Written by Zenda Nel
Sustainability Fashion Writer
Many of Dhaka’s approximately 4,600 garment factories line the black, filth-choked rivers that circle the city. Much of the river pollution is caused by the garment factories. According to the Bangladesh Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, tanneries release 21,600 cubic metres of toxic waste into the Buriganga River every day.
Many of Asia’s waterways suffer the same shocking conditions. The toxic waste is largely due to dyeing processes used in the textile industry. Textile factories dump wastewater in rivers and streams, which effectively turns them into lifeless cesspools. The sun can’t penetrate the surface of the water, which is no longer clear, so plants cannot photosynthesize and produce oxygen for plants and aquatic creatures.
The link between textile production processes and water pollution
Second to oil, the garment and textile industry is the largest in the world. Once a textile has been created through weaving or knitting of natural or synthetic fibres, it is pre-treated and then dyed or printed. These processes contribute to 20% of industrial water pollution. The dyes used to create our colourful clothes weigh 200,000 tons and contain many hazardous chemicals.
When fabrics are printed, polymer resin or binders are used to fix the pigments. The process often involves plastisol printing, which uses highly toxic chemicals. Most of the resulting toxic wastewater (90%) is discharged into rivers without being treated.
Chemicals are a major component in textile manufacture. One kilogram of chemicals is used to produce one kilogram of textiles. Even natural fabrics are not free of harmful chemicals – 27% of the weight of a 100% natural fabric is chemicals. Chemicals are used through every step of textile production, from fibre creation, dyeing, and bleaching to washing.
Wastewater containing toxic substances like lead, mercury, and arsenic flows down rivers and eventually into the ocean. contaminating the water and poisoning ocean life.
Image by Dhito 10 from Pixabay
Big brands doing good things
The UK-based luxury brand was sustainable when the concept was not even part of the general public consciousness. Right at the outset in 2001, no leather, feathers, or fur was used in the creation of any garments. Plastic has had no place in any process since 2010, and these days customers can buy items made from vegan leather.
Stella McCartney is a true pioneer in sustainable fashion, setting the bar high for other fashion houses.
The world’s most beloved brand for jeans has openly admitted its contribution to unsustainable fashion and has made a number of commitments towards sustainable denim production, particularly reducing water use. Currently, 75% of the cotton used is sourced from sustainable sources: the target is 100% by 2025.
The jean manufacturer’s real commitment to sustainability is in its creation of jeans that last, so consumers don’t need to replace them fast. The company also has a range of items made from previously owned jeans, called Levi’s Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.
This popular outdoor lifestyle company is regarded as a champion of sustainability. Apart from using only organic cotton certified by GOTS, and using a high percentage of recycled fabrics, Patagonia made the ultimate commitment to the planet by taking out an ad in The New York Times that states boldly: “Don’t Buy This Jacket”. To add punch to the statement, the ad was placed on Black Friday.
Tentree’s commitment is in its name: for each item purchased, the company plants ten trees. More than 62 million trees have been planted so far. Looks like the target of one billion trees by 2030 is within reach. When you buy a clothing item, you get a code so you can track your tree.
Tentree uses organic cotton, ethically sourced cork, coconut, recycled polyester and no harmful chemicals.
Pact’s garments carry both Fairtrade and GOTS certifications. Based in Colorado, this company has created a sustainable supply chain that uses 95% less water than traditional cotton textile production and limits the use of chemicals.
Pact also makes use of old clothing and linens to create some of their new clothing items.
Image by Karsten Paulick from Pixabay
These are exciting times for the textile industry. There is a slew of textile startups that are employing radical innovation to create more sustainable ways to deal with our need for textiles and to have them in all the colours of the rainbow.
The early-stage biomaterials startup, Algiknit, uses materials with a low environmental footprint like kelp to create textiles. Kelp is an outstanding sustainable resource, growing up to ten times faster than bamboo. Algiknit aims to create a series of sustainable plant-based textiles that can be fashioned into shoes and clothes.
