Fashion is not a dirty word anymore

Written by Giulia De Gregorio

For many years safeguarding our planet has been at the centre of many talks, but today more than ever, it is urgent to apply these concepts to fashion, the second most polluting industry in the world. 

Consumers are motivated to adopt a sustainable lifestyle and this new trend is helping to reshape the global understanding of fashion. 

Moreover, fashion brands are thinking more and more about their role, partly because they have a natural link with the environment and also to exploit commercial opportunities. 

Sustainability threats facing fashion businesses 

According to Javier Seara, one of the lead authors of the Boston Consulting Group, “fashion brand’s profitability levels are at risk by at least three percentage points if they don’t act determinedly soon”. Inaction on climate change could result in multiple threats to fashion businesses. One of them is already reality: environmental disruption has caused the price of cotton, essential for the production of many clothes, to increase sharply, thus eroding companies’ profit margins. 

The fashion industry operates according to the business model of “take, make, waste”. However, as the resources fashion relies upon are not infinite, it has to rethink its operational structure because at the moment is unsustainable in the long run. The most critical resource is water, which is used both for the production of natural textile fibers- such as cotton, linen, wool, silk- and in the treatment processes that transform the raw materials into the finished good. 

The environmental cost of making jeans 

While you’re reading this article, you may be wearing a pair of jeans. Did you know that the WWF estimates it takes 10000 liters of water, the equivalent of an entire swimming-pool, to dye and finish a pair of them? This projection gets even worse when considering distressed jeans. To get that lived in look, denim is subject to several chemical intensive washes, which increase their water footprint, pollute rivers and lakes with heavy metals and enter in the food chain. 

The solution to mitigate this problem is co-responsability: raise awareness among consumers and promote technological innovation from the producers side. 

Jeanologia is an innovative company that paved the way in this direction. It focuses on the development of sustainable and eco-efficient technologies for fabric and garment finishing industry that are capable to enhance productivity, reduce water and energy consumption, eliminate damaging emissions and waste, guaranteeing zero contamination. 

Laser technology, rather than sandblasting or hand sanding, which is harmful to the environment and workers, gives a pair of jeans the worn look. The G2 ozone treatments fade down the color of a jeans instead of using chemicals, while eflow technology that uses air in place of water for the dyeing process, gives them softness and wrinkle repelling properties. 

Another virtuous example in this sense is Italdenim, one of the three denim manufacturers in Italy and supplier of around 40 denim brands around the world. It invested in a machine that takes indigo dye and uses electrochemicals and no water to make the colors for their denim. After dyeing it, they apply to the yarn chitosan, which comes from the waste of the food industry. By creating a shell that protects the color and doesn’t rub dye off, it reduces drastically the amount of dye needed to color the denim. 

These new innovative processes save energy, water- a pair of jeans require just a glass of water to be produced- and don’t use chemicals, which are responsible for skin problems, and most importantly are biodegradable. 

Fashion companies are on the way to become eco-conscious brands 

A number of leading fashion businesses are pioneering sustainability initiatives and are revising their waste policy to create a circular economy where an increased use of sustainable, reusablee and recycled materials is put into place. 

Nike released its Flyknit trainers, with uppers made from micro-engineered polyester that, besides providing maximum athletic performance, have a minimal environmental impact since they reduced waste by about 60% compared to traditional footwear production. This international leader in sportswear has also launched the Nike Grind program thanks to which the materials it uses to make new products, ranging from footwear and apparel to sport surfaces, such as running tracks and tennis courts, are created from recycled athletic footwear and surplus manufacturing scraps. Its competitor, Adidas went into the same direction and launched new trainers made from 11 recycled ocean plastic bottles. 

Fashion companies are working to become eco-conscious brands: the overall sustainability goal comprises bringing down their environmental footprint by encouraging innovation in every stage of the business operations, from how they source and how they manufacture to how they sell. 

The pioneer to embrace a sustainable attitude was Stella McCartney which committed to ensure that all its cellulose fibers that replaced leather and other non eco-friendly materials, met strict sustainability standards. The maison is constantly making efforts to improve the sustainability of its garment, with the vision to create pieces that are not going to incinerators or landfills and that are not going to damage the eco-system. 

High-street brands such as H&M aim to make their stores and offices powered by renewable energy and use only recycled or other sustainably sourced materials for its products by 2030. Positive steps are also taking place in the luxury sector: from this year Gucci is removing fur from all its collections as this was seen as a question of both sustainability and environmentalism. Kering, back in 2010 developed the “Clean by Design” program, which tackles the problem of textile’s production cycle at its source by implementing some practices that improve efficiency at textile mill in Asia. The results are a reduction of about 25% in water usage and of 30% in fuel. 

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Will fashion save the planet? 

An increasing number of fashion brands are bringing the question of sustainability to the table and are keen to establish themselves as a powerful voice in the global sustainability conversation. However, it requires commitment from all the actors, both consumers and the entire fashion sector, to create a stronger and bigger sustainable fashion system. In an industry where half of the brands consist of small to medium sized enterprises that have limited control over their supply chains, for a circular economy to really make the difference, every player must collaborate together. Despite there is still a long way to go, enthusiasm is high and encouraging steps forward have been taken. 


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