The Path to the Future is Green

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What are the sustainability targets for textiles, fashion and footwear set by the major international organisations? We went to find out.

Words: Patrícia Barnabé

According to the figures, in 2017, there were 18 million displaced people in the world as a result of climate disasters and extreme events such as floods and wildfires, which are becoming increasingly frequent and ferocious. At the same time, compared with the figures recorded between 1960 and 1990, in Europe, we now have 10 more tropical days a year on average, with the mercury above 30°C, and tropical nights with temperatures above 20°C. In seven of the last 10 years, temperatures have been the highest since records began in 1880. This is the visible tip of the iceberg of climate change, the result of the exponential population increase from the 20th century to the present, and which does not seem to want to slow down. The result is the overwhelming of natural resources due to growing consumption — and the pollution that all this entails, killing forests, animals and affecting the health of us all. This is a wake-up call. As we know, it all starts with fossil fuels, as well as with intensive agriculture and livestock farming (8 million kilometres of forest have been cleared in the Amazon just to raise cattle), which erode the soil, making it sterile, and emit poisonous greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And the fashion industry, which is the world’s fourth-most polluting, also has much to apologise for; not only because of its mass production, but also because it is also the world’s third-most consumptive in terms of water and land, while the waste from its dyeing plants has a devastating effect on river pollution. Its problems in the area of social sustainability are well-known, including the subhuman working conditions in its factories in the poorest countries, where it produces non-stop, and at low prices, to feed the vanity of the West.

According to Antonio Gonzalo of the McKinsey consulting firm, which every year teams up with Business of Fashion to take the pulse of the fashion industry and produce its renowned forecast, fashion is responsible for “approximately 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, representing 4% of annual global emissions”. More than 70% of these emissions come from production, with the rest being produced by retail, logistics, and the consumers themselves. Gonzalo says it is possible to reduce annual emissions to around 1.1 billion tonnes, but there needs to be a total transformation of the concept of “value”, as well as the choice of supply chains and ways of working. As we know, mindsets are the slowest to change, but if the issues of gender balance and inclusion are moving very slowly, and despite the political setbacks threatening them, in the case of sustainability and climate emergency the consternation is general, and the response must be immediate: we must roll up our sleeves now to ensure urgent and effective change, and not just signal our good intentions. This is what we must do if we want the next generations to have a future.

Only a couple of years before the pandemic, the green movement in fashion began to gain some political traction through the Copenhagen Global Fashion Agenda that came out of the 2018 sustainability forum, and its key players have tripled in number since. Before that, only the Ellen MacArthur Foundation had spoken about sustainability since its foundation in 2009, and fashion designer Stella McCartney took her vegan activism to the runways. In 2015, the United Nations (UN) set the targets for the 2030 Agenda, which consisted of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were unanimously approved by 193 member states. This was presented as “a list of things to do in the name of the peoples and the planet”, and includes a vast and ambitious will to change the world — socially, economically and environmentally — while also “promoting peace, justice and effective institutions”. The idea is to go as far as ending all forms of poverty and hunger, promoting gender equality, decent work and economic growth. Among the major objectives is number 9, which targets industry, aiming for innovation and infrastructure “of good quality, reliable, sustainable and resilient, including regional and cross-border infrastructure, to support economic development and human well-being, focusing on fair access and affordable prices for all”. In addition to promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, by 2030, it aims to “significantly increase industry’s participation in the employment sector and in GDP”, and “modernise infrastructure and rehabilitate industries to make them sustainable, with greater resource efficiency and greater adoption of clean and environmentally sound technologies and industrial processes; with all countries acting according to their respective capabilities”.

Goal 12 of the 2030 Agenda focuses on sustainable production and consumption, with the efficient use of natural resources — and this is where fashion comes in most prominently. According to the UN, by 2030 waste generation must be reduced “substantially through the prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse of waste”. But before that, it is important to “achieve environmentally sound management of chemicals and all waste throughout their life cycle in accordance with agreed international milestones, and significantly reduce their release into the air, water and soil to minimise their negative impacts on human health and the environment”. It is clear that the incentives given to companies adopting these practices are understood, and that they integrate information on sustainability in their activity reports, while also succeeding in raising awareness of what they define as “lifestyles in harmony with nature”. At the same time, and since a significant part of the fashion industry, and even more so in its mass-market version, produces most of its goods in developing countries, the UN is seeking to minimise “the possible adverse impacts on their development in a way that protects the poor and affected communities”.

In the European Union, the textile and clothing sector has a significant economic weight, so it can play a key role in the circular economy. It includes more than 160,000 companies; most of these are small and medium-sized enterprises, employing about 1.5 million people and generating benefits of about €162 billion, according to data from 2019. The European Commission’s March 2022 report, the Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, warns us that “the production and consumption of textile products continues to grow, as does their impact on climate, water and energy consumption and the environment. Global textile production almost doubled between 2000 and 2015, while the consumption of clothing and footwear is expected to grow by about 63% by 2030, “from 62 million tonnes now to 102 million tonnes in 2030”. The report also warns that around 5.8 million tonnes of textiles are discarded every year in the European Union, which is approximately 11 kilos per person, while every second, somewhere in the world, a truck full of textiles is buried or incinerated. What’s more, clothing accounts for 81% of textile consumption in the European Union, and the habit of consuming it constantly and quickly leads us to the overproduction and overconsumption that is the definition of fast fashion: we buy more low-quality, low-price clothing. The report also states that monthly spending on clothing has risen across all households. “These negative impacts are rooted in a linear model that is characterised by low rates of textile use, reuse, repair and fibre-to-fibre recycling, and this often fails to place quality, durability and recyclability as priorities for garment design and manufacturing”, the report reads. “The release of microplastics from synthetic textiles and footwear during all stages of their life cycle further increases the environmental impacts of the sector”. And we are well aware of the social impacts: production in poorer countries where the labour force is cheaper, less well protected, mostly female and unskilled — an estimated 75% of the textile labour force are women — so the issue of gender inequality is very evident here, while the shameful practice of child labour persists.

