From Pollution to Solution: Breaking Down Waste in the Fashion Industry
Fashion is a $1.2 trillion global industry, with more than $250 billion spent annually on fashion in the US alone. The industry employs millions of people around the world and it is, bar none, an integral part of our everyday lives. But with great power comes great responsibility and it seems that this industry of mammoth proportions is also responsible for waste and pollution on a massive scale.
Led by retail giants, governments and the public, global programs are currently in motion to clean up the environment – all powered by new and unfolding technologies. By reducing fashion industry waste, retail giants may someday be able to clean up the environment, conquer the root cause of pollution, and play a major role in redeeming our contaminated planet.
Getting Down and Dirty
Textile processing creates many aspects of waste, including liquid, gas and solid wastes. The #1 casualty is water, with an estimated 20% of industrial water pollution derived directly from the textile industry. While vivacious colors and prints do make attractive garments, many are produced using toxic chemicals. Processes such as slashing/sizing, scouring, bleaching, heat setting and printing, pollute many of the clean water sources where large textile mills operate.
With the rise of public and government awareness, and the fight to clean up the environment, the apparel industry is deploying new technologies that provide alternatives to harmful solvents, such as short-chain fluorinated polymers used to repel stains and water. One example is Levi’s’ development of its own process to ensure the ingredients used in new products are screened for harsh chemicals and solvents. Environmentally conscious, they are now using elaborate processes that exclude water in the stone-wash process and combines multiple finishing and washing steps. The retail giant estimates this new technology reduces water use by up to 96% for some styles and plans to expand the process to cover 80% of its manufacturing by 2020.
Still, with more than 25% of the world’s chemicals used for textile production, the fashion industry is the world’s second most polluting industry, after oil. Today, gas emissions from textile manufacturing plants account for 10% of global greenhouse emissions, which is nearly the same amount as produced by all the EU countries combined. The fashion industry is overloaded with processes whose effects are emitted straight into the air, including resin finishing and drying operations, printing, dyeing, and fabric preparation.
But the fashion industry has a strong global platform to endorse and promote sustainability, and extraordinary efforts have been made to reduce the carbon footprint. Cutting-edge technologies have resulted in modified processes consuming lesser or eco-friendly chemicals. These include ultraviolet energy for dyeing, recycling systems for organic solvents used in textile pigment printing, digital textile printing, heat transfer printing, formaldehyde-free finishing, and bio-polishing to name a few.
Out of the Ashes
Solid waste pollution is the residual waste generated from the textile industry. Although deemed non-hazardous at the tail end of the production line, leftover fabrics, yarns and packaging materials, must be disposed of. These materials are trashed, some are sent to landfills, while truckloads are often left to rot. According to the UK-based charity, TRIAD (Textile Recycling for Aid and International Development), nationwide, 1.4 million tons of clothes and shoes are thrown away every year.
The fashion industry is using its spotlight, and with the help of technology, becoming more ecologically conscious. According to the World Economic Forum (WEC), great strides have been made to reduce the environmental cost of clothes, namely sourcing and promoting sustainable materials. New material sourcing is gaining popularity, including such novelties like fibers from shredded plastic sieved from ocean trash, recycled and made into garments and footwear.
Concerted efforts such as the use of organic cotton, are also becoming a standard. While organic cotton is far more expensive to grow and process, it proves a much more sustainable alternative to standard cotton. Organic cotton reduces the environmental footprint, because unlike conventional cotton that uses nearly 16% of insecticides and 7% of pesticides, organic cotton is free of toxic chemicals. It doesn’t damage the soil, has less impact on the air, and uses 71% less water and 62% less energy than standard cotton. Despite the cost, it’s fast becoming a viable alternative for many garment manufacturers.
It seems that the move to organic and eco-friendly fashion is on the rise, as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), in cooperation with industry leaders and researchers, is now creating global standards for labeling systems to identify garments that meet criteria as ‘environmentally-friendly’.
Winds of Change
While retail giants, governments and eco organizations work tirelessly to reduce the carbon footprint and wage war on global pollution, the journey of a cheaply made dress or handbag doesn’t have to end in the trashcan or the landfill. Backed by advanced technologies that screen contaminants, use sustainable raw materials, non-toxic chemicals and solvents, and source and promote ‘green’ alternatives to today’s standard processes, the fashion industry is slowly moving towards a more sustainable future.
The most impactful developments, however, lie in technology and digital transformation. Not only for the sake of social responsibility, but for the optimization of the production process in general. Many tech companies rise to the challenge and create processes and workflows that materialize, above all, in cutting waste from the production process. As big names in the industry continue to adopt digital innovations, both financial and pollution aspects are dramatically downsized from the company’s portfolio. More importantly, the environmental impact is priceless.
Understanding that pollution is a collective responsibility leads to awareness, and awareness – leads to change. There is no one solution for pollution. It is, however, the fashion industry’s commitment to reducing waste in its production processes, either by using existing technologies or developing its own methods of cutting back on polluting elements that will lead to the much-awaited change.