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Sustainable Fashion All large-scale textile manufacture and processing will have some effect on the environment.

Natural fibres such as cotton and linen may be renewable but farming can still have a detrimental effect on the land due to nutrient depletion and other factors which can reduce crop yield. Global warming may also affect the growing conditions for such crops in the future:
Global climate change may impact food production across a range of pathways 1) By changing overall growing conditions (general rainfall distribution, temperature regime and carbon); 2) By inducing more extreme weather such as floods, drought and storms; and 3) By increasing extent, type and frequency of infestations, including that of invasive alien species

The above quote refers to food production, but all crop types could potentially be affected by these issues. This could also include indirect effects on the crops used in textiles due to increased demand for space to grow food crops. Natural crops may require pesticides and other treatments which can spread chemicals into the wider environment and create waste water from irrigation, retting etc. A lot of water is also used for irrigation of cotton, for example, which can lead to pollution of nearby water sources and salt build up in the land. Pesticides, fungicides and herbicides may all be used on cotton, as well as defoliants and growth regulating chemicals - which are washed out during manufacturing. This creates more waste water and there are more processes such as sizing and bleaching which require yet more chemicals and more washing. Organically grown cotton uses as much natural processing as possible, but still results in high water consumption and some toxicity to the environment. Organically farmed cotton also produces smaller crop yields making it an unattractive option for big business. Synthetic fibres are typically made of non-renewable petro-chemical materials so they are perceived to be worse for the environment than natural fabrics. The main energy use of oil based fabric manufacture is in the materials stage. Synthetic fibre manufacture also tends to involve carcinogenic chemicals and substances that are toxic to the environment as well as people. While cotton production is seen to be less energy intensive than e.g. polyester, there is not a great difference when the transport of water for cotton processing is factored in. With regards to recycling, recycled cotton will be a lesser quality than the original fabric. Polyester can be recycled with no loss in quality and with chemicals that can be re-used in the recycling process. Another environmental benefit of synthetics is their lower energy consumption in their lifetime usage. Washing, drying and ironing of synthetic garments tends to use less energy over the life of the product than cotton garments. There are some bio-polymer synthetics made from plant cellulose, which is renewable if harvested from an appropriate source.

There is growing understanding among both businesses and consumers about the cost of human activity to the environment. There is currently a drive in many sectors of society to operate more efficiently and use new techniques and technologies to lessen our impact on the natural world. Genetic modification of plants can help to reduce the need for pesticide use by making plants insect-resistant. Herbicide resistant plants can also be grown so that they will survive herbicide treatment while weeds are killed off, increasing crop yields over the same area of land. There is even a push to genetically modify cotton plants to make the seed edible (the plant naturally contains poisons). The high protein seeds could be used in animal feeds and even for human consumption if modified to be safe. The seeds are apparently already usable in bio-diesel. Manufacturing of synthetic fibres is also becoming more environmentally friendly. As well as recycling more plastics into new fibres, there are relatively new materials such as Ingeo and Tencel which are sustainably produced. The benefits to the environment will likely improve as more research and development is carried out on the technologies used in these fabrics, and the fabrics themselves will become better as a result of this development. Luckily for manufacturers, a more efficient production process goes hand in hand with higher profits, and the current trend for environmentally friendly products in all markets can only help. As man-made global warming becomes more accepted as fact by the public, more people will be concerned about making their lifestyles as eco-friendly as possible. These new types of fibres currently tend to cost more to the customer than traditional fabrics but the trend is reversing as more and more sellers realise the benefits of marketing eco-friendly products. Production will also become more widespread and more refined production methods will make it cheaper and more efficient. As I mentioned, two popular man made renewable fabrics are Ingeo and Tencel. This is taken from the Ingeo website:
Ingeo is made from dextrose (sugar) that is derived from field corn already grown for many industrial & functional end-uses. In North America, corn has been used first because it is the most economically feasible source of plant starches. We use less than 1/20th of 1% (0.05%) of the annual global corn crop today, so there's little to no impact on food prices or supply. The process does not require corn, we only need a sugar source. This could include sugar beets, sugar cane, wheat and more.

The sugars extracted from the plant starches are processed and made into a biopolymer. This resin can be used in conventional plastic goods as well as being extruded for textile use. Another advantage is the ability for Ingeo to be recycled into the manufacturing process or to biodegrade in industrial composting. Tencel (an improved, brand named version of Lyocell) is another biopolymer, created from wood pulp. The fibre production is eco-friendly, using farmed trees rather than forests. The solvent used to extract the polymer from wood chips is recycled and can be almost entirely recovered and used again. While this fibre manufacture is generally the same for all Lyocell, the subsequent processes to spin and weave the fabric can be less environmentally sound. The fabric is difficult to dye and finish so it may be treated with ecologically unsound chemicals and processes depending on the manufacturer. Branded Tencel items should have the smallest environmental impact, however. Lyocell received the European Union award for technology for sustainable developments in 2000. These types of fabric can of course be blended with traditional fabrics, so manufacturers can have the best of both worlds with regards to the end fabrics properties, as well as some claim to environmental responsibility. Renewably sourced fabrics and recycling can help to reduce energy consumption, carbon emissions and fossil fuel depletion, but perhaps the main reason for the endless manufacture of fabrics has been overlooked: peoples ability to get through so many clothes! Taken as a whole, the textiles industry is driven to produce so much only because the demand is there. According to a document from the University of Cambridges Institute for Manufacturing (2006):
Waste volumes from the sector are high and growing in the UK with the advent of fast fashion. On average, UK consumers send 30kg of clothing and textiles per capita to landfill each year. Source: Well Dressed: The Present and Future Sustainability of Textiles in the United Kingdom. (uk_textiles.pdf)

The document goes on to say:

Change in the sector to reduce environmental impact and promote social equity will occur if driven by consumer choice.

