As the second most polluting industry in the world, the textile industry is responsible for over 10 percent of the global carbon footprint—more than all aviation and maritime activities put together. If the industry continues unabated on its current path, by 2050 it could use 26 percent of the carbon budget associated with the 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial level ambition, as set by The Paris Agreement.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals, set by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 for the year 2030, are a global call to action to protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production is particularly relevant for all within the textile industry as we hold the key—in a large way—to secure responsible consumption. As producers, there is clearly a lot that we can do to protect the planet.
The numbers can be disheartening. The industry accounts for over a fifth of the industrial water pollution globally, attributable to the dyeing and treatment of textiles. About 2 billion kilograms of textile waste finds its way into landfills or is incinerated each year. Half a million tons of plastic microfibers find their way into the oceans each year. Twenty-two million tons of plastic microfibers are estimated to be added to our oceans between 2015 and 2050 if we do not course correct.
The current system for producing, distributing and consuming textiles operates in an almost completely linear way, centering around the “take, make and dispose” model. Ninety-eight million tons of non-renewable resources are extracted to produce textiles annually. Unless we dramatically change our way of working, this figure could go up to 300 million tons in 2050. The textile industry consumes an alarming 93 billion cubic meters of water annually, making it one of the most water-intensive industries worldwide.
Across the industry, merely 13 percent of the total material input is in some way recycled after use, and most of the recycling consists of lower value applications like insulation material, wiping cloths and mattress stuffing.
With the advent of fast fashion, frequent range changes became the order of the day. Incredibly low prices, huge marketing budgets and an enticing store ambience led to the concept of disposable fashion. While 150 billion new pieces of clothing are added annually, clothing utilization has reduced by 36 percent compared to 15 years ago. Over 50 percent of fast fashion is disposed off every year, and the value lost by throwing usable clothes is an astronomically high $460 billion each year.
So what can we do to promote responsible production and consumption? What can we do to help align the textile economy with the principles of a restorative, regenerative circular economy? What can we do, as the Ellen McArthur Foundation suggests, to keep textile products, fabric and fibers at their highest value during use and ensure that they re-enter the economy after use, never ending up as waste?
As manufacturers, we must resort to using sustainable raw material: more sustainable cotton, BCI, Organic, Cotton Leads, botanic fibers such as Lyocell and Modal and recycled fibers such as polyester and cotton. Using these fibers reduces the use of water, fertilizers and chemicals. They are biodegradable, compostable and effective users of waste material.
Substances of concern to health and the environment must be designed out. Dyes and chemicals should be substituted with more sustainable products and processes, and steps to dramatically reduce plastic microfiber release into oceans are required. The most effective way to design out waste and pollution is to design and produce higher-quality textiles that are meant to last longer and not be disposable.
A dramatic improvement in recycling is imperative. Textiles must be designed to allow for recycling, using fibers or blends that are optimal in terms of their recyclability. Innovation and investments in improving the quantum and quality of recycling and stimulating demand for recycled materials is of compelling importance.
The need to move to renewable resource inputs can not be over emphasized. There must be a very focused reduction in the usage of non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels, and of energy, water and chemicals through a transition to more effective and efficient production processes. Higher textile utilization and increased recycling would lead to a reduced need for raw materials.
Finally, brands, retailers and manufacturers would do well in raising awareness about sustainable products and encouraging consumers to make responsible choices, in part by making them feel good about contributing to saving the planet. Consumers must be made to realize that textiles should be bought so they last. The concept of value for money in place of low cost—and the idea of evaluating the cost per use of textiles—must be shared with consumers.
There is an immense amount of work to be done if we’re to contribute in saving our planet, and all of these are valid calls to action. Procrastination is no longer allowed—we just have to act.