What is Sustainable Fashion?

The concept of sustainable fashion is an industry wide movement which aims to bring the fashion industry in line with others, reducing its environmental impact. The food and automotive industries have dominated environmental compliance for decades, and are constantly innovating to make their processes more sustainable.

The demand for quick turnaround and cheap products has made the fashion industry the second most harmful to the environment; second only to the Petroleum industry.

The goal of sustainable fashion is to create systems, processes and products which can be supported indefinitely in terms of human and environmental impact. The whole concept of sustainability is seen by many to be a movement against fast fashion.

1. Natural vs Synthetic Fibres

Nylon was the first synthetic fibre, introduced in the 1938 as a substitute for silk. Before then, clothing was made exclusively from natural fibres. Ethically sourced natural fibres are a sustainable resource and can be used without depleting or damaging the environment. However, due to limited farmland and a lengthy crop growth time they can be expensive to produce.

Nowadays, as a way to cut cost, boost profits and keep up with the global demand, fast fashion brands utilise an array of natural, synthetic and blended fibres. Not all fibres fit strictly in to the synthetic or natural category however.

  • Cellulose fibres

Cellulose fibres are obtained from bark, wood, leaves and other plant-based material. The most widely grown yet chemically-intensive crop in the world is Cotton. Although the cultivation area of cotton covers only 3% of the planet’s agricultural land, its production consumes an estimated 16% of global insecticides and 25% of all herbicides.

Organic Cotton removes the need for energy usage to produce fertilizer and requires less irrigation than traditionally farmed cotton.

Organic cotton only makes up 0.7% of all commercially farmed cotton.

As consumers start to invest more into ethical fashion, retailers and clothing manufacturers are beginning to explore alternatives like bamboo and hemp.

  • Protein Fibres

Protein based fibres are those which derive from animals. The most commonly used animal based fibres are wool from domestic sheep and silk from the bombyx mori silkworm.

Protein based fibres are naturally occuring and contain amino acids. It is the structure of these amino acids which give the fibres desirable characteristics such as anti static, strength, resilience, elasticity, insulation.

  • Recycled Fibres

Recycled fibres are those which have been produced from pieces of fabric which would have otherwise gone to landfill. Off cuts, donated fabrics and old clothing can be processed back in to yarn and then re woven into a new workable fabric, reducing textile waste.

  • Synthetic Fibres

Synthetic fibres are laboratory made, utilising chemical synthesis. Due to extensive research they often have similar or enhanced properties to natural fibres like cotton or silk.

The most commonly used synthetic fibre in garment construction is polyester. Invented in 1941, Polyester is made from PET or polyethylene terephthalate a form of plastic. The plastic is heated and forced through very small holes, before being stretched to around five times its length, creating a yarn. The yarns are then woven into a workable fabric.

Because they are repeatable, cheap and offer a number of desirable qualities, synthetic fabrics are popular with fast fashion retailers, however the environmental impacts of their production are significant.

Global Fibre Consumption

2. What is Fast Fashion?

The term “fast fashion” is used to describe the production of high volume, quick turnaround, low cost clothing. Fast fashion first appeared in the 1990s as corporations, in an attempt to increase profits, invested in cheaper production methods to mimic fast paced fashion trends.

As a result, and due the speed required to bring time sensitive products to market, retailers began to cut corners when it came to the quality and sustainability of their products.

Cotton farming is a lengthy process, with seeds which are planted in Spring being harvested in Autumn. To keep up with the demand from brands and retailers, manufacturers switched to using synthetic fibres like polyester. Being man-made, synthetic fibres can be produced on demand to keep up with the needs of the garment industry, but that “fast” nature comes at a cost to the environment.

Synthetic fibre production involves a chemical reaction between coal, petroleum, air and water, so isn’t sustainable in the long run and produces a large amount of pollution.

63% of textile fibres are derived from petrochemicals.

Nowadays as retailers and consumers understand the impact, fast fashion has become taboo, and brands are increasingly distancing themselves from the processes and fabrics associated with it. To that end, some of the biggest high street chains who were once the pioneers of the fast fashion culture are making an effort to introduce sustainable ways of manufacturing.

Fast Fashion Statistics:

  • ​Producing one cotton shirt uses around 2,720 litres of water; around the same amount as an average person drinks over three years. (Ejfoundation)
  • Polyester production creates around 706 billion kg of greenhouse gases per year, equivalent to the annual emissions of 185 coal-fired power plants. (World Resources Institute).
  • The average person buys 60% more items of clothing and keeps them for about half as long as 15 years ago. (Greenpeace )
  • The number of garments produced globally exceeded 100 billion for the first time in 2014. (McKinsey )
  • Garment manufacturing accounts for 20% of global industrial water pollution. (World Resources Institute).
  • ​The UK alone disposes of 350,000 tonnes (£140 million worth) of clothing in landfills each year. (Greenpeace)
  • ​By 2030, the total amount of fashion waste is expected to be 148 million tonnes – equivalent to 17.5 kg per person across the planet. (Global Fashion Agenda)
  • It takes about 10,000 litres of water to produce enough cotton for a pair of jeans. (WRAP)
  • The carbon emissions generated by the clothing of the average UK household is equivalent to driving an average modern car 6,000 miles. (WRAP)
  • More than 50% of the emissions from clothing production comes from three phases: dyeing and finishing (36%), yarn preparation (28%) and fibre production (15%). (Quantis)
Commercially grown species of cotton

3. The Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion

Since the 1990’s, growth of the multi-trillion-dollar garment industry has been fueled by fast fashion. Fast fashion requires high speed and low cost to keep up with the global demand for new collections as trends change. Traditional (slow) fashion collections occur twice per year; Spring/Summer and Autumn/winter. In contrast, fast fashion ranges can release 50 times per year – almost one a week.

