The Contemporary Rise of Sustainable Practice in the Textile Industry

By Inès Freyre
Published on May 8th, 2021

We’ve all seen those disturbing photos of starving polar bears balancing on melting sheets of ice, or the somber shots of smokestacks endlessly pumping what we can only guess is some sort of toxic fume into the thick smog above. And yes, we’ve been told, most notably in the last few decades, that this is the direct result of the reckless, human-induced exploitation of our precious planet earth and its bountiful resources. Unfortunately, however, it seems that much talk arises with little concrete action on these pressing global environmental issues. This phenomenon can in fact be referred to as performative activism, or more informally known as slacktivism. You may have heard of these terms in recent years as we see the growth of participatory culture in the age of social media; this being presented as the mere façade of supporting a social cause with a lack of genuine devotion to incite change. Nevertheless, it should be noted that there are certain societal sectors that have made significant and successful efforts, one of which is often disregarded but has proved to be moving at a particularly rapid pace towards the path of sustainability - the textile industry.

The textile industry is quite infamous in the realm of eco-friendliness. According to the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) and the United Nations (UN), 79 billion cubic meters of water were used by the textile industry in 2015, and in 2017, synthetic microfibers accounted for 35% of polluting microplastics released into the environment. Furthermore, 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by clothing and footwear production, as well as there being 340 tones of discarded clothes that are landfilled daily in Hong Kong alone. This industry poses an imminent threat towards environmental and sustainable efforts, but as previously stated, change is on the horizon. It should be quite evident that, as regrettable as it may be, the ‘good Samaritan’ nature of textile company CEOs cannot be fully accredited as the key driver in this shift towards sustainable practice. There has to be something in it for the companies; whether these are Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) or big Multinational Corporations (MNCs), they all have the same core objective - to generate maximum profit. This is where the problem arises for most other sectors when it comes to making environmentally-friendly production reforms: there is often a lack of financial incentive. To illustrate this, an example would be the fossil fuel industry, which would essentially die out if it were to abide by stern rules of safeguarding the natural landscape, seeing as the source of the traded material as well as all accompanying marketing logistics surround an environmentally-detrimental practice. In comparison, the commercial ramifications of sustainable practice play (for the most part) in favor of the textile industry through the shift of consumer culture demographics, global policies, and investment banking.

The first key driver for sustainability is people. Without consumers, companies cannot fulfill their goal of making profit. The 20th century was largely based on a culture of consumption and hedonism; the roaring twenties are a witness to this, as well as the 1950s and 1960s which are regarded by many as the ‘golden age of consumerism’. The 21st century, however, has developed into an age of sustainability and self-sufficiency. People are now more interested in spending their money on brands that sport a social purpose and exhibit transparency. Studies have shown that people are in fact ready to spend more in order to purchase environmentally-conscious clothing, showing that consumer shopping behavior has fundamentally changed. According to a report published in 2020 by the IBM Institute for Business Value, over 80% of consumers do research online before their purchase, 71% view traceability as important and are willing to pay for it, and 57% are willing to change their purchasing habits to mitigate the negative environmental impact. Sustainable fashion has become a trend, and people are jumping on the bandwagon. Therefore, companies have no choice but to abide by these changes demanded by their consumers in order to retain customer attraction and market legitimacy.

Secondly, in view of the need for retention of consumer satisfaction and economic soft power, brands need to portray a positive image of themselves as environmental benefactors. This means complying with internationally and regionally recognized policies such as the Paris Agreement framework or the EU Environmental Policy. For example, in 2019, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) - an industrial surfactant used in textile processing that is highly hazardous to the environment - was banned by the European Commission. Although it is not globally outlawed and there remain loopholes for its use, textile brands will often opt out of using such chemicals because doing so harms their reputation, even if its use is not completely illegal. There are numerous examples of similar chemicals that are condemned by environmental groups, but whose disuse is not legally binding. Therefore, brands make the conscious decision to not use them in order to shine a better light on themselves by using this to their advantage in their marketing campaigns, thus bettering their corporate image.

The last major driver of sustainability is the rise of Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) investment. This refers to the three key factors when measuring the sustainability and ethical impact of an investment in a business or company. Most socially responsible investors check companies out using ESG criteria to screen investments, and such investors have been growing in number in the last century. For environmental criteria, investors may look at greenhouse gas emissions, carbon footprint, recycling practices, relation to environmentally regulatory bodies, and more. Investors may be dissuaded to invest in companies that score poorly in ESG analyses, which provides ample incentive for these companies to make sustainable changes. According to a Pensions & Investments newspaper article, the value of global assets applying ESG data has almost doubled over four years, and more than tripled over eight years, to $40.5 trillion in 2020. Moreover, 60% of new inflow funds in 2019 were ESG, and 80% of millennials want ESG as part of their investment portfolios. Yet again, we see the global demand for sustainable practice providing new metrics for profitability, which lead businesses to apply these demands into tangible changes in the industry.

So, we know the reasons why these textile companies may be persuaded to adopt sustainable practices, but what do these changes look like? Cotton farmers, for example, can be subsidized to grow in an environmentally-conscious manner, using less water and not using any hazardous pesticides. Although the cotton output-per-acre would be lowered, farmers are financially compensated for production loss. In the cloth-dyeing process, certain chemicals would be prohibited as well as the implementation of water-saving systems, seeing as factories use up a lot of water for dyeing processes (100-150 litres of water for a kilogram of fabric). Even the less-hazardous chemicals used for dyeing still pollute, so companies may invest in water treatment plants to treat effluents before they are released into the natural environment. Many brands have also created garment collection schemes to recycle the fabric. One notable example is H&M’s Looop recycling system in Sweden whose technology was created by the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) in collaboration with the non-profit H&M Foundation. Looop shreds your old garment and knits a new one from the old fibers. Overall, the trend has been to come up with strategies to lessen the negative impact of this ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon, where fashion brands produce several collections a year, with some even changing collections every 15 days. Instead of decreasing the amount of collections, better planning is made in order to control collection stockpiles and prevent over-stocking. These surplus stocks of outdated collections are eventually landfilled or incinerated, which is not environmentally friendly. Therefore, companies will monitor stocks to prevent this by strategizing production.

Just as we have seen significant developments in the last few decades, the future is still uncertain, and we don’t know whether the textile industry will continue to pursue sustainable practices or revert to traditional fast fashion. With COVID-19, textile businesses have been hit hard just like many other industries, and sustainable development has taken a backseat. With the possibility of a future financial recession, or a major climate change impact on textile production within itself, the industry may just become obsolete. For now, we can observe the positive changes that have been made, and see that sustainable practice seems to be working in the present. We can only hope for such efforts to continue and for other industries to partake in the global environmental movement for the greater good of human survival.

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