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Fashion: Rapid growth that comes at a cost

Fashion – an industry that links to everyone – comprises anything from the raw materials, textile manufacturing, the processing and production of garments, accessories, and footwear, to their distribution, consumption, and disposal.

The clothes we buy have been subject to long production process often involving multiple countries (Source: Leticia Ribeiro from Pexels)

It is an industry with global outreach. Overall, it focuses mainly on low-cost products, distributed production sites, high production volumes and short development lead times which resulted in a complex supply chain to manage. 

Led by the latest trends every season, fashion products have been designed for short and medium lifecycles. By 2030, garment production is expected to reach 102 million tons in volume if it continues as-is. 

The sector provides livelihoods for millions of people and maintains a growth rate of about 5% every year whilst contributing $2.4 trillion to the global manufacturing industry.


In the current scenario, it is responsible for 8-10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, 20% of industrial wastewater pollution and accounts for $ 500 billion loss every year for underutilization and low rates of recycling.

The fashion in its current state faces some shortcomings (Source: UN Fashion Alliance; Image developed by Ana Somaglino)

According to the United Nations, fashion has a critical role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The impact it represents for the environment and for society is high, especially due to the large amount of chemicals used, polluting technologies and materials, low wages and risky working environments. Overproduction has been the response to the high market demand for cheap fashion, while non-sold or used items are sent to landfills or incineration.

Awareness of its impact created a movement towards shifting the way fashion products are made. Companies are exploring ways to address these challenges whilst global goals and partnerships with other actors have been developed. 

Reevaluating the whole supply chain processes became necessary. Different measures on material, technology and production levels are developed either by brands or by external partners that commit to sustainable development and innovation. 

By now, most of the fashion industry brands and manufacturers are running pilot sustainability projects, but no significant scale had been brought to market. A radical change in customer mindset and business models is needed, coming from the idea that sustainability is now part of core business strategies. 

This shift relies on understanding how every single process impacts the environment and the people involved.

A vietnamese woman working on a textile machine (Source: Nguyen Nguyen from Pexels)

Understanding the impact of the industry, therefore, start with understanding where and how the fiber – the raw material – is produced. 

The world’s fashion supply chain is mostly dependent on China

China is the largest textile producer worldwide. In 2018, textile exports from China accounted for 37.6% of the global market share. The country benefits from comparably low costs of production as well as its vast labor force which have reduced commercial barriers and material availability. 

The runner-up is the European Union as the second-largest textile exporter, with 23.5% of the global market share. Italy, Germany, Spain, and France are the leading countries within the clothing industry. From 170 thousand fashion-related companies in the EU, 70% focus on the production of garments, in other words, the finite products. The other 30% supplies fabrics – the raw materials. After the EU, India follows as the third biggest textile producer and the leader in cotton production

Caption: China dominates the production of textiles, followed by the European Union (Source: Statista

The fiber market: Synthetics dominate

Asia dominates the synthetic fiber export market. The US, however, generates the highest value whilst exporting relatively low amounts of synthetic fiber (Source: Common Objective)

Regarding the market shares of the different fibers, polyester which is a synthetic fiber represents more than half of the global production. Together with the other synthetic fibers, it accounts for more than 60%. Natural fibers counted less in production, but more in growth percentages.

Synthetic fibers account for more than 60% of the global production whilst natural fibers counted less in production, but more in growth percentages (Source: Textile Exchange

Cotton is the favored natural fiber: In 2017/18, it represented around 26.7 million meters. This translates into a share of 24.3 percent of the total fiber market. The other natural fibers together represent around 6 million meters and support the livelihoods of more than 8 million households.

Other plant-based fibers production involves more than 8 million households (Source: Textile Exchange)

Raw materials: Where understanding sustainable fashion begins

When looking for solutions, it makes sense to start with where it all begins: the raw materials.

Caption: Textiles for our clothes are made from various different materials – called fibers – which differ widely in the way they are produced (Source: Pexels)

Generally speaking, there are two different kinds of raw materials: 

Natural fibers are a result of a range of natural, mechanical, chemical and physical processes. They are of two categories:

  • Animal fibers: silk, wool, and hair.
  • Plant fibers: These include flax, cotton, jute, date palm, hemp, abaca, kenaf, coir, sisal, ramie, and kapok. They are grown commercially in a lot of different countries and are usually storable, durable, and have high ratios of value. 
Source:  Les Triconautes on Unsplash

On the contrary, man-made fibers, are of synthetic or natural origin. When synthetic, these fibers are made from polymers – a chemical substance often derived from petroleum – a fossil fuel – which is processed into long chains. It is then melted and extruded to form threads. These threads are then dried and woven into fabrics. 

The processes underlying the production of different textiles have been discussed and associated with respective environmental impacts. Yet, these are often misguided: in general, natural fibers are considered as sustainable and synthetic fibers are seen as a bad choice. But even the natural fibers represent problems with the way they are cultivated. For example, the production of 1kg of cotton requires 8000 liters of water. In contrast, polyester does not use water but needs twice the energy. 

