Why advocating for more environmental sustainability in textiles can help to support the vision of a better industry?

When talking about environmental sustainability, the textile industry certainly has a lot of room for improvement. As the environmental performance of products has become a key issue, it is becoming increasingly important to assess how the industry’s activities impact our environment.

The way to assess a textile’s environmental impacts

You may have heard of the term ‘lifecycle’ already and wondered what that has to do with the items we buy. Well, in order to be able to identify and assess the environmental impacts that our textiles have, the so-called lifecycle assessment methodology can help. The basic idea of this methodology is to look at all the major phases over the course of a product’s lifespan (see in the image below) to then identify the environmental impacts arising from them. So, ‘lifecycle’ refers to the different phases that constitute the lifespan of a textile.

product lifecycle diagram.jpg

The environmental impacts associated with textiles

While it may not often be very clear what impact our textiles have, here is a little overview. This is in no way an exhaustive list as the environmental impacts associated with a textile’s lifecycle stem from a number of sources. Examples include the pollution caused by the often very toxic chemicals used to dye the textiles and that are released in the environment. The water shortages caused by high water use during the production phase is another example.

Trends such as lowered production costs and an acceleration in the design and marketing of textiles have further resulted in the fast-paced rate at which these are being consumed and thrown away – something often associated with the ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon. Adding to this, getting rid of textiles is becoming an additional challenge as recycling methods or the right infrastructure for after-use collection are often missing. These items often end up in landfills or are burned without being recovered for further use.

Essentially, what we can see is that the textile industry currently not only operates in a way that causes immense environmental pressures, but it has also developed towards being driven by fast consumption resulting in textiles being massively underutilised.

Advocating for environmental sustainability

While these facts depict a rather dark image of the textile industry, solutions are already out there to address these impacts. A priority should be to find ways to enable a transition towards less environmentally damaging production and consumption patterns. Here, adding greater value to textiles and maintaining their value by keeping them in use for longer can help.

This means that measures and practices in the textile production should be encouraged that have a lesser environmental impact. Some of these measures can include the use of more eco-friendly crops, such as hemp or flax, instead of traditional cotton, the use of environmentally friendly dyes or increased water efficiency.

Significant reductions in environmental impacts can also be achieved by targeting consumption patterns. Educating consumers helps them to make more informed decisions when purchasing or getting rid of their textiles. Some of the measures related to sustainable consumption can, therefore, include to buy less, choose better quality items that are made as sustainable as possible, and keep clothes in use for longer through options that include sharing, swapping, repairing or second hand. 

When advocating for environmental sustainability, one of the key elements is, therefore, to look for opportunities to increase the value given to textiles.

The initiatives that are underway to increase sustainability in the textile industry

Now that we know that solutions to address the environmental impacts of textiles already exist, here is a short overview of initiatives that are underway to push these. The initiatives include for example the recently announced United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, Fashion for Good created by the C&A Foundation, or the industry-led Sustainable Apparel Coalition initiated by Walmart and Patagonia. Many more exist of course but most of them have in common that they are advocating for the need to increase the value given to textiles by moving towards sustainable consumption and production patterns.

The importance of change has also been strongly highlighted by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that underlines the global political will to achieve a sustainable future based on the long-term protection of the environment.

Citizens have also found ways to express their concerns and wishes through platforms such as Fashion Revolution that advocates for “radically changing the way our clothes are sourced, produced and consumed”.

In essence, the goal for change is ambitious. It is therefore crucial that everyone plays their part in helping to achieve the vision of a better textile industry.

The way forward

While the textile industry has a responsibility to improve its environmental performance - one thing is certain - it is also up to the rest of us to advocate and support its transition towards more sustainable practices. We can all play our part in contributing to a more prosperous and sustainable future for our planet with the decisions we make. When deciding how to buy, consume and discard of our textiles we are actively making a choice to increase the value given to them and can contribute to the transition towards a more sustainable textile industry.