by Marci Zaroff
More than 1 trillion kilowatt-hours are used per year by the global textile industry, representing 10 percent of the world’s total carbon impact. It takes one-third pound of harmful pesticides to grow enough conventional cotton for just one T-shirt and more than 2 billion pounds of synthetic fertilizers are applied to conventional cotton in a single year. In the spirit of Marks & Spencer’s commitment to “Plan A, because there is no Plan B,” it’s time for the fashion industry to catalyze around climate change and the enormous negative impacts it contributes energetically, on every level.
Cotton, the clothing industry’s most widely used raw material, depends on agriculture and irrigation for production. Most people do not realize that conventional cotton is one of the earth’s most harmful crops, and a leading cause of air and water pollution. While it represents less than three percent of the world’s arable agricultural land, conventional cotton farming uses nearly 10 percent of the most carcinogenic pesticides and more than 20 percent of the most toxic insecticides. Nitrogen synthetic fertilizers, a major contributor to increased N2O emissions, are 300 times more potent than CO2 as greenhouse gas. Conventional cotton has proven to not only be destructive to our environment and have a huge carbon impact, but it is economically unsustainable for farmers in developing countries as well.
On the contrary, Organic farming methods use natural fertilizers, like compost and animal manure, that recycles the nitrogen already in the soil rather than adding more, ultimately reducing both pollution and N2O emissions. Organic cotton is much more efficient with energy usage than its conventional counterpart, while enabling ecosystems to better adjust to the effects of climate change.
Man-made fibers, such as polyester, have a different set of issues, as they require intense energy use for their production. Fortunately, new innovations in sustainable textiles include Recycled Polyester, or RPET, made from recycled plastic bottles. Americans use almost 6 million plastic bottles per hour, 140 million plastic bottles per day, and more than 51 billion bottles per year, with most of them being thrown away. It is shocking to know that plastic bottles in U.S. landfills could wrap around the earth five times. In addition, it takes 17 million barrels of oil to produce these water bottles, which is enough oil to fuel one million cars for a whole year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, two-thirds less energy is required to manufacture products made out of recycled plastic. Other studies show that the production of recycled plastic requires two-thirds less of sulphur dioxide, 50 percent less of nitrous oxide, and almost 90 percent less water usage. Recycled Polyester fabric has a 75 percent lower carbon footprint than virgin polyester.
Furthermore, recycling plastic bottles saves twice the energy used to incinerate them. In 2012, global production of Unifi’s REPREVE recycled plastic bottle yarns will keep more than 900 million plastic bottles from landfills.
Then there’s bamboo, the poster child of greenwashing. Although bamboo in its natural plant state is a renewable resource and good for flooring and furniture use, the process for transforming the plant cellulose into a regenerated textile fabric is extremely chemical and energy intense, leaving merely bamboo residue in the end. To the contrary, ECOlyptus™, otherwise known as Tencel® or Lyocell, is made from the cellulose extracted from eucalyptus, grown on managed FSC certified tree farms on non-arable land using no pesticides or fertilizers and minimal water or energy, and is broken down with an eco-friendly non-toxic solvent. Additionally, it uses 50 percent less energy than cotton (even though it is three times stronger), and is manufactured in an energy efficient closed-loop system.
Why does all of this matter? With a significant carbon footprint and enormous energy consumption, every fashion and textile product we buy contributes to climate change and the current systems are just not sustainable – environmentally, economically and socially. Extensive energy use and greenhouse gas emissions are apparent at every level of the supply chain and product life cycle, from the raw materials, to the processing, manufacturing, dying and finishing, distribution and end use of textiles. Every step in the right direction makes a difference. Innovative energy-saving technologies, more efficient machinery, the use of renewable energies such as solar and wind power in factories, and burning rusk husks or biomass to fuel factories instead of coal and oil, are all positive inroads underway, as the concept of sustainability in the fashion industry is finally taking root.
ECOfashion® and organic fibers have come a long way over the past decade and the movement is not a trend; it is a fundamental shift in industry thinking – from brands, manufacturers and even retailers. Once considered “frumpy, boxy, boring, beige, overpriced and hempy,” sustainable fashion is now viewed as modern, stylish, smart, sexy and sophisticated, with quality, color, prints, luxury and value.
Today, celebrities, brands, designers, retailers and manufacturers — from Stella McCartney to Nordstrom, Barney’s, H&M and Target — have joined the ECOfashion® bandwagon. The industry is on a continual growth pattern: In 2001, global retail sales of organic fiber products were at $240 million; by 2011, the market exceeded $6 billion.Efforts and resources which have been launched to assure compliance and/or industry progress include the NRDC’s “Clean by Design,” as well as the Eco-index, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the Textile Exchange, Source4Style, Suzy Cameron’s “Red Carpet, Green Dress” and Livia Firth’s “Green Carpet Challenge” contests, and the FTC Green Guide, which recently cracked down on the false and misleading claims behind the mismarketing of bamboo as a sustainable textile.
In summary, the future of ECOfashion® is limitless, as long as we seek manufacturing methods that are as socially and environmentally responsible, and as efficient, as the raw materials and resources themselves.
The key to the industry’s success is continued innovation and raising the bar with a commitment to integrity, authenticity and transparency and a focus on style, sustainability, quality and value. We now have the opportunity to shift the textile industry paradigm away from cheap exploitive labor in toxic environments and break our addiction to chemically ridden and fossil fuel-based, water, waste and energy-intense materials and manufacturing methods. Hopefully, consumers will become more educated and more mindful about the choices they make in buying their apparel and home fashions.
In the words of Lao Tzu, “The journey of 1000 miles begins with one step.” Sustainable fashion is better for farmer welfare, the air, the water, the soil, the planet and our bodies. What’s so exciting is that we don’t have to give up anything when we buy ECOfashion®; we actually get more: superior products, a more fulfilling experience and a healthier and more sustainable future.
After receiving a degree from UC Berkeley’s Haas Business School, Marci Zaroff coined the term and pioneered the market for ECOfashion®: The fusion of style and sustainability. She is a consultant and public speaker of green business and organic/sustainable fashion.
WAYS CONSCIOUS CONSUMERS CAN ENGAGE:
1. Be on the look out for organic fashions that are stylish, soft, sexy, authentic & affordable.
2. Follow sustainable fashion designers & events.
3. Shop mass market retailers and/or department stores carrying ECOfashion apparel & home.
4. Join the movement & spread the word!
To see a trailer for “Thread”, please visit www.threaddocumentary.com