But, in comparison to natural fibers, synthetics are far more pollutive. For example, their petroleum-based counterparts release dangerous microplastics into the water during the washing of textile and clothes. These are being flushed into rivers and ultimately end up in the ocean and its living inhabitants.

Natural fibers and sustainability 

Natural fibers generally imply less impact on the environment, as they are from renewable resources, biodegradable and carbon neutral. 

However, on the production side, there is still space for improvements. Natural fibers are mainly grown in what we now call “conventional” farming: a monocultural – one-crop – system under the excessive use of agrochemical inputs. These chemicals and fertilizers are believed to increase efficiency, but imply a range of adverse environmental inputs. 

For this reason, more than understanding different types of textiles, it is also necessary to care about how the fibers are produced in the first place. 

One can distinguish between three different ways to produce natural fibers: conventional monoculture, organic farming and regenerative agroforestry. 

CONVENTIONAL FIBER PRODUCTION

The conventional way to produce natural fibers is a one-crop system extending over a large area of land under the use of synthetic agrichemicals (including fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides). This monoculture system is the most common way to produce fibers today. 

Crop production in monocultures often relies on heavy inputs of agrochemicals as well as the use of large machinery (Source:  Scott Goodwill on Unsplash)

The extensive use of chemicals can increase costs by more than 50% and poses health risks for the farmer and his family due to constant contact and exposure. At the same time, it degrades land and soil, leaving the land unproductive. The machines necessary to manage and control all these chemicals and water are expensive and further increase the energy and resources needed. 

The conventional system: High and costly inputs to be carried out by the farmer are accompanied by detrimental impacts on health and the environment  (Image developed by Ana Somaglino)

ORGANIC FIBER PRODUCTION
The production of organic fibers has grown in the past few years, as a system that does not make use of pesticides, fertilizers, growth regulators and defoliants. Natural methods and/or organic inputs are used to control pests, weeds, and diseases. It significantly reduces the pollution of land and water as well as the farmer’s exposure to dangerous chemical inputs.

An organic cotton plantation does not look too different from a conventional system as both are still monocultures (Source: Trisha Downing on Unsplash)

REGENERATIVE AGROFORESTRY

Regenerative agroforestry, on the other hand, goes beyond the organic system. It has only organic components and also combines different crops that naturally provide the soil and the environment with what is needed to be productive and renewable. The integration with animal enterprises is possible, leading to a highly structured system that serves the local farmer’s needs. 

This approach can improve our production systems in a way that land is used more efficiently and degradation by the use of agrochemicals is avoided. Further, it increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem health. 

It fosters high levels of biological activity and increases efficiency regarding the use of land and nutrients. It is possible to study and develop a regenerative agroforestry design to produce the natural fibers listed, and some are already being implemented by different brands. 

The regenerative agroforestry as the best solution to  ensuring resource abundance for nature and for the future of the economy (Image developed by Ana Somaglino)

Switching from conventional or simply organic to regenerative systems seems to be the most feasible path for the future. We are limiting our resources and there is a timeframe to deliver larger-scale changes, and it needs to go beyond causing “less harm”. By 2050, degradation and climate change can reduce crop yields from 10% to 50% in certain regions

The regenerative production based on agroforestry design is proving to be the solution ensuring resource abundance for nature and for the future of the economy. Cotton is already being piloted and scaled through these systems, but different kinds of fibers also need to be tested. Although it is not yet measured, the production of fibers at this level will continue to grow, as long as we have the courage to change current conventional systems.

reNature’s cotton project in Brazil in collaboration with FARFARM (Image by Cecilia Saraiva)

Responding to the low diversity of fiber use and the country monopoly that exists regarding the most consumed ones, biodiversity in fiber production can deliver the market demand. At the same time, it can increase the local production of regional fibers and reduce harmful production techniques and inputs that degrade nature. 

The future for sustainable fashion 

The fashion industry could speed up the process to achieve the SDGs and to reduce the negative effects it currently has on the environment. Sustainable environmental and social practices need to be scaled up. It requires better business models and supply-chain management and cooperation.

In the long term, the environmental, social and financial prosperity of the industry and the planet will decrease, if we keep doing ‘business as usual’. We are limiting our existing resources through the excessive use of them, resulting in an unsustainable system. If we do not have the necessary knowledge and control, we will soon lose the conditions to maintain the industry’s activity. We depend on the way we treat nature, people and resources.

Planting regenerative cotton in Pará, Brazil (Image by Cecilia Saraiva)

reNature aims to implement regenerative agroforestry to help companies to make this transition, providing the necessary knowledge to local families and to larger corporations, connecting the local supply chain, and structuring the farmers’ systems. It will improve the ecosystem in a holistic way, bring economic value and increase livelihood of people working in the fiber production processes. 

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