Sustainability in Fashion: Victim of Convenience?

Prasham Kamdar, Managing Partner of Ptex Solutions, asks whether we can really expect true sustainability and transparency from retailers and brands soon, or if we are simply talking about more greenwashing? Choosing the best possible materials, trims and components is just the tip of the iceberg.

Is PLM doing all it can to help improve on the strategic goals of sustainability? PLM can be used as a knowledgebase, helping designers to make the right choices when it comes to selecting sustainable materials that can be linked to scoring algorithms. It hasn’t taken long for the public and other organisations to cotton on to the sad reality of marketing spin that comes from fast fashion brands and retailers – most of which is focused on those co-called sustainable material choices. And, honestly, this is only a small piece of the puzzle: imagine that a designer selects one of these low scoring [the lower the better] materials (an organic cotton recycled polyester, for example) – it sounds good …but is it? How sustainable really is organic cotton? And is it environmentally friendly? One thing for certain is that it’s not simply a binary choice. The bigger, hidden problem is how each of these choices are then processed.

Today the world is in a pivotal point when it comes to real action around the subject of sustainability; these actions are being driven by growing public concerns, continuous pressure mounting from NGOs, and governments that are under extreme pressures from their own voters demanding real change. As most readers will no doubt know the fashion industry is ranked number three in the world when it comes to pollution statistics – with number one oil & gas, and two agriculture.

Even as I sit and write this piece, yet again the world is experiencing climate heatwaves in the USA, Canada and Cyprus, with some of the highest ever-recorded temperatures and sadly a growing number of deaths and raging fires.

To help reduce their effects on climate change, consumers of all ages and from all classes should change their habits for making an impact on environment. Fast fashionistas are becoming aware of the problems that their buying habits are causing to the environment and we can see a growing trend towards slowing down, purchasing more durable products and consuming less.

Global media is full of stories and continues to target the retailers and brands causing the problem. Those in fast fashion in particular are under the constant microscope and continue to come under scrutiny from environmental groups and governments. We all know how fast the fast fashion sector is but, sadly, when it comes to sustainability, they operate at the opposite side of the pendulum; they are especially slow when it comes to meaningful change that will have positive effects on the environment.

Today the fashion world feels like one continuous promotion. It’s not too long ago that Black Friday was reserved for Americans; today, this promotion feels as popular as McDonald’s – available in every major country and city around the world. We are constantly under pressure to buy more with these huge discounts.

I must admit that I’ve recently fallen victim to the marketing spin, having done my fair share of shopping. Like a typical customer I fell into the trap of buying items just because they were cheap. A renowned US Brand gave an average discount of 65% on clothing, and because I already trust the brand for its quality and liked the designs, I bought eight garments instead of the three that I really needed. All this shopping was done online from India while the items were purchased and delivered in the US. The convenience of shopping online can – and does – lead to unnecessary purchases.

With the number of shirts purchased, and not counting the shirts that I already have in my wardrobe, on average I repeat a shirt at best once a month. So, even though the quality of a shirt is good, the truth is that I hardly get to wear them, and the cost per wear is much higher. On the contrary, my friend has just seven shirts and he wears the same shirts every week for a year. Even though he chooses not to buy branded, higher quality apparel, it still lasts for a minimum of one year so his cost per wear is very low, and he practices sustainability more than me.

Whether you opt for longevity in your garments or not, it’s how you service your products that also matters. For example, a fast fashion low-cost shirt will still be able to be washed for at least two years without the product breaking down. Yes, it may fade over time, more so that an expensive choice with weekly or bi-weekly washes, but most clothes these days will certainly last the test of time. So, isn’t processing both a manufacturing question and a consumer question?

Victim of convenience; it’s not just about the materials

Why do people buy garments made organic or with recycled polyester material?

You need to be mindful of what it really takes to deliver organic materials, and perhaps ask yourself, why is it that organic food is always more expensive than non-organic? There are similar questions and answers for the fashion sector.

By definition, an organic garment is a garment where no fertiliser or chemicals have been used during production. However, different companies have their own convenient ways to alter this definition. Apparently, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) allows certain low toxicity chemicals in certain quantities to be used and still be certified as being organic. So, this defies the definition of original organic. Many times, the word organic can have multiple definitions, is a matter of choice or of someone’s convenience.

Some reports suggests that organic cotton can’t keep up with the demand; when a material gets called out for its low sustainable scores (remember, the lower the better) the demand of course goes up, at the same time that price increases. So, is this sustainability in action? The reality is that producing organic cotton uses more resources than conventional cotton and can have a greater negative impact on the environment. When harvested, conventional cotton produces a higher yield than organic cotton and, on top of this, organic cotton is genetically modified to increase its harvest yields. Farmers use more land to produce organic cotton, which results in more water and resources being used. So we need to think carefully before we start marketing organic cotton on the premise of it being a great sustainable option and environmentally friendly. And this is just once example – other so-called organic materials fall into similar issues.

