Like most hot topics, there is good news and bad news regarding sustainable apparel production. The good news? According to a 2021 GreenPrint survey, more than three-fourths of consumers prefer to buy eco-friendlier products. The not-so-great news? Eco-consumerism lags when it comes to making sustainable apparel a widespread reality. According to UN Environment, people are purchasing 60% more apparel items than they did just 15 years ago, and they are discarding them rapidly to keep pace with changing styles. This demand for fast fashion can make it hard for apparel brands to focus on greener production methods. After all, brands are trying to satisfy never-ending demand from customers who do not hesitate to add to their wardrobes.
Of course, buying behavior is not the only thing getting in the way of sustainable apparel production. Another challenge comes from the textiles themselves.
Most apparel is made from at least one of 5 fiber types — synthetics, cotton, silk, wool, and cellulose viscose — that have a commodity value and individual tariff rate. Each type offers a unique performance attribute that contributes to qualities such as wearability, appearance, and feel. Polyester is used in performance wear and is known for durability. Polyamides are notoriously used in lighter-weight stockings and fabrics that require elasticity. Cotton is breathable and absorbent. Silk and wool accept dyes beautifully and have a luxurious feel. Cellulose viscose is typically soft and drapes effortlessly. And many cellulose viscose qualities are becoming increasingly biodegradable over time.
Companies and design houses choose appropriate fiber types based on a range of end-use and economic considerations, including price, ease of care, and durability. Until very recently, most apparel brands did not make textile decisions based on sustainability. Now, though, many are asking the question “How can we bake eco-conscientiousness into this mix?”
Right now, unwanted clothes are clogging our landfills. RoadRunner, a waste management company, notes that Americans typically toss about 80 pounds (36 kg) of textile garbage a year. On average, each garment or accessory that ends up in a landfill will take at least 200 years to decompose, and that decomposition process can be hard on the surrounding ecosystem.
However, the environment is not only hit by decomposing shirts, skirts, and jeans. It takes plenty of natural resources on the front end to make garments, too. Plus, it is hard to dispose of unwanted and unused scraps of material ethically and sustainably after they have been acquired for manufacturing.
These are deep-rooted challenges, which means apparel brands need to get creative. The time to jump into problem-solving mode is now. Consumers, especially those in Generation Z, are hungry to put their money toward sustainable goods. 73% of Gen Z consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products.
Apparel brands can take these 3 practical steps to move toward more sustainable fabric usage:
Focus on circularity when designing products and commit to a supply chain with a low carbon footprint and sustainable textile materials
Most of the decisions that impact sustainability are made before manufacturing begins, like in the design stage. If designers can design with the “circle of life” in mind, there are ample opportunities to reduce waste. Cutting-edge software and clever planning can reduce the amount of textile waste upfront with manufacturing techniques or patterns that minimize scrap fabric.
Using 3D digital samples rather than physical prototypes eliminates wasted product that never even makes it to consumers. Designing a garment to be easily deconstructed can help make textile recycling more convenient. While zero-waste would be the goal, apparel brands and textile manufacturers can progress toward this by using the design stage to improve sustainability throughout a garment’s lifecycle.
What is more, many product supply chains require multiple conversion steps that involve transporting components from one country to another until the final product is complete. These decisions are often made based on finding the lowest cost of production.
Demonstrating a preference for and applying a positive value to manufacturers that are globally positioned, vertically integrated, and more local to the final point of sale drastically reduces the carbon footprint and packaging waste in converting the product.
Minimize garment components
From metal zippers to fused-on tapes, most garments are made up of many elements. This often makes sense from a manufacturing standpoint, but it can also make recycling clothing items difficult. Often, skilled laborers must painstakingly remove labels, threads, and embellishments. It is a procedure that takes time and may be more complicated than it is worth.
Technology can help. A feasibility study on hyperspectral cameras shows great promise for developing sorting systems that are faster and more effective than current processes. Still, if a garment is designed with fewer components from the get-go, apparel brands can decrease the time it takes to break down the piece into its core recyclable elements without relying too much on technological intervention.
Educate consumers on the benefits of clothes recycling
Consumers obviously play a huge role in driving sustainable clothing trends, and some strategic nudges from apparel brands can help buyers understand the advantages of making more thoughtful textile purchases.
For instance, brands may want to talk more about their sustainable textile materials in their brand messaging. They can also teach consumers about different types of sustainable textiles on the market. The goal of these types of awareness campaigns would not be to lose market share but to position the brand as an authentic market leader with a mission of textile waste diversion.
People like to buy garments, and they are not hesitant about supporting environmental movements. The opportunity is there. Apparel brands can score big for their business and the planet by diving in deeper when it comes to solving the issue of clothing waste.