As pressure to reduce development and production costs increases, along with expectations of fast turnaround times from brands and consumers, environmental corners are more likely to be cut.

  • Water Consumption

A 2017 report by the Global Fashion Agenda details that the fashion industry consumed almost 80 billion cubic metres of water. Put into context, that is enough to full 32 million Olympic sized swimming pools. Concerningly, this figure is forecast to reach 120 billion cubic metres by 2030.

It takes 2,700 litres of water to produce a simple T-shirt and almost 10,000 litres for a pair of jeans.

Part of the reason for such enormous water usage is that these garments are traditionally made from cotton. Most cotton is grown in warm and dry countries where water is precious and scarce, it takes 20,000 litres of water to produce just one kilogram of cotton.

Cotton makes up around 90% of all the natural fibres used in the fashion industry. Because cotton growth requires a lot of water for irrigation, the impact of water consumption has greatly affected some environments and communities; most notably the Aral Sea devastation.

Located across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world, fed by 2 major rivers. An increase in cotton production in the area in the 1960s led to irrigation canals being created to channel water to the farms rather than to the sea. This was unsustainable however, and it has resulted in the Sea being reduced to just 10% of what it originally was before the increase in cotton production.

  • Water Pollution

The production of natural fibre like cotton is extremely pesticide intensive. Considering cotton is only grown on 3% of the world’s farmland, its production accounts for 16% of global insecticide usage and around 25% of herbicide usage. These toxic chemicals are absorbed into the farm soil, before making their way into waterways which pollute rivers and water supplies.

Every time a garment which is made from a synthetic fibre like polyester is washed, microfibres are released which make their way into the water system. With each wash, around 1900 microfibres are released, which will eventually make their way into small aquatic organisms. As small fish eat the organisms, and the smaller fish are eaten by larger fish, plastic is introduced into the food chain. This then makes its way back to the food we as Humans eat.

Staggeringly, there are around 8000 chemicals which are used to turn raw materials in to fabrics, and it has been estimated that around 20% of the world’s water pollution is as a result of the fashion industry’s dyeing and cultivation processes.

  • Fashion Waste

In 2018, £140 million worth of clothing was sent to landfill in the UK alone, equating to around 350,000 tonnes of unwanted garments. An average western household is estimated to dispose of 30kg of clothing annually, and of that 30kg only 4.5kg is recycled or donated – the rest is either sent to landfill or incinerated.

Synthetic fibres like polyester are used in around 72% of garments. These fibres are non biodegradable and can take a staggering 200 years to decompose.

Due to fabric cutting techniques, around 15% of the material intended for clothing production ends up as off cuts.

It is estimated that around 4% of a factory’s output is rejected during the quality check process. When it is considered that some of the largest clothing factories in the world output 240 million garments annually, this is just under 10 million garments that are wasted by one manufacturer alone.

  • Gas Emissions

The fashion industry contributes to around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions due in part to its energy intensive production processes. The industry consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industry’s combined. Synthetic fibers (polyester, acrylic, nylon, etc.), used in the majority of our clothes, are made from fossil fuels, and 70 million barrels of oil are used annually just to produce the the raw material polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used in fabric production.

According to estimates, 262% more CO2 is emitted to produce a single polyester T-shirt than a cotton shirt. One of the most damaging parts of PET production is the chemical antimony which is used as a catalyst to actually create the plastic. Antimony is carcinogenic, and although it is “locked” in to the fibres after production, it is released into the water systems surrounding the clothing factories during manufacturing. The use of antimony is problematic when the garments come to the end of their life also as when polyester fabric is incinerated, the antimony is released into the air as antimony trioxide.  

5. A Real World Example of Sustainability

We spoke to sustainable fashion advocate and brand owner of Ivywake, Sam McCarthy. Sam is an eco fashion expert who has chosen to take his entire brand down the sustainable route. Here’s what he had to say on the topic:

When creating Ivywake and researching the fashion industry we knew that we had to develop a company that will change the way the fashion industry operates on a global scale. In order to do this we created a single core value that is the foundation of Ivywake, ‘creating timeless pieces through sustainable and ethical processes.’

The fashion industry at the moment is the world’s second largest pollution industry. Just the cotton industry alone also accounts for 16% of the world’s pesticides usage and 25% of the world’s insecticide usage. These pesticides and insecticides have enormous repercussions on the land and ecosystems in the surrounding area. They also can be extremely dangerous to the farmers that use them. According to the World Health Organization up to 20,000 deaths each year are caused by pesticide poisoning in developing countries. In the US alone, more than 10,000 farmers die each year from cancers related to such chemicals.

We knew that this was something we needed and had the ability to change. When growing organic cotton no chemical fertilisers, pesticides or insecticides are used. This allows for a massive improvement in the land quality that the crops are grown on and a huge reduction in water contamination. With no chemical run off, the ecosystems in the surrounding area are also able to flourish.

By using organic cotton we are investing in the future of the fashion industry. One of our main goals is to change people’s view on sustainable fashion. By creating high-end style using sustainable and ethical processes people are able to buy the clothing they love and support the creation of a sustainable fashion industry.”