Environmental Impacts & Solutions Within the Textile & Garment Industry

Written by: Stephen Moglia, Business Development Manager

Sustainability, green fashion, circular economy: we hear and see those words almost everywhere now. They multiply with the growing interest of consumers and companies for the environmental impacts of the industry. In fact, the textile industry has become the second most polluting industry in the world, right after oil, as stated at the sixth edition of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit last May. Globalised, complex, including a wide range of techniques, the textile industry affects the planet on many different levels, including very sensitive areas such as water, air pollution, chemicals, electricity consumption or waste. Being aware of the impacts of production processes has now become essential.

Moreover, damaging the environment also has an impact on humans, whether it is the workers, the consumers or people leaving nearby a factory. Cotton illustrates this in a tragic way. It is a very affordable fabric, widely used to make inexpensive clothes. To boost the production and fight the worms that attack the plants, a lot of farmers worldwide use pesticides. Those pesticides contain extremely toxic substances such as metals (aluminium, nickel, lead), barium or ethion that was banned in Europe. Farmers, in contact with those chemicals can get more cancer, liver and kidney diseases. The chemicals also cause freshwater pollution affecting a wider range of people. Hopefully more and more farmers are turning to organic cotton that is more respectful of the environment and uses no such pesticides. (Article Reference)

Another example is chrome tanning that was also banned from Europe for being too toxic. This tanning is faster, easier than other techniques. However, the leather is weaker and doesn’t last as long, thus creating more waste. Chrome is a heavy metal and damages the environment in the same kind of way pesticides do. It infiltrates the water and in contact with the skin can also have an impact on the consumer’s health. (Article Reference)

Brands, then, have a responsibility: choosing well where they source their materials and where they out-source the production. The consumer, getting information easily on internet is more and more aware of those issues, which reflects in its purchasing choices. Sustainability concerns have only been increasing since the 1990s and in 2015, 66% of global consumers were willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products. It damages the image of brands to be involved in environmental or social scandals. On the contrary, sustainability can be a real marketing opportunity. Showing concern, sharing the origin of the materials, revealing « who made [the] clothes » attracts customers, reassured that the product they are buying is safe for themselves and the planet. It is part of the « look good, feel good » trend when buyers don’t want to feel guilty wearing their favourite sweater. (Article Reference)

Transparency is trendy, however it is not always easy for brands to control their supply chain. How can a company based in Europe, or North America be sure of the quality of the products they buy in Asia? How can it know in which conditions clothes were made and with which means? The information given by the factories can be altered or fake, a website, mails, phone calls, those are only words and chosen images. It is also tricky for brands to plan a visit of the factories of their suppliers and manufacturers. When knowing someone is coming to check on the working conditions or on quality, it happens often that companies adjust their installations only for a day, adding fake security signs, changing displayed products or hiring more people to show wealth.

This is when audits can be extremely useful. The information obtained is more accurate and real. For environmental responsibilities, audits are made according to the ISO 14000 environmental standard, covering energy usage, renewable energy, greenhouse gas emissions, materials and waste reduction, life cycle management, supplier’s supply chain activities and more. ISO 14000 audits can be combined with SA8000 for social responsibility for a more thorough inspection, helping brands to have a better control on their supply chain and with time, to select their most reliable partners.

These audits can be applied to various fields such as footwear, garments, accessories, textiles, bags, soft toys, electrical & lighting, gifts, home & garden, hardware, furniture, industrial & construction, sporting equipment & fitness, toys, assemblies & molds, maintenance solutions, automotive parts, and medical devices.

Review an example report ISO 14001 here.

How does your organization ensure sustainability and environmental stewardship?

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