Time to talk to consumers
H&M sells cotton products which proudly boast their organic credentials. Primark has unveiled its first ever eco-labelled apparel – some women’s pyjamas. Better Cotton labelled products can now be seen in retail outlets. And the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is trialling a transparency roadmap which could soon allow members to roll out Higg Index scores to the general public. Sustainability conversations have been going on within the apparel industry for years now. But now it is time for the general public to become more aware and better informed. On-product labels are the perfect means of doing that, and we hope to see more progress in this direction in 2018.
That the Ethiopian government is serious about becoming a major apparel exporter became clear in 2017 when the landlocked nation opened the final stretch of a 700 km electric railway to Djibouti’s coast, a much needed logistical boost given poor road links with the port in Djibouti. The Ethiopian Textile Development authority claims the US$4 billion railway, which runs from Addis Ababa to the Red Sea, will reduce the transit time to the Port of Djibouti from 2-3 days to eight hours, closing the speed to market gap between Ethiopia and its Asian competitors. The speed and ease with which brands can get clothing out of Ethiopia has always been a stumbling block. This, as well as associated infrastructure work to help ease the passage of goods and reduce burdensome red tape for exporters, could change everything.
The Myanmar question
Phrases such as ‘ethnical cleansing’ and even ‘genocide’ have been used in connection with Myanmar in recent months in response to growing violence and oppression by the country’s Buddhist majority against the predominantly Muslim Rohingya people who live in the country’s west. An estimated 615,000 Rohingya have escaped across the border into neighbouring Bangladesh, many telling stories of mass murder and rape. Apparel brands have been quick to re-enter Myanmar since economic sanctions were lifted in 2014. If the situation continues to deteriorate, they may need to start thinking about exit plans.
2020 and all that
One of the most significant textile sustainability stories in the past decade has been Greenpeace’s ‘Detox’ campaign. The pressure group persuaded many apparel brands to eradicate the use of 11 potentially hazardous chemicals in their supply chains by 2020, a year which seemed a lifetime away in 2011 when the campaign was launched. We don’t hear much of Detox 2020 these days from Greenpeace, which also seems to have broadened its remit to the overconsumption of clothing and fast fashion. Is Greenpeace still pressing brands on the issue of chemicals and is 2020 still a target date? Our information suggests all will become clear in 2018.
Bangladesh RMG sector at crossroads
It was last year announced that the Bangladesh Accord Safety Program will continue beyond May 2018 – its original sunset date – until a set of readiness conditions are met by local regulatory bodies, namely the Bangladeshi government’s Remediation Cell (formerly National Action Plan). To date, 48 companies, including H&M, Inditex (Zara), Primark, and PVH (Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein), have signed the new Accord, and this successor agreement will cover at least 1,400 factories and a majority of all export garment production. However, there is significant opposition to the Accord’s extension from local factory owners as well as the influential Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) which has close ties with the national government.
This one could get messy in 2018, not least because we are on new, uncertain ground. What happens if a national government no longer wants an external body involved in – some would argue meddling in – its internal affairs? What happens if factory owners continue to drag their heels on addressing safety issues? What if many simply can’t afford the necessary remediation work (and there are strong indications that may be the case)? We’ll be watching this situation with interest.
Thinking big on recycling
We’ve seen some notable breakthroughs in textile recycling in the past 12 months and we expect more this year. Finally, laboratory work in this area seems to be gaining commercial traction, one of the most notable examples being that of Re:newcell, which uses a pioneering technique to recycle used cotton, viscose, and other cellulosic fibres into a new, sustainable dissolving pulp which can be used to create new fibres and fed into the textile production cycle. H&M has invested in the business, but there are many more such entities out there that require funding to upscale. It is time the apparel industry, which continues to milk the ‘closing the loop’ marketing spiel for all its worth, to really start putting its money where its mouth is on this issue.
Fashion needs to slow down
Greenpeace blogged recently that fast fashion is at a crossroads – and we couldn’t agree more. “There needs to be a radical transformation through slowing the flow of materials and implementing long-term waste prevention solutions which would design out the waste altogether,” said the direct action group. A recent Ellen MacArthur report suggested the long term impacts of the fashion industry sticking with its wasteful, linear model could be catastrophic. The report is promoting the circular economy model for fashion, as did the Pulse Report on the State of the Fashion Industry. But going circular is only a partial solution for an industry which uses too many resources in an inefficient manner. Circularity is also still a pipe dream, with true textile to textile recycling in its infancy. Whether we close the loop or not, fast fashion needs to slow down.
Pragmatism versus purity
Those who remember the initial hype around organic cotton will be as puzzled as we are that it has never fulfilled its early expectations, certainly in terms of market penetration. Its advocates have always claimed the demand for organic cotton is there but that there is a disconnect between demand and supply; essentially, the market has failed. We’re more inclined to think there is a finite market for premium priced cotton, hence why so much organically grown cotton ends up being sold on the conventional market. The 2017 organic cotton report from Textile Exchange showed that total production for the 18 countries growing organic cotton in 2015-16 was 107,980 MT of organic fibre – 4 per cent down on the previous year. Moreover, organic cotton still makes up just 0.5 per cent of total world cotton output at a time when the Better Cotton Initiative is flying, with Better Cotton now commanding more than 10 per cent of the market. We await the latest figures for organic cotton output with great interest, and hope the last lot of figures weren’t evidence of the start or a terminal decline.
The environmental cost of staying dry
Increased legislation and research on the toxicological and persistent nature of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) means the outdoor clothing industry is trying to shift away from the use of fluorinated chemistry – but it is a slow and hugely challenging process. Numerous studies have shown that non-fluorinated fabric finishes provide no oil repellency – a key stumbling block for outdoor brands which, in many cases, demand water, stain and oil resistance for their consumer products. However, recent research has shown that a number of non-fluorinated repellent finishes can provide similar water repellency to long-chain (C8) PFAS or shorter-chain (C6) PFAS finished fabrics. Given that the main repellency function required in outdoor apparel is water repellency, it could be argued that the use of PFAS chemistry for outdoor garments is a case of over-engineering, and that major environmental and toxicological benefits could be achieved by switching outdoor apparel to non-fluorinated finishes. Outdoor brands have a big decision to make on this vital issue, though legislators may soon take it out of their hands.
And finally …
We’ll be at a number of textile events during 2018. For years now the focus at such events has been on the future. There were sustainability plans for 2020, targets for 2025, and some brands have now set targets for 2030 and beyond. We think looking so far ahead is becoming irrelevant. Many of the world’s environmental challenges are here with us right now. Ours is a cash-rich industry, and there is no excuse to be kicking the can down the road on these vital issues. Practical, meaningful actions that are happening now, not soundbites pertaining to some distant, abstract sustainability goals, should be the mantra for 2018.