Sustainable textiles: Why we need to value our clothes more

A report examining the environmental impact of the UK clothing industry published by WRAP earlier this month has shown promising evidence of progress being made in the drive for sustainable textiles and a more environmentally friendly approach to the production and consumption of clothing in the UK.

In 2012, WRAP devised the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan 2020 (SCAP) 2020, in which over 75 organisations from across the clothing sector pledged to play their part in reducing the carbon, waste and water footprints of clothing they supply or receive in the UK by 15%. The recently published report titled, Valuing Our Clothes: The Cost of UK Fashion, revealed that the SCAP signatories have so far reduced carbon by 10.6%, water by 13.5%, and waste across the product life cycle by 0.8%, per tonne of clothing sold since 2012.

Making textiles and fashion more sustainable ultimately boils down to two key factors; a fundamental change in consumer behaviour and an overhaul in the production processes used to make clothing. We have already seen big brands such as Stella McCartney and Marks and Spencer encourage consumers to adopt a more considerate approach to their clothing and evidence shows it’s starting to have an effect. For example, since 2012 carbon footprint has been reduced by 700,000 tonnes CO2e through people washing their clothes at lower temperatures and the amount of clothing in household residual waste in the UK has reduced by 50,000 tonnes.

The report also showed that the average clothing life has increased from 2.2 years to 3.3 years since 2012. Consumers recycling clothes more is another positive step forward but usually results in lower grade fabric, and since the “lower grade fabric produced doesn’t replace the sales of new clothing savings in term of water, waste and carbon are minimal”. Manufacturers need to focus on ways to improve the quality of fabrics during the production process to encourage consumers to keep their clothes for longer.

Changes in consumer behaviour will take us so far in the search for a sustainable future but what can be done by industry to really drive positive change?

The report highlights that the switch to sustainable cotton presents “one of the biggest opportunities for clothing retailers and brands” to meet the sustainability targets. Assessing the processes involved in fibre production will be key to improving the sustainability of cotton as the report points out “fibre preparation and processing…all add to the carbon footprint.”

Issues around wastewater treatment and the levels of water usage in textile production are of major concern. The Global Leadership Award in Sustainable Apparel reported that the clothing industry uses over 5 trillion litres of water as a whole and 20% of freshwater pollution comes from textile treatment and dyeing.

Catexel has been working with textile houses for many years on sustainable textiles to develop cleaner, greener, safer production practices. Our Pegasus platform supports the reduction of energy and water usage in fibre production to produce more sustainable textiles, two parameters set out in the SCAP targets, by activating hydrogen peroxide during the processing of raw cotton yarns and fabrics. By enabling low temperature bleaching of cotton, the technology also helps improve fabric quality with less piling and a softer product feel compared to bleaching at higher temperatures.

As the global demand for clothing continues to rise, there is still much to be done to secure a more sustainable way forward for the textiles industry but it’s encouraging to see the progress that has been made in the UK to meet the SCAP targets.

Liz Manning, Business Development Manager at Catexel

Liz Manning Sustainable Textiles

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