Prof. Dr. Monika Eigenstetter, Industrial and Organisational Psychology, Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences (Hochschule Niederrhein)

Sustainability and fashion: do they even go together? When it comes to the value chain, doubts arise. The clothing industry is considered to be one of the dirtiest value chains in the world and, depending on the source, accounts for 2 to 6% of the world’s ecological footprint. It is one of the most globalized value chains in the world and one of the most important sources of income in emerging countries – even if the social grievances such as human rights violations are grave. So there is an urgent need to make textile value creation more sustainable.

Fig: Prof. Dr. Monika Eigenstetter, Industrial and Organisational Psychology, Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences (Hochschule Niederrhein)

The value chain of the clothing industry is spread all over the world, and a piece of clothing travels thousands of kilometers before it is here in the store. The manufacturing processes for natural fibers such as cotton or wool and synthetic fibers such as polyester or viscose are complex. The fibers are then processed further: spun, woven or knitted to create so-called textile layers. These are washed, bleached, then dyed and treated with other chemicals, many of which are considered so-called hazardous substances, ie harmful to people and the environment. Finally, the garment is sewn, not infrequently in the so-called sweatshops in Asia, South America, North Africa or Eastern Europe.

Pesticides, biocides, herbicides – the production of fibers has a significant impact on people and nature

Cotton fibers make up over 40% of clothing used in the EU. The water consumption of cotton is immense. Since cotton is often cultivated in arid areas, the local effects are serious. Almost everyone knows the images of the dwindling Aral Sea. In addition, however, large quantities of pesticides, biocides and herbicides, such as defoliants, are used in cotton cultivation: Many of them can lead to poisoning among farmers, the development of cancer and deformities in unborn children. Because the protective measures in the manufacturing countries are inadequate, this happens very often. In addition, the effects of fertilizers, pest extermination and defoliation are very harmful to water and soil.

In recent years, the production of viscose fibers has also increased significantly. Similar in quality to cotton, it is a semi-synthetic chemical fiber obtained from wood. Carbon disulfide is used to create the fiber. This has a particularly toxic effect on all organs and the entire nervous system. The majority of viscose is produced in India, China or Indonesia: Here too, occupational safety and environmental protection are far removed from European standards.

Water-repellent outdoor clothing – practical, but often not sustainable

Finishing includes dyeing, printing on the clothing and often further post-treatment as well. While dyeing and printing are familiar to most people, what is known as finishing and its effects are less well known. It ensures that the surfaces of clothing, for example, become particularly dirt and water-repellent, as is known in the outdoor area. Finishing also ensures that clothes have special fashionable effects, such as those used for jeans. Refinement is associated with particularly high use of water, energy and chemicals with effects on wastewater, exhaust air, and soil. Many hazardous substances are also used here.

In the future, more resource efficiency and less consumption will be needed

The new clothes of the future still need a lot of creativity and innovations before sustainable fashion can be produced on a broad scale. A number of companies have already set out on their way: the Green Head ® and many other social and ecological labels in the field of fashion are evidence of this. They have an effect on sustainable production, reduce the use of hazardous substances in the process and contribute to good working conditions. But sustainability also means that consumers use clothing for much longer and throw it away less. The most sustainable garment is not even made.

Resource efficiency must be increased in order to meet the increasing global demand for fibers and not to compete with food production. Sustainable cotton production with reduced use of water and chemicals and the production of textiles from the remains of food production are resource-efficient. Fibers and leather-like products can be obtained from pineapple, apple, orange or fish waste, for example. So far, however, these are only niche products.

Lots of challenges – but also lots of innovative approaches

Circular economy offers many approaches, for example by using waste from intermediate production steps. The waste can often be reused for spinning and weaving. In the area of ​​circular economy, however, there is a major challenge in that refined blended fabrics can only be recycled to a limited extent. Many new approaches are emerging here. Digitization, on the other hand, opens up new possibilities for monitoring, so that the processes in which clothing is created can become completely transparent. These are two examples of many other process innovations that are required so that the textile and clothing industry can contribute to the well-being of people and the environment.

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