Developing sustainable products for the clothing industry is easy

By Mark Sumner

Developing sustainable products for the clothing industry is easy. There are a whole raft of options for raw materials that are more sustainable than conventional raw materials; organic cotton, BCI, CMiA, recycled polyester, recycled nylon and new bio-synthetic fibres that are under development. Process innovations to reduce water and energy use have been developed for many aspects of the manufacturing supply chain; eco-factories, ultra low liquor ratio dyeing, digital printing and plasma treatments. And we are even starting to see opportunities for the recycling of textiles to reduce waste and minimise the use of virgin materials.

So, why don’t we see more green products on the high street?

If all of these opportunities are available to the industry to reduce the environmental impact of clothing and the fashion industry - why don’t we see more green products on the high street? Well, cost is an obvious barrier to some of the new technologies being talked about and availability of sustainable raw materials is another problem. However, the single biggest problem for the clothing and fashion industry is that no one is really sure how their products make it from the cotton fields to their store. The opaque nature of the traditional textile supply chain for many companies means they have little knowledge of what is happening upstream of their immediate supplier and downstream of their customer. And for retailers the problem is even bigger and more complex than anywhere else in the supply chain.

You can’t measure true impact unless you know where things come from

So if you don’t know where your product currently comes from and what manufacturing processes were used to produce it and what chemicals were applied to it, how can you know what its true impacts are? And if you don’t know where the product is coming from, who do you talk to make sure the cotton is grown in a responsible way, or the fabric was dyed without the use of APEO’s or if the workers in the factories were paid the minimum wage. The only way to start to manage the environmental impact of your products is to know where they have come from. Without this knowledge are you just greenwashing your customers?

Guest post from Mark Sumner Sustainability; Retail & Fashion School of Design, University of Leeds.