutting room floor. Now, largely in part to citizen and business changes in priorities since the Covid-19 outbreak, sustainability is well and truly at the fore.
Often, the focus is largely on how brands and businesses can change their operating plans to reduce their footprint. Yet a change in citizen behaviour – what and how they purchase – can also be highly influential when it comes to lowering environmental impact. The global fashion and textile industry has become a priority not only at a brand level, but a legislative one too. Key jurisdictions are setting bold and ambitious goals, which, ultimately, will drive better design and purchasing decisions.
Whilst the war on plastic waste has been dominated by packaging and single-use products such as drinking straws and plastic bags, less focus has been given to plastic that’s inside our clothes. According to the 2017[LG1] Fibre of the Year report, 65 million tonnes of plastic was produced for textile fibres in 2016 alone. Yet many citizens are not making the connection between fibre and origin: that synthetic fibres are made from plastic and derived from fossil fuel. What’s even more alarming is that the 2021 Fossil Fashion report, released by Changing Markets, found that the production of synthetic fibres for the textile industry currently accounts for 1.35% of global oil consumption. This exceeds the annual oil consumption of Spain. And if the fashion industry continues with business as usual, in less than 10 years, almost three-quarters of our textiles will be produced from fossil fuels.
Indeed, many global wardrobes have become a place of shame. Clothes hang there, untouched for years, while newer, cheaper garments burst in at a frantic place. McKinsey reports the amount of clothing has increased by more than 60% in the 15 years since the year 2000, while there has been a 40% drop in the amount of time clothing is worn, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
So, how can we change this?
“We need to increase our education when it comes to fibre choice and fibre impact,” explains The Woolmark Company General Manager Marketing and Communications Laura Armstrong. The global authority on wool’s recent research found that whilst fabric is considered in purchasing decisions, it’s all about feel and not environmental impact.
“We need to appreciate the impact of synthetics to really appreciate the benefits of wool and other natural fibres.” Using science-backed research, The Woolmark Company champions the eco-benefits of Merino wool: a 100% natural, renewable, biodegradable and recyclable fibre.
“It’s not just about what we buy, it’s equally important to consider what we don’t buy and when we are finished with that product, what we do with it. Wool is one of the most durable fibres, standing the test of time, remaining in our closets longer than any other fibre, it’s the most donated fibre and holds excellent recycling value,” explains Armstrong. “No other fibre has such a unique, well-established and commercially viable recycling pathway in both open- and closed-loop systems, allowing the fibre to stay in use and re-use for an indefinite amount of time.”
With recycling set to be an increasingly important topic for discussion, largely due to ambitious goals set out by the European Union, certain factors need to be taken into consideration. The nuances of this may not seem overly relevant, yet its implications reach far and wide. Take recycled polyester for example, almost all of which comes from plastic bottles. Many brands – large and small – champion their use of the fibre and use this as a way to reach their own sustainability goals. Yet recycled polyester is still a synthetic textile, which sheds microplastics into the air and ocean and can have negative impacts to both human and marine health.
Recycling is just one piece of the circularity puzzle. Encouraging citizens to repair and reuse garments is essential in the circular economy. In fact, by encouraging better design and then repairing and reusing garments to keep them in use for longer, it alleviates the need to purchase new products and can therefore not only slow down the rate of consumption but also reduce the amount of waste produced. How often clothes are worn is the perhaps most influential factor in determining environmental impacts from clothing. Industry can also play a vital role in educating consumers about best-practice care methods to extend a product’s lifetime.
Making the right purchasing decision
Choosing clothes and textiles made from renewable resources is another way to make better, less impactful design and purchasing decisions. For brands, avoiding using non-renewable fibres derived from petrochemicals and fossil fuels and investing in natural, renewable and biodegradable fibres such as wool and cotton, companies enable farmers who produce these fibres to earn a decent income which allows them to reinvest back into their farm. Regeneration is a key element of the circular economy. It’s the transition away from using finite fossil fuel resources to using renewable resources. It’s about restoring and protecting ecosystems and returning biological resources back to nature. Natural fibres are well-placed to be part of this regenerative movement. Wool, for example, comes from sheep – an animal which offers a remarkable service: they commonly graze land that’s unsuited to growing food crop; they convert pasture which has no use to humanity into food and fibre to feed and clothe humanity; they help regenerate soil health and biodiversity; and are often brought onto exhausted cropping land to enable it to rest and recover. How wonderful it is then, that the clothes we make and wear can be derived from animals, or plants, which can help regenerate our earth.
The term regenerative agriculture is still relatively new to the fashion industry; however, many Australian woolgrowers have long used regenerative farming techniques to enhance the biodiversity, fertility, health and carbon sequestration of their farm environment. By supporting the natural functions of the environment, regenerative agriculture is a holistic farming approach used by fibre producers that focuses on developing the biology and fertility of soils as the basis of the entire farm ecosystem. By keeping soils healthy when producing these natural fibres, farmers can, in turn, help the fashion industry become more sustainable.
The journey towards a sustainable future is constantly evolving, and the final destination is yet to be determined. A shared commitment to forging a circular approach with all tiers of the textile supply chain is needed to accelerate and deliver sustainable solutions. Far too often work is done in silos, limiting scientific and innovative opportunities to close the loop.
“We work with partners right across the supply chain to encourage and deliver sustainable solutions,” explains Armstrong. “As a company, we invest in sound, scientific data to firstly identify hotspots both on and off farm, and then collaborate and innovate solutions to these challenges.”
It’s a big ask for citizens to change their purchasing habits. We know all too well that change does not happen overnight. By considering fibre and material impact, brands can inspire citizens to change their purchasing habits to buy less but buy better; buy trans-seasonal, timeless garments that are made to last, and buy garments made from fibres which help to regenerate our planet.
About the author: Lisa Griplas is The Woolmark Company’s global sustainability communications strategist. With more than 15 years’ experience in marketing and communications, she has sound experience in leading content strategy and now specialises in sustainability communications. Her expertise lies in helping stakeholders understand, manage and amplify their sustainability performance to drive positive, truthful and meaningful conversations. Lisa’s knowledge of textiles and fibres – and their impact allows her to help evolve the business towards a sustainable future. Before joining The Woolmark Company, she was a journalist reporting on a variety of different areas, honing her writing and research skills for a wide audience.