An interview with Dr. Patsy Perry, Senior Lecturer in Fashion Marketing and Retail, School of Materials at The University of Manchester, on how to create a sustainable future for textiles.

What do you see as the key challenges facing the textile industry today?

There are environmental and social aspects of sustainability, which are both significant in the textile industry. Textiles is the second most polluting industry in the world after oil, and the fashion industry is notorious for sweatshop scandals as a result of its ongoing quest for cheap labour.

The release of dye effluent into waterways during textile processing and finishing, can devastate the ecosystem, reduce access to clean drinking water and cause illness and birth defects in local communities. These problems are exacerbated by the growth of fast fashion, with its ever-shorter product life cycles and pressures on cost and speed.

Finally, the textile industry’s carbon footprint is an issue, due to its vast global logistics operations of moving raw materials and products between production and selling locations, use of energy in heating large amounts of water for textile processing and finishing, as well as energy used for machines, lighting and air-conditioning in developing country garment factories.

What are the barriers to sustainability in the industry, as it stands?

Geographically long, fragmented and complex supply chains, often result in a lack of visibility and control beyond first tier suppliers, and an increased carbon footprint represent significant barriers.

Lax social and environmental standards in lower labour cost countries mean that business operations in these regions are not subject to the same level of regulation or scrutiny as they would be in the brand’s home market.

What have been some of the key developments towards a sustainable future for textiles?

There are some really interesting developments in the removal of water from production processes, for example the waterless jeans range by Levi’s in which most of the water was removed from the denim finishing process by innovatively combining multiple wet processes together, or waterless dyeing using carbon dioxide technology for example, which has been adopted by the likes of Nike and Adidas.

It’s encouraging to see large global companies such as Inditex, Nike & H&M’s sustainability efforts, as any meaningful move towards a sustainable future requires the participation of key industry players to achieve some kind of scale.

How does your organisation contribute to a cleaner, greener textile industry?

We don’t have any current projects focusing on the textile industry, butas social responsibility is a key strategic goal for us, we do a lot of workin environmental responsibility more generally, both from a research perspective as well as implementing this into our operations, and engaging staff and students.

This academic year we also offered all our 8,000 first year undergraduate students the chance to take part in the Sustainability Challenge, an interactive simulation activity where teams of students worked to balance social, environmental and economic factors to build a sustainable future for a university.

Where do you see the role of innovation in achieving sustainability goals and where do you think this innovation will come from?

Innovation is really important in achieving sustainability goals. We might question whether innovation will be the driver of sustainability or vice versa, as there’s an argument for both.

I would expect to see increasing collaboration on sustainability between competitors in the fashion industry, as more industry players realise this challenge is too great to solve in isolation and that the impact of collective efforts can be far greater than that possible by individuals.

To read the full interview and explore how a collaborative approach across the supply chain could help lighten the textile industry’s environmental load, download our new white paper by clicking here.

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