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Fashion & Retail Sustainability

Fashion without compromise – can it be a reality?

Climate change. A topic that gives 1.360.000.000 hits on Google within 0,50 seconds. Climate protection 308.000.000 hits within 0,55 seconds.  At the same time, a ‘Friday for the Future’ protest is happening in Berlin, Germany—part of a movement initiated by Greta Thunberg, a Swedish 16-year-old girl. She made school-strikes on Fridays a regular happening in many countries to raise awareness that policy changes are needed to respond to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Fashion without compromise
Figure 1: The textile industry has come a long way from merely providing clothes for protecting our naked bodies from the wrath of nature, to creating style statements and expressing opinions.

No wonder sustainability is the new mantra of the 21st century and a strategic topic for global brands and retailers.

But what does this mean for the textile industry?

The textile industry has come a long way from merely providing clothes for protecting our naked bodies from the wrath of nature, to creating style statements and expressing opinions. It is an industry known for being resource-heavy and for contributing to global pollution.

For years, fashion has been under scrutiny by campaigners, the media and ultimately policymakers and consumers. It is paradox that on the one hand, fast fashion companies have double-digit growth, and on the other hand, discussions about sustainability during the use- and post-consumer phases are on the rise as much as legal and brand and retailer sustainability requirements.

At STS we are working with brands and retailers and their value chain partners on a daily basis to build a bridge between their stated sustainability targets and the reality in production units.  But is fashion without compromise possible?

The answer is simple: Our experience proves that sustainable production can be a reality. However, making the shift to sustainable production is often complex. Working in production units in 40+ countries worldwide, the Sustainable Textile Solutions team holds decades of experience in clean chemistry, process excellence and resource efficiency and has a strong track record working with textile production units towards becoming more sustainable.

It is an undeniable fact that production practices in the textile industry can lead to contamination of land and soil since there are hundreds of hazardous chemicals (dyes, auxiliaries and salts) used in the textile industry that ultimately reach the environment during the wet processing of textiles.

Through training, workers and managers can quickly gain the skillset to contribute to sustainable production. But chemical management goes beyond procurement and handling. In fact, it is about the correct selection and uses during the processing stage as well.

Despite increasing price pressure, public attention on topics such as ‘water crises’ and ‘contamination of soil’ signaled that a change was needed.

It took until 2011 when Greenpeace launched its Detox campaign proving the link between global clothing brands, their suppliers and toxic water pollution around the world. Attracting heavy media and consumer attention, this was the linchpin for a major change in the way of working for many clothing brands and retailers who began to put Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemical onto their sustainability agendas.

With a pledge to Greenpeace to achieve Zero Discharge by 2020, clothing brands realized that there is a drastic need for wet-processing units to set up a robust chemical management system, a world new to many stakeholders of the industry.

At STS, we were excited to get the opportunity to work with our team of chemical engineers, dyers, textile and leather engineers, environmental scientists, data analysts and economists on practical actions allowing wet-processing units to manage their chemicals, instead of being managed by their chemicals.

One may think it is simple: if you don’t put in the wrong ingredient, the product will be right. That may work in cooking, but not in chemistry. So, what does it really mean to manage your chemicals?

water treatment plant at textile factories
Figure 2: Optimal use of resources such as freshwater, control and proper disposal of waste generated within the premises is essential.

It starts with top management commitment, translated to chemical management policies and compliance procedures. All chemicals that can be used in the facility – not only in manufacturing but also for cleaning, laboratories, utilities and wastewater treatment – must be specified.

The MRSL issued by the ZDHC[1] (The ZDHC Roadmap to Zero Programme is a coalition of fashion brands, value chain affiliates and associates who empower the global textile, leather, apparel and footwear value chain to substitute hazardous chemicals for safer ones in the production process) and adopted by many global clothing brands is a guiding tool to identify hazardous substances – these should not enter a production facility.

Chemical Procurement plays a vital role in ensuring that only safe chemicals, labeled per the GHS/CLP system, accompanied by the latest Safety Data Sheet and Technical Data Sheet, enter the facility.

While a thorough chemical inventory remains the ultimate challenge to many wet-processing units, it is a non-negotiable when aiming to control chemicals. With all the information about the chemical available and documented, one can store them in designated warehouses according to their properties.

Compatibility, special provisions, ease of handling, and PPE requirements are all available from the SDS,  and this information is key to appropriate handling, transportation and ultimately worker health & safety and environmental protection. Through training, workers and managers can quickly gain the skillset to contribute to sustainable production. But chemical management goes beyond procurement and handling. In fact, it is about the correct selection and uses during the processing stage as well.

The application conditions during wet processes such as pre-treatment, dyeing, printing, finishing and washing can also become the determining factor for the generation of avoidable impurities affecting the RSL (Restricted Substances List) parameter of the finished product and/or impacting the wastewater quality.

At STS we work with production units in more than 40 countries to help them identify the variables involved in these processes, such as moisture, pressure, pH, temperature, time, oxidation, reduction processes or the chemical applied, and advise wet processing units on robust improvement actions.

Our engineers stay in the production unit as long as it takes, working passionately alongside the production team to achieve process excellence. Maintaining all traceability information such as production recipes with all the relevant data (such as full names of the chemicals with lot numbers, the quantity used, and the process conditions such as temperature and pH) is a prerequisite for sustainable production, and it forms the basis for improvement. At STS we also advise testing of chemicals before the actual production and analysis of the first dyeing or printing lot against the riskiest parameters. Only if results are found appropriate should identical conditions be applied to run production.

Of course, sustainable production doesn’t just stop at chemicals. Optimal use of resources such as freshwater, control and proper disposal of waste generated within the premises, reduction of air pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and wastewater management are all to be examined when one works towards making fashion without compromise more than a phrase, but the reality.

The Higg FEM 3.0[2] is an established framework by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to address inefficiencies, improve sustainability performance, and achieve the environmental transparency consumers are demanding and our team of Higg FEM 3.0 Trainers and Chemical Specialist Verifiers are passionate about making fashion without compromise your reality.

[1] https://www.roadmaptozero.com/

[2] https://apparelcoalition.org/higg-facility-tools/

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