Sustainable garments, the need of the hour

June 18, 2019 written by
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The fashion industry is worth $2.4 billion dollars globally but is also one of the largest sources of environmental contamination. Due to over consumption, hazardous manufacturing processes and excessive wastage, it is the second largest polluter in the world.

Manavi Dang

Manavi studied in Mod’Art International in New Delhi, Parsons the New School for Design in New York and Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts and Formamod, both in Paris.

Having worked behind the scenes for Yoko Ono’s exhibition in New Delhi, she was inspired by the interactive and boundary-breaking nature of the work. She believes that nothing should be intimidating or inaccessible and often conducts art workshops to release inhibitions and see with a new perspective.

She held a significant role in India Art Fair, before moving to Paris to study lingerie and corsetry. She interned at Groupe Chantelle, the largest French lingerie company and is currently a lingerie designer, consultant and fashion stylist who works out of Paris, France.

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The Paris Agreement of 2015 brought most nations together to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with an aim to limit global temperatures increasing further above 1.5 degrees. Any increase in temperature will also increase risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth, particularly for developing countries like India. To limit this global temperature rise, the reduction of greenhouse gases is crucial; emissions must fall 45 per cent by 2030 and by 2045 there must be no emissions at all.

Fast fashion evils:

With the success of the fast fashion business model, more clothes are produced every year. In just 20 years, the rate of clothing consumption has gone up by a staggering 400 per cent. Quick turnarounds with low costs to constantly introduce new collections online or in-store are prioritised in order to capitalise on current trends. Large-scale production leads to large-scale pollution, but little thought is given to its environmental impact.

Introducing such enormous quantities of merchandise means that a large part of it doesn’t get sold at all. Fast fashion clothes are low on cost as well as quality and they often don’t have a very long life. It’s easier to throw away a piece that is damaged or doesn’t fit rather than return, recycle, alter or donate it.

Luxury houses have their own dirty secret; burning unsold stock. To protect their brand value and avoid merchandise being sold at discounted prices, high-value garments are often either destroyed or sent to landfills. Burberry became the first luxury house to officially end this wasteful practice following an earnings report in 2018, which revealed it destroyed $35 million worth of unsold goods in 2017 alone.

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Synthetics, the worst culprit:

Different fabrics impact the environment in different ways. Synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon and acrylic are favoured because they’re cheap, durable and easy to maintain. Producing them, however, emits almost triple the amount of carbon dioxide than it does to produce the same amount of cotton. Polyester is essentially made of petrochemicals and though it can be recycled, it can take up to a thousand years to bio-degrade. Even washing a garment made of polyester releases vast amounts of microfibres into the ocean. Then there’s the dyeing process, which in itself is the second largest polluter of clean water globally. Polyester cannot be dyed using natural or low-impact dyes. Azo dyes, which account for up to 70 per cent of all dyes in the industry, are cheap, easy to use, and offer an extensive range of colours with four times the intensity of its closest alternatives. Under certain conditions, some azo dyes can be broken down into potentially dangerous substances, toxic to humans and aquatic life.

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The Good Fibres: It may seem logical to presume all natural fibres are good for the environment, but it depends on how they’re produced. Commercial production of non-organic cotton, for example, requires large quantities of water, pesticides and herbicides. India is one of the largest producers and exporters of cotton. Due to inefficient water use and high levels of water pollution, India uses double the global water footprint to produce one kilo of cotton.

This means that unnecessary amounts of water are used to produce cotton fabrics, instead of allocating resources responsibly among industries and the 100 million Indians without access to safe water. Consumption is so excessive that in just 10 years from now, India’s water demand will outstrip supply by 50 per cent.

It’s evident that the industry is on the brink of an overhaul. Most major clothing companies are realigning their business models, production and distribution processes towards improved environmental sustainability. Every phase of the product’s life, from fabric sourcing, garment manufacturing, storage, transportation and final sale, is being re-evaluated globally. The consumerism culture is unlikely to change, but at the manufacturer’s level, steps can be taken to reduce fashion’s environmental footprint. It is a technical and commercial challenge, but with some innovation, it’s possible to push the industry forward. As the importance of sustainable fashion rises, it’s becoming a trend in and of itself. Since it’s relatively new, exactly what sustainable fashion is, isn’t necessarily clear.

A durable product is no longer enough. Consumers are looking for more transparency in a company’s production and environmental practices. Ethically made eco-friendly lines are on the rise to appeal to the more conscious customer.

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Lingerie space, a bit complex

For the lingerie industry, it’s a bit more challenging. Yes, organically produced natural fibres are a fantastic start but this industry needs stretch fabric as well. The current alternatives involve the use of recycled synthetics and consume less energy to produce. Even with the latest innovations in sustainable stretch fabric, dyeing and disposal still don’t have clear solutions. Some fabric manufacturers offer fabrics that can be recycled further instead of heading to a landfill. This is not a permanent solution, as polyester can only be recycled a finite number of times and recycled fabric is not biodegradable.

Fabric is just one part of it; lingerie requires the use of moulded cups, underwires, hook and eye closures, rings and sliders, elastics and sometimes boning. All of these are either made from or coated with synthetic materials. There are certifications that ensure some of these products are free of harmful chemicals, safe for human use and grown according to strict guidelines on the use of petroleum-based fertilisers, pesticides and synthetic products, but the fact remains that sustainability in the fashion industry is still a work in progress, and the lingerie industry has its own challenges.

It may be a little while before lingerie is completely sustainable, but things are beginning to move forward. Incorporating sustainability without compromising on the quality of the product will take time to perfect. Proactively researching the latest innovations in this field and creating awareness are what will drive the industry towards this goal.

This is the first part of ‘Sustainable Garments for a better future” as we delve more deeply on this subject and bring forth some startling revelations and solutions to this vexed problem.

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Green Strategy has developed the following definition:

“More sustainable fashion can be defined as clothing, shoes and accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects. In practice, this implies continuous work to improve all stages of the product’s life cycle, from design, raw material production, manufacturing, transport, storage, marketing and final sale, to use, reuse, repair, remake and recycling of the product and its components. From an environmental perspective, the aim should be to minimise any undesirable environmental effect of the product’s life cycle by:

(a) Ensuring efficient and careful use of natural resources (water, energy, land, soil, animals, plants, bio-diversity, ecosystems, etc.); (b) Selecting renewable energy sources (wind, solar, etc.) at every stage, and (c) Maximising repair, remake, reuse, and recycling of the product and its components. From a socio-economic perspective, all stakeholders should work to improve present working conditions for workers on the field, in the factories, transportation chain, and stores, by aligning with good ethics, best practice and international codes of conduct. In addition, fashion companies should contribute to encourage more sustainable consumption patterns, caring and washing practices, and overall attitudes to fashion.” (Green Strategy, June 2014)

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