Fully traceable fibres and technological breakthroughs are helping the fashion industry to build a more sustainable future.
To dress the planet’s 7 billion people with a basic cotton T-shirt would require 1.24 million tonnes of jersey fabric. The sheer scale and continued growth of the global textile industry mean efforts to cut consumption of water, energy and chemicals are more important than ever.
Progress is being made at every stage, starting right back in the cotton fields - highlighted by the US and Australian cotton growers who teamed up in October 2013 to tackle issues of sustainability and traceability.
The two industries formed the Cotton Leads programme, a commitment to use the latest technology to produce sustainable fibre, fully traceable from farm to finished garment.
Traceability is essential for retailers and brands under increasing pressure to reassure consumers their products are responsibly sourced.
“While the spotlight has recently been on responsibility and transparency in the garment manufacturing sector, brought on by the tragedy of Rana Plaza [the factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,130 people in April 2013], the focus tends to shift to various points along the supply chain over time,” says Allen Terhaar, senior adviser to Cotton USA, the international division of the National Cotton Council of America.
“No brand or retailer wants to see its name in negative headlines, so they are actively searching for ways to ensure a responsible and reliable supply chain from fibre source to delivery and merchandising.”
To date, more than 250 brands and manufacturers have become Cotton Leads partners, including US businesses Target, Brooks Brothers and Fruit of the Loom, as well as global yarn and fabric manufacturers such as Texhong and the Esquel Group, both based in Hong Kong.
“As retailers and textile brands throughout the world seek responsibility, transparency and confidence in their supply chain partners and materials suppliers, we want to make sure they are aware of the responsible production efforts undertaken by Cotton Leads member countries,” says
Stephanie Thiers-Ratcliffe, Cotton USA international marketing manager.
While cotton is often criticised for being a thirsty crop, it is actually remarkably drought tolerant. “If you set out to create a plant that is really water efficient, you’d find it incorporated a lot of the characteristics of a cotton plant,” says James Mahan, research plant physiologist with the US Department of Agriculture.
“If you’ve got a lot of water it will take every bit and grow, producing more yield. But if you don’t have water, the plant will use the water very efficiently.”
In the high plains of northern Texas, for example, plants can grow on rainfall alone, although irrigation makes them more productive. New ‘precision irrigation’ processes apply water directly to the soil using underground pipes, instead of spraying onto the land, which can flood the soil.
Such technology has helped the US more than triple its use of efficient water delivery systems, while in Australia $30m (£16m) has been invested in water and irrigation research and development over the past seven years.
Farming cotton in periods of drought has encouraged growers to use underground drip and low pressure irrigation. “US and Australian growers
are also investing in the continuing revolution in technology, such as global positioning systems and database programmes that allow growers to manage each square foot of their cotton area,” Terhaar explains.
By 2020, H&M aims to purchase all its cotton from sustainable sources, increasing its use of BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) cotton. A not-for-profit organisation, the BCI was founded in 2005 as part of a roundtable initiative led by WWF (World Wildlife Fund). BCI works with farmers in countries including Brazil, Mali, Kenya and Pakistan to produce water-efficient fibre, using fewer fertilisers and pesticides.
H&M sustainable fashion adviser Catarina Midby says the retailer will also continue to buy organic cotton and use more recycled fibre from its garment collection programme. “This is closing the loop in fashion, producing new clothes from old ones. We need to look upon waste as a resource, as part of a more sustainable fashion future.”
Since 2011 John Lewis has worked with social enterprise organisation Cotton Connect to train 1,500 cotton farmers in Gujarat, India, in sustainable practices. Cotton Connect’s teams in South Asia, China and Europe map a retailer’s cotton supply chain, devising sustainable strategies that give buyers supply chain insight.
Marks & Spencer’s ambition is to be the world’s most sustainable major retailer by 2020 as part of its Plan A programme, starting with the sourcing of its raw materials.
“Almost a third of the cotton we source is now sustainable - that equates to around 50 million products sold annually,” reports Phil Townsend, sustainable raw materials specialist at M&S.
“On tackling deforestation, 96% of the wood and paper we use - including our store fit-outs and swing tickets - is either FSC (Forest Stewardship
Council) certified, recycled or from sources that protect forests. We are committed to getting this to 100% by 2020.
“We are on the leaders’ working group of the Fashion Loved by Forests initiative, which aims to eliminate deforestation from fashion supply chains, although no target date has been set.”
Spanish group Inditex, owner of Zara, is training 461 Better Cotton Initiative farmers in Gujarabi, India, to save water and reduce their use of pesticides and fertilisers. Since 2011 the company has sourced more than 20 million garments containing more than 94% organic cotton.
Inditex is also piloting a programme in Brazil to produce fully traceable garments. Scanning the QR code on the garment’s label with a smartphone reveals the details of the supplier and the factory where the garment was made, as well as the latest audit.
Inditex is also keen to maintain local manufacturing. “Inditex’s business model is unique in that over half of our production takes place in or close to our headquarters in Spain,” says an Inditex spokesperson. “While this gives us flexibility in our supply chain, it also means we have developed close, long-term partnerships with many of our suppliers.”
Nike and Adidas are early adopters of a waterless dyeing technology invented by Dutch company DyeCoo. The DryDye technology replaces water with pressurised carbon dioxide, saving approximately 25 litres of water per dyed T-shirt. DryDye uses 50% less energy and 50% fewer chemicals than traditional dyeing methods. Nike, a stakeholder in DyeCoo since 2012, introduced the waterless dyeing technology at its fabric manufacturer Far Eastern New Century Corp in Taiwan.
In an effort to reduce their environmental footprint, many UK retailers are reshoring a proportion of their production. The Best of British menswear collection by M&S, introduced in May 2013, uses fabric woven by West Yorkshire mills Abraham Moon and Alfred Brown.
Since 2012 Topman has collaborated with Harris Tweed Hebrides on a collection of skinny-fit suits, waistcoats and blazers. The Isle of Lewis-based weaver has also worked with Next on three women’s jackets for autumn 14, following a sell-out autumn 13 debut collection.
Asos.com is a long-term supporter of Fashion Enter, a 7,500 sq ft garment factory in north London, with the capacity to produce more than 7,500 units a week. In 2013 the etailer and Fashion Enter joined forces to launch Stitching Academy, a Level 1 National Apprenticeship in Stitching Skills.
While all these changes remain a drop in the ocean, global efforts ranging from the US and Australian cotton fields to innovations in waterless dyeing and the reshoring of domestic production are helping to make the textile industry more sustainable.