Image by Chezbeate from Pixabay
Colorifix is a biological dyeing firm based in Norwich, Britain. Colorifix doesn’t use pigments derived from plants or animals, nor does it use any harmful chemical dyes to create dyes for textiles. The company uses a synthetic biology approach that imitates nature’s processes in a lab setting by replicating the ‘DNA message’ that codes for colour in an organism. This radical new approach completely cuts out the need for harsh chemicals and saves tonnes of water.
Frumat, in the Tyrol region of northern Italy, is simultaneously creating a new biomaterial and solving the region’s apple waste problem. The company’s plant-based leather is made from apple production waste. The company uses apple pectin to develop compostable materials that are durable and doesn’t need chemicals in the dying process. Materials with different textures are developed – a softer version for garments and a sturdier version for shoes and upholstery.
An exciting new development comes from Paris-based PILI. PILI has developed technology that enables sustainable production of dyes through microbial fermentation, avoiding the traditional petrochemical processes that require dangerous solvents and copious amounts of water.
The company manipulates the microbes to produce dyes that are colourfast. The process uses five times less water and creates ten times less CO2 emissions.
Denim Dyed Denim
This project from the Institute for Frontier Materials at Deakin University in Australia cuts out dying altogether and uses no water whatsoever. The project uses old denim to dye new denim material – one pair of old jeans is used to dye ten new pairs.
What steps can consumers take
If enough consumers refuse to participate in the dirty fast fashion cycle, things will change eventually. Here are some things you can consider doing to help sustainable fashion become a reality sooner rather than later.
- Read the labels to see where the clothes were made
Developed countries are more environmentally friendly than developing countries. Countries that belong to the EU have strict environmental regulations for factories, and clothes made there are a safe choice. Canada and the US also have strict rules that protect the environment. As far as possible, limit your purchases to products from these countries.
- Read the labels to see if the garment carries any certifications
Unfortunately, there are many different certifications and they are not very clear to understand or distinguish from each other. The various certifications relate to different parts of the whole garment creation process.
Both Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and OEKO-TEX are trustworthy certifications. GOTS scrutinises the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading, and distribution of all textiles made from at least 70% certified organic fibres. You can find their database of GOTS shops here.
The OEKO-TEX STANDARD 100 is the most common certification, but there are others as well. This certification specifically covers chemicals.
Other certifications focus on organic materials, environmental aspects, failed labour practices and more. Find out about them here.
- Do your homework and support eco-friendly brands
Make a decision to only support eco-friendly brands. Do some research online to find exciting new brands you don’t even know about. This doesn’t mean you have to abandon your favourite brands. Google them and find out if they are committed to the protection of the environment.
However, don’t be fooled by so-called greenwashing. Greenwashing refers to the practice of fashion companies telling consumers that their products are environmentally friendly, when, in fact, they are not. Fast fashion brands that are notorious for greenwashing are the Swedish brand H&M and the Japanese brand Uniqlo.
For a list of ethical, sustainable brands that is constantly updated, consult the sustainable fashion rating system Indeefactor.
- Simply buy less
We all have too many clothes. This is evident by the many items in our wardrobes that we seldom wear. Most of us wear only 20% of our clothes most of the time; the rest just hangs there, getting older and more outdated by the minute.
Many unwanted clothing items get thrown straight in the trash, with 64% of it ending up in landfills where it creates methane gas, contributing to global warming, and taking 200 years to decompose.
Think about that the next time you have an urge to buy a piece of clothing just because you feel like it. Rather go for quality and keep your clothes longer. This new habit will be easier on the planet.
- Visit Pinterest and see the wonders people do with old clothes
Mend, recycle or repurpose your clothes. There’s something you can do to save every item of clothing in your cupboard. If you are short on ideas, just spend some time on Pinterest or YouTube, and you’ll be astonished at what people are doing.
There are even ideas for those of us who don’t have any sewing skills. TikTok is also a great source for ideas.
Of course, you can also buy second-hand clothing. That can be a whole adventure on its own.
It’s true that the textile dyeing process is very destructive to the environment, but awareness about the problem is leading to exciting, more sustainable solutions. Consumers can take note of these changes and show their support for brands that are following sustainable practices and startups coming up with new solutions for the textile industry.