The fashion industry has garnered widespread notoriety for its impact on the environment, and the rise of fast fashion is largely to blame.
The heavy environmental toll of fast fashion stems from multiple aspects. Firstly, cheap and “trendy” clothing is more likely to be thrown away than expensive, high-quality items. This explains why nearly US$172m worth of clothing ends up in landfills each year.
Also, common fast fashion items such as athleisure wear are often made with synthetic fabrics, which contain plastic microfibres that break down into toxic chemicals. The dyeing process for fabric uses toxic chemicals as well. In fact, approximately 17-20% of global industrial water pollution can be traced back to this process.
What can brands do to reverse this trend?
Fortunately, a growing number of fashion brands have recently begun utilising production practices and alternative resources that minimise pollution and waste. Instead of focusing on speed and incremental sales, these companies have built considerable followings by adhering to ethical practices that respect the environment, local communities and consumers alike.
Here are five ways brands can maximise sustainability.
1. More planning and preparation
According to those with experience, the first and biggest step towards building a sustainable fashion brand is recognising the amount of extra effort this involves in planning, research and design. By improving their ability to forecast demand and minimise waste, brands can avoid excessive use of materials and prevent costly projects from being abandoned due to poor foresight.
Major brands such as Adidas, Lee and Wrangler currently use artificial intelligence (AI) to more accurately anticipate future demand and plan production accordingly. Brands can additionally harness 3D printing to work out specific product details before production and eliminate the need for trial and error with physical samples. Sometimes, up to 20 physical samples must be created before a garment is fully completed. Innovative techniques such as zero-waste cutting can ensure that every inch of fabric is used.
Devoting more attention to the planning stage also enables brands to be more selective about the materials they use.
2. Use sustainable materials
Fast fashion’s impact on the environment can be primarily attributed to its reliance on toxic chemicals. However, environmentally-conscious fashion brands tend to use biodegradable resources that don’t damage the environment during production or disposal.
One example is Lyocell: a natural material derived from the cellulose of wood pulp made by Lenzing. Its fibres are biodegradable and compostable, and no toxic chemicals are involved in its production. Textiles can also be made with natural fibres from agricultural waste, such as leaves and fruit rinds. In Italy, a company called Orange Fiber has developed a silky material out of the cellulose from oranges. Similarly, H&M currently makes certain items from cupro: a biodegradable silk alternative that comes from cotton waste.
Unlike the typical components of fast fashion items, sustainable materials are not grown with pesticides or fertilisers, nor do they contain the plastic fibres that pollute oceans. These materials can also help reduce waste, as many sustainable resources are by-products of existing manufacturing processes.
3. Protect biodiversity
To save time and money, fashion brands have traditionally opted to outsource manufacturing to countries with less stringent environmental regulations. Whereas sustainable fashion brands hold their manufacturing facilities to higher environmental standards, rather than capitalising on a lack of legal and regulatory oversight.
If possible, larger brands should consider building their facilities in locations that are free of endangered species or critical plant life. Likewise, these brands can explore the possibilities of powering their facilities with renewable energy, which would decrease greenhouse gas emissions and overall production costs.
Toxins, particularly per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), can be a by-product of a facility’s processes. Certain technologies have been found to remove PFAS from water. Three wastewater treatment solutions are common for PFAS removal: granular activated carbon, ion exchange resins and high-pressure membrane systems. While there are wastewater treatment solutions in the market now, PFAS waste, including spent filter materials, is sent to landfills or incinerated. Research has shown these disposal methods do not break the carbon-fluorine bonds, resulting in reemissions of PFAS into air, water and land.
Claros Technologies says it is working to clean up the industry by capturing and destroying PFAS in textile wastewater. It adds this is a huge step forward for the industry, particularly as companies face new regulations that reduce the amount of textile effluent and wastewater that companies can create and dispose of.
4. Encourage consumers to return used items
To prevent clothing from ending up in landfills, fashion brands can offer to take back used items from consumers. Some brands incentivise consumers to return used items with discounts or credits towards future purchases. Once the item is returned, it could be donated to charity or even re-purposed into new materials.
The company For Days, for example, operates a closed-loop system that enables items to be circulated within society for as long as possible. For every article of clothing that consumers buy, For Days gives the purchaser “swap credits” that can be used to buy new items once consumers return their previous purchases. The returned items are then re-purposed and re-sold by For Days’ myriad of retail partners.
Consumers can additionally earn swap credits by filling one of the company’s Take Back bags with used items from any brand, regardless of condition. If the fabric cannot be repurposed into another fashion item, For Days will use the material to make everything from rags to insulation.
5. Practice full transparency
Realistically speaking, a fashion brand’s sustainability efforts probably won’t have much of an impact on consumers if the brand doesn’t provide a full accounting of these efforts. This means featuring clear and specific explanations about the sustainability of a company’s products and operations.
For instance, rather than simply claiming that their products are made with recyclable materials, sustainable brands would provide percentages to show which portion of each item is actually made with these resources.
For Days is a great example of a fully transparent brand. The company’s website provides accurate information about its recycling and re-selling capabilities, rather than attempting to deceive consumers with blanket or exaggerated statements. For Days also goes into detail about its recycling process, including the methodology of how its items are repurposed and resold.
As the term denotes, a sustainable fashion brand is poised to enjoy a significantly longer lifespan than a fleeting industry trend. Sustainability promotes honesty, compassion and integrity and it’s up to fashion brands to teach consumers that these values will never go out of style.
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