The authors list measures by which consumers could change the industry:
Buy second-hand clothing and textiles where possible. Buy fewer more durable garments and textile products.

When buying new products, choose those made with least energy and least toxic emissions, made by workers paid a credible living wage with reasonable employment rights and conditions. Lease clothes that would otherwise not be worn to the end of their natural life. Wash clothes less often, at lower temperatures and using eco-detergents, hangdry them and avoid ironing where possible. Extend the life of clothing and textile products through repair. Dispose of used clothing and textiles through recycling businesses who would return them for second-hand sale wherever possible, but otherwise extract and recycle the yarn or fibres.

Some of these measures have certainly become more mainstream in recent years, particularly the one about washing. Most detergent adverts now boast of their ability to clean clothes at low temperatures. I think this goes hand in hand with a perceived need to save on energy bills in the current economic climate. It works out well for the purpose of saving the environment, and saving money! (I might add that I personally avoid ironing wherever possible, but this has little to do with the environment) I think that leasing of clothes is probably a reasonable thing to do for special occasions and Im sure a lot of people would do such a thing for weddings and so on. Other suggestions here are perhaps less likely to work. There is still a stigma attached to buying second hand (especially among young, trendy buyers) and I think the desire to buy second hand is more to do with getting bargains or by necessity rather than saving the planet. There is a fashion for retro clothes however, which has given rise to shops selling selected second hand clothes at a premium perhaps more desirable than shopping at a charity shop for some people. I think clothing repair is unrealistic for the majority, unless it was a special item. (A pair of old jeans that get a hole in them would probably be binned, I suppose). This is partly to do with the low cost of buying replacements for generic items such as socks, T-shirts etc. and I think partly to do with a generational shift: people do not have the time or skills to repair their own clothes, and the cost to have them repaired professionally would perhaps not be worth it. Buying fewer or more durable garments is all very well, but the fashion industry depends on enticing people to buy the latest trends and we all get bored of wearing the same clothes day in, day out. I think that this could apply to necessities such as socks, underwear, work clothes and so on.

The document does mention ways to enable the suggested changes:

Several barriers inhibit the adoption of this behaviour. In order to overcome these barriers: Consumer education is vital to ensure that fact based information on the specific impacts of a product are available and understood. Increased emphasis on durability as a component of fashion would support a move towards reduced material flow. The sector could halve its material flow without economic loss if consumers pay a higher price for a product that lasts twice as long. New business models with growth in profit decoupled from increased material flow are possible where consumers pay for services such as repair, novel coatings, other maintenance services, remanufacturing or fashion upgrades. Technology development may lead to new means to freshen clothes without washing, efficient sorting of used clothing, new fibre recycling technology and new low temperature detergents. The infrastructure of clothing collection could be improved. UK government policy on the environment should be changed to promote reduction of total or embedded impacts in products, not just those arising in the UK. The UKs involvement in negotiating international agreements on trade could be used to promote environmental and social responsibility.

Again, some of these points are more realistic than others. The last couple of suggestions to do with government regulation are probably the most effective ones. Anything that depends on private companies taking a risk with their business models is, I think, unlikely to happen if there is any risk to their profits. Consumer education to ensure that fact based information on the specific impacts of a product are available and understood seems a bit far fetched: I cannot imagine how each individual product could be somehow rated with regards to its environmental impact. Anyone with common sense would likely surmise that cheap and cheerful fashion items made in China etc. would not have the greenest of production lines but people who buy such items would perhaps not care about this anyway. There has already been a fiasco with food labelling in stores (to do with nutritional information) where manufacturers are unwilling to sign up to something that might show their products in a bad light. The result is a labelling system that is difficult for some to understand, and at worst is misleading.

There will, of course, be eco-friendly wares promoted with their green credentials on display but I feel this will be a niche market, especially if they are more expensive than the average non-green garment. As for longer lasting products at a higher price: do that many people really wear something until it is worn out any more? I would argue not. As soon as a garment starts looking a bit tattered and old, it falls out of favour and is perhaps binned (or given to charity shops we hope!). And the point about durability becoming part of fashion seems unlikely, although there certainly is a trend now for being environmentally friendly among high level design houses. I just cannot see this passing down to the average consumer. People are now used to getting cheap clothing and replacing their wardrobe each season, buying new clothes for a night out or just for retail therapy! I think that this trend will be hard to reverse, and as long as people keep buying, the manufacturers will keep producing. Regardless of how much development goes into new ways of making sustainable fashion, if companies can get away with making money at the expense of the environment, I fear they will just keep on doing it. There is certainly a future for sustainably produced textiles, we will just have to hope that the trend for their use breaks through into the mainstream. Perhaps at this point in history we have just the right coming together of environmental concern, technological advance and tightened purse strings to make it really happen.