Organic or conventional, both require an enormous amount of water before harvesting – a scary fact when you think of the world’s water crisis. Tree Hugger reports it takes 1,800 gallons to grow enough cotton to produce just one pair jeans.

Even with all the best planning in the world, once the customer purchases the garment and washes the garment (regularly) it may not be particularly organic anymore – having been washed with detergents and hot water. So, all the effort of the designers, farmers, yarn producers, manufacturers, fabric mills and garment manufacturers, you could say is technically wasted after the first wash.

Now let’s talk Recycled Polyethylene Terephthalates (rPETs), or recycled polyester to the layman. The nursery rhyme, “10 green bottles standing on the wall” comes to mind – although today we may need to update it to 10 billion green bottles floating in our oceans.

Now pretty much everybody in the fashion world (fast or slow) are marketing themselves as being sustainable, due to their choices of materials, including recycled polyester. In other words, plastics bottles that are mechanically ground and crushed into tiny flakes rather than being chemically recycled, after which they are melted down to create yarn for knitted clothes or sneakers, or woven into new materials, or also used to produce sustainable sewing threads.

Just like organic cotton, the use of rPET seems like a great idea on the surface, but we need to delve deeper into the processes that take place beyond our material choices. In the case of rPET, the process of going from virgin polyester to a reusable rPET is a one-time opportunity due to the chemical structural changes that occur and, in the main, do not allow for an ongoing recycling process. This is due to the degrading quality of the output. So, whether it’s bottles or fishing nets that have been discarded in the ocean, recycling isn’t always the perfect answer. It’s also worth noting that the fashion industry is in great competition with other industries, like the bottling world, with Aquafina, Dasani, and Nestle Waters all wanting to turn waste into a new, sustainable use case. So, with increased demand will the prices start to rise?

Why is it difficult to embrace true sustainability?

Manufacturers are required to produce the garments as per specifications provided by retailers or brands. While many companies have sustainability as a strategic initiative, the fact is that they don’t want to pay for real sustainability changes. Some of the key challenges are:

  1. Process Complexities

Recently, I worked with one factory manufacturing organic garments for a Japanese company, who were asked to use vegetable dyes. These are very expensive because of the process of getting vegetable wastage, processing it and then obtaining the dyestuffs. It’s also very difficult to obtain the consistency of the required colour, which would differ slightly with each dyeing batch. The end quality was inconsistent and commercially it was not viable to complete the original desired objectives.

  1. Limited Sources

Another major challenge of delivering on sustainability targets is that the EU / US norms for metal trims must be nickel and lead free. Only the largest operating companies in the world can supply buttons or zippers to the levels of specifications required. Small and medium (SME) manufacturers of trims and components cannot manufacture or match these stringent specifications easily and, to the target cost of the western retailers and brands, are still negotiating for the extra sustainability requirements. So, the only way is for local manufacturers to attempt to buy the required ‘specifications’ from the larger international suppliers, which is not always possible as smaller manufacturers are often deemed too small to do business with.

  1. Viability

Have you ever considered what it must be like for a manufacturer based in India or other parts of Asia, who makes products for western retailers and brands, to be constantly under pressure to support the growing demands of delivering sustainable clothing? It’s harder than you might think. The message coming out from manufacturers is that the greater the demand for sustainable trims and components the higher the prices must be to secure new supply! If a better price is provided then better materials and, perhaps more importantly, improved sustainable processes can be implemented. The bottom line seems to be: if the price is heavily negotiated down (as is the norm in most cases) and the retailer wants cheap garments then sustainability is just not viable.

The bottom line

It’s fair and reasonable for retailers and brands to start their sustainability journey by making the best possible material, trims, and component choices. But, this is the first, basic step. Next will be to ensure that these material improvements are also supported by the best possible processing choices. Going forward the fashion sector will need to make some difficult decisions here, in that they will need to decide to plan for the complete removal of unsustainable processes, in the same way that the automotive world considering petrol (gas) vs. electrical cars! Simultaneously, consumers will need to be more mindful of their choices and opt for better quality vs. quantity.

Positive changes are already visible with some leading brands blazing an inspiring trail. For example, Levi’s has embraced the “Buy Better, Wear Longer” philosophy in an effort to drive more sustainable production practices. Similarly, Swedish high-end retailer, Filippa K chose to opt out of global Black Friday with the words: “Our mission as a brand is mindful consumption: designing clothes with timeless style and quality that you can wear and love for longer. When the industry goes fast this Black Friday, we’re choosing to go slow. We hope you join us.”

Until fast fashion can make room for slow fashion, true sustainability will not be achieved.