Environmental Sustainability in the Apparel Industry – Just a Pipe Dream?

We’re big fans of nature. If we were asked to pick an ideal vacation spot, we’d opt to go into a rainforest, to a beach, or hiking in a mountain range while crossing waterfalls or streams. Not many of us would choose to visit a concrete jungle, but that’s just us. Like I said, we love nature.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the atmospheric Carbon Dioxide level was just 298 parts per million (ppm). Clean air, clean earth, and clean water were things we took for granted – not a major concern to any of us. The leading industry during the Industrial Revolution was none other than the apparel industry, where machines were used to produce garments. Back then, the energy source of these machines was primarily human labor or a water wheel, or even a steam engine at the most sophisticated level. None posed a threat to the environment, and all the raw materials and products used had end-to-end sustainable harmony with the eco-system.  In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin to separate cotton fibers from wool – this is widely considered one of the major breakthroughs of the industrial revolution, and increased cotton production by 500-fold and kickstarted the industrial textile boom.

Although the history of man-made fibers and attempts to synthesize man-made fibers spans all the way back to the 1800’s, the use of synthetic fibers such as polyester and nylon came into the textile industry as late as the 1960’s and 70’s, when their popularity in the fashion industry surged as a result of their versatility and durability. By the 1980’s, the fashion industry was entirely reliant on the inclusion of synthetic fibers in multiple branches of the textile and apparel industry. With the advent of machinery and appliances of various properties, the apparel industry, due to the demand for high-end fashion and functional apparel, expanded dramatically.

The unseen side of the apparel industry also grew, although no one paid any attention to it until it became a serious threat – when synthetic textile waste materials and used clothes started accumulating in the environment, causing major damage to our ecosystem. It’s not just that waste synthetic textiles occupy the landfill space, but also that they pose several threats to the environment by leaking out harmful chemical components into nearby bodies of water. Upon their slow degradation and the disintegration of microfibers at the landfills, the waste materials have harmful effects on every level of the food chain and take up space in the landfills for hundreds of years before decomposing. In attempts to mitigate these long-lasting properties of synthetic fibers, scientists worldwide began experimenting to convert non-biodegradable synthetic fibers into biodegradable synthetic fibers without impacting their properties. They were successful in their pursuit, managing to synthesize bio-based polymer materials as substitutes for synthetic fibers, although these are still not very accessible on an industrial scale due to issues regarding scaling up, meeting desired properties, and cost.

Looking into the other end of the tunnel, accidental discoveries of polymer-eating bacteria, fungi and enzymes were also considered for implementation on a mass scale, however, the scaling up takes many long years as a result of control issues and difficulties in mass production. Triggering biodegradation to accelerate the degradation of textile materials was also under investigation with two different approaches, firstly where the materials could be disintegrated to small pieces by OXO-Biodegradation and secondly where the materials were made completely biodegradable by using soil microbes via Microbial Biodegradation. However, the former – OXO-Biodegradation – still leaves microfibers and microplastics in the environment, which is an even greater risk as the microplastics remain in the food chain. Microbe-assisted biodegradation, on the other hand, only leaves carbon dioxide, methane and organic matter in the landfills, where methane can be harvested to generate energy if degraded in the bioreactors.

Attempts to convert synthetic fibers into biodegradable fibers have been successful, and are implemented in the industry. Recently we launched LIFECYCLED, a 100% biodegradable polyester fabric platform to counter the landfill issue, where a majority of products are made out of synthetic polyester and accumulate at landfills in the West, India or Africa, and occupy the space for roughly 400 years before degradation. Statistically, the U.S. alone adds 16.5 million tons of textile waste to the environment per annum, where only 3.5 million tons are used in energy generation. 2.5 million tons are used as upcycled, recycled materials, and the rest of the 10.5 million tons will remain in a landfill somewhere in the world. With the prediction that polyester fabric manufacturing will produce over 73 million tons of synthetic polyester by 2030, the sheer magnitude its effects cannot be fathomed by anyone. The only solution is to act now to accept our reality and to mitigate landfill accumulation.

Although everyone seems to be promising to protect the environment, barely any major fashion brands are currently interested in introducing biodegradability to their product features. Consumers, on the other hand, are willing to pay an extra dollar or two for various other causes, but not towards environmental sustainability, which affects them most in the near future. Following consumer trends, there is unfortunately still no significant interest in biodegradability, although there is an increasing interest in recycled ocean plastics among several key brands in the fashion industry.

We all love nature – you pay hundreds of dollars to visit stunning beaches, lush forests, awe-inspiring waterfalls and anything else nature has to offer. And yet your actions pollute the very same environment in which you live and thrive. At the rate plastic and textile, pollution is rising, we will soon need another planet on which to live, or on which to store our waste at the very least. So it’s time to act rather than talking, and take responsibility for saving the planet. The textile industry – which has been crowned the second biggest polluter after the oil and gas industry – is controlled by consumers and their choices. It’s easy to switch to a biodegradable garment for a few dollars extra and make your presence count, rather than wasting the same amount of money on something else that might make the environment non-inhabitable for future generations.

The choice is yours, and only you can demand sustainability from big brands. Unless consumers demand it, brands won’t be obliged to implement sustainable manufacturing methods. Understand the power of consumerism, ask for sustainable products. It will pay off when, one day, you have the satisfaction of knowing you played a part in saving the planet for future generations.

Ask for sustainability, and it won’t be a pipe dream anymore.