For this reason, the European Union wants to set the standards for this change by 2030, because “in a competitive, resilient and innovative textile sector, producers ought to take responsibility for their products throughout the value chain, including when they become waste”. It recommends not only immediate action in the area of textile production, with urgent systemic changes, and stresses that this not only concerns the clothes we wear, but also affects textiles used in other industries such as furniture, transport, and protection. Firefighters’ uniforms are made with smart fabrics that regulate temperature and humidity, for example, as are outdoor wear and sportswear: “The need to act on the production and consumption of textiles is more urgent today than it has ever been”. While the Circular Economy Action Plan was created in 2020, in 2021 it was updated by the EU Industrial Strategy that identifies textiles as “a key product in the value chain, an urgent necessity and with great potential in the transition to sustainable and circular production, consumption, and business models”.

It goes on to list the keys to change, starting with eco-designs that increase the lifespan of articles. It is therefore important to invest in quality: in the spinning and manufacturing of fabrics, in colour fastening, seams, finishes and accessories, such as zips and buttons. It recommends reusing, renting and repairing articles, with return services and second-hand retail as forms of sustainability and saving. It refers to the important choice in the composition of materials, for their performance on the human body and in the environment, which fibres are used, their potential for recycling and the presence of chemicals. Only 1% of these are transformed into new textiles, “25% to 40% of all fabrics are scraps or become waste. Around 20% of the textiles used in Europe are used as cleaning cloths in the industry; the rest is lost”. Therefore, design should take all of this into account, so that recycling is considered from the outset. The European Union has created certifications for products that already integrate these requirements — the EU Ecolabel for textiles and the EU GPP that also includes services, so that the ecological footprint of clothing and footwear will be closely monitored by 2024.

Another European measure also seeks to put an end to the destruction of unsold or used textiles, which is a waste of resources. It, therefore, proposes imposing a transparency obligation on large companies, forcing them to publicly disclose the number of products they dispose of or destroy, as well as their future treatment, be it reuse, recycling, incineration or landfill. It relies on new digital and precision tools, while promoting process efficiency in the industry to “reduce online shopping by encouraging custom and bespoke manufacturing and thus improve the efficiency of industrial processes and reduce the carbon footprint of e-commerce”. And other wider measures are to follow, such as the struggle against microplastic pollution, including in the marine environment, where concern is growing, with textiles — and in particular synthetic fibres — being one of the main sources of microplastics. “It is estimated that around 60% of the fibres used in clothing are synthetic, with polyester predominating, and this proportion is increasing. Most are released during the first five to 10 washes, with the fast fashion that is associated with the growing use of oil-based synthetic fibres contributing greatly to microplastic pollution. Up to 40,000 tonnes of synthetic fibres are released into washing machine effluent every year”.

The European Commission is planning to introduce a digital passport for textiles, which will contain all the information about the products, from the provenance of its fibre to the production details, and anticipates the possibility of creating a digital label. This will empower the most sustainable businesses by giving them greater visibility and allowing consumers to make informed choices. Likewise, it wants clear and accurate labelling for brands that use genuinely sustainable textiles, since “a recent audit of sustainability claims in the textile, clothing and footwear sector suggested that 39% could be false or misleading”, and “do not offer significant environmental benefits”. It also aims to make textile producers responsible, raising their awareness for new use and/or recycling of their textile waste. “More than 2.1 million tonnes of post-consumer clothing and home textiles are collected every year in the European Union for recycling or sent to global markets that will put them to a new use, representing around 38% of textiles in the European market. The remaining 62% is believed to be discarded”. The EU talks about building the industry of the future by upgrading its Industrial Strategy to accelerate green and digital transitions, while it also wants to “reverse the over-production and over-consumption of clothing, to ensure fast fashion falls out of fashion; ensuring fair competition and conformity in a well-functioning internal market”, strengthening legislation to that effect and encouraging cooperation and monitoring between member states; while also supporting research, innovation and investment in the sector, so that it reinvents itself, “translating the European Green Deal into tangible initiatives that promote sustainable lifestyles, including fashion, under the #ReFashionNow banner”. Finally, the Commission will support projects that encourage fashion sustainability and train a new workforce for an industry in which 40% of companies lack green skills. It also “intends to make a common industrial map of circularity, support bio-based innovations in the textile sector that seek to give a boost to the development of new types of textile fibres” and to do all this work at a global level, so that the world also follows this standard of sustainability, namely in promoting “fairer and greener value chains that cross continents and borders”. As the EU is one of the biggest importers of clothing — in 2019 alone, it imported some €80 million — it will assume the responsibility of promoting this transition globally. The decent working conditions that will accompany it will be promoted through the European Union’s Better Work Programme. And the goal is to accomplish all of this between 2022 and 2024.

The good news, and going back to Bof’s most recent The State of Fashion report, is that fashion brands’ major commitment to growth will focus on digital and environmental sustainability. In other words, 37% of fashion executives cited social commerce as one of the top three issues to impact their business in 2022: 60% put sustainability as a priority, while 68% cite the maturity of technological solutions as the most important factor in scaling recycling solutions. What’s more, 45% of all fashion employees cite a “sense of purpose” as one of the most important factors in choosing which fashion company or brand to work for. If Europe wants to continue to be the example to follow, as it has always been in other areas, in particular fashion’s aesthetic milieu, change should also begin here — with the quality that is itself a definition of sustainability. And this is where we as consumers come in, to help this great change that is our only possibility for the future.