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Opinion: Apparel Industry Must Embrace a Sustainable Approach to Meet Demand

Roughly 20 pieces of clothing per person are manufactured each year. Growth of the multi-trillion-dollar apparel industry has been fed by "fast fashion," which makes clothing cheaply and quickly with a low price-tag. The apparel industry must embrace a new approach to sustainably meet demand in tomorrow's markets.

Fast fashion uses innovative production and distribution models to dramatically shorten fashion cycles, sometimes getting a garment from the designer to the customer in a matter of a weeks instead of months. The number of fashion seasons has increased from two a year — spring/summer and fall/winter — to as many as 50-100 micro seasons. Fast-changing trends and low prices have allowed people to consume more. The average consumer is now purchasing 60 percent more items of clothing compared to 2000, but each garment is kept half as long.

Water Stress and Pollution

Cotton is the most common natural fiber used to make clothing, accounting for about 33 percent of all fibers found in textiles. Cotton is also a very thirsty crop, requiring 2,700 liters of water — what one person drinks in two-and-a-half years — to make one cotton shirt. In areas already facing water stress, cotton production can be particularly damaging. In Central Asia, for instance, the Aral Sea has nearly disappeared because cotton farmers draw excessively from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. Cotton farming is also responsible for 24 percent of insecticides and 11 percent of pesticides despite using about 3 percent of the world’s arable land. Water use and pollution also take place during clothing production. About 20 percent of industrial water pollution is due to garment manufacturing, while the world uses 5 trillion liters (1.3 trillion gallons) of water each year for fabric dyeing alone, enough to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Climate Change

The carbon footprint of a garment largely depends on the material. While synthetic fibers like polyester have less impact on water and land than grown materials like cotton, they emit more greenhouse gasses per kilogram. A polyester shirt has more than double the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt (5.5 kg vs. 2.1 kg, or 12.1 pounds vs 4.6 pounds). Polyester production for textiles released about 706 billion kg (1.5 trillion pounds) of greenhouse gases in 2015, the equivalent of 185 coal-fired power plants’ annual emissions.

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