The Trouble With Textiles
One of the main aims of My Year of Yarn is to inspire creative development, and a great way to do this is to find out more about the materials that I work with. For most people textiles means fashion; clothing, garments, apparel and accessories. So it's understandable that headlines about sustainability in textiles are confusing, and in some cases just Fake News.
In 2019 I received funding from the Creative Scotland - Go, See, Share Fund to learn more about sustainable innovations in Textiles and here are some of the things I learned.
1 What are 'Textiles'?
When reports on environmental impact refer to 'Textiles' they include every facet of this giant industry. Textiles includes a huge range of manufactured products; fashion, carpets, car seats, upholstery, bullet proof vests and medical wear.
Fashion, and in particular 'Fast Fashion' is a specific sector of the garment industry that produces ready to wear items for retail in a short space of time. As little as a few weeks, compared to traditional seasonal collections which take months. As well as focusing on the speed of production, 'Fast Fashion' aims to retail high volumes of garments quickly in order to recoup production costs, which have also been kept as low as possible. Low costs are possible by outsourcing production to factories with cheap labour, and unfortunately this often comes hand in hand with low standards safety and few waste controls.
However by focusing solely on 'Fast Fashion' and high street on online retail as the baddie in textiles pollution we miss some of the most problematic ethical and sustainability issues.
2 What are the bigger issues?
The main issue, for all industry not just textiles manufacturing, is the reliance on fossil fuels for energy. Again it can be hard to relate this huge subject to the pair of jeans that are probably sitting in your wardrobe. So when I'm teaching I breakdown the stages of the production process to make this easier to digest.
1 - Growing cotton to make denim. Fuel for farm machinery, sewing seeds, irrigation, pesticide spraying and harvesting. Locations for growing cotton are US, Uzbekistan, China, India, Turkey, Pakistan and Brazil.
2 Turning cotton fibre into fabric. Fuel for transport to the mill. Energy for the mill to process cotton plant fibres into fabric. This process includes cleaning, de-seeding, carding, spinning and weaving. Locations for Mills are China, India, and increasingly Eastern Europe.
3 Dyeing. Energy to produce heat for dyeing. Dye used is a synthetic indigo, so energy to manufacture dye is also included. Transport to dye plant, Locations China, India, Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
4 Fabric into garments. Fuel to transport fabric to the garment factory. Energy for design, cutting and sewing garments. Additional energy for fabric treatments such as sandblasting and stone washing to create 'worn' finished looks on denim. Locations China, India, Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
5 Transport to warehouse. At this point the jeans cross the ocean closer to the point of sale. Fuel to transport. Receiving locations USA, Europe (Italy), North Africa (Egypt).
6 Transport to the consumer. The final movement into a high street store or domestic shipping to your house.
This simple overview gives a quick idea of the huge amounts of energy that are consumed during a manufacturing process, and from this it is easy to understand why Energy as an industry has such a massive potential to improve the sustainable impact of so many other industries across the globe.
The other key player in the process is Water. Water is required in large quantities in the first stage, growing. You may also see and hear people refer to Cotton as a 'thirsty' crop. The cotton plant doesn't actually require huge amounts of water. The issue is that we grow millions of acres of this plant, often diverting and irrigating water away from other sources.
The second large input of Water is in the dye stage of the production process. If you have tried dyeing at home, perhaps using one of my books or courses you'll have noticed how much water you use. Water is required to prepare dye, apply dye and rinse dye from fabrics or yarn. There are reports that just one pair of jeans uses thousands of litres of water, which isn't an issue if clean water is plentiful and if the water can be recycled and reused. However access to clean water is an issue is some of the locations listed above, and some of these dye processes use harmful agents that permanently contaminate water.
I use cotton for jeans as an example but this process can be applied to every textiles we consume. Car seats, carpets, shopping bags and window blinds all go through these stages.
So the headlines that you see focusing on 'Fast Fashion' only cover part of the story and may be diverting our attention away from changes that need to be made across 'Textiles' as a whole.
3 Can we tackle Textiles pollution?
The great news is that the textiles industry contains some dynamic and innovative people who are developing high tech solutions to some of those bigger issues. For example DyeCoo , a company I visited in The Netherlands which has created a process for dyeing fabric that does not require water.
More great news is that we can easily reduce the need for those Energy and Water heavy processes by recycling and reusing the textiles that are already out there in the world.
4 Do I have to give up fashion?
No, because it provides skilled employment for thousands of people, innovates design, solves practical safety problems and makes our lives beautiful. We have the capacity to make some significant changes that will transform Textiles into a model of sustainable consumption. Textiles also has a wealth of knowledge in repairing and remaking that can be applied right now to ease the demand on new resources.
At the moment for every 30kg of clothing that you put into a donation point only about 4.5kg of it is recycled. The rest is incinerated, or shredded and put into landfill. During my visit to Reshare in Utrecht I learned that one of the biggest issues with this sorting and recycling process is that items with mixed fibre content can't be recycled. So when buying new choosing single fibre sources can help further down the line.
However projects like Reshare show that mixed fibres can be remade into new items, creating jobs and opportunities along the way
5 What about tricky Textiles?
There are some items made for safety or high performance that are made from highly technical mixed fibres, which include plastic microfibres. As I talked with different textile companies on my Go. See. Share visit I understood more about the role of these textiles and that simply switching to 'natural' was not an option, for example when producing textiles for High Visibility. In these cases the potential to improve sustainability comes from the creation of Circular processes that incorporate recycling and reusing into design and manufacturing. This often involves partnerships across multiple organisations and industries, such as the Econyl Yarn from Aquafil.
So although Fashion and Textiles has been part of unethical and unsustainable practices I'm hopeful about the capacity, enthusiasm and innovation that I've seen within the industry. I'm also more informed about the complexity of sustainable transformations, from fossil fuel sources to consumer choices, and I'll continue to use My Year of Yarn to share my sustainable journey.