Sustainable textiles – fashion myth or long overdue trend reversal?

What characterises sustainable clothing and why is "normal" clothing not sustainable? And what consequences does a commitment to sustainability in the textile industry have on the manufacturing process?

Bild: master1305, Adobe Stock
Ist Nachhaltigkeit in der Textilbranche nur ein naiver Traum oder eine reine Spinnerei?

A term that has been occupying our company and especially the textile industry for several years. In this context, we should ask ourselves another question: What is sustainability? Although I am surrounded by this term on a virtually daily basis in my working environment at Sympatex, and I also use it very often in my work as a press officer, I find myself sometimes reacting somewhat jadedly when I see the next sign with «sustainable XY».

By now almost everything seems to be «sustainable» or to come from «fair production». That starts with Fair Trade coffee and stops with the latest possibility to fill up climate-neutral. The strangest – and somehow funniest – thing I’ve read lately is a «sustainable discotheque» in San Francisco, whose power consumption is generated by a specially prepared dance floor. The dancefloor as a power generator – i.e. having a party and having a clear conscience – what more could you want?

But joking aside – I do have the impression that many of the current ideas and initiatives are based on quite serious sustainability considerations. I don’t want to deny that at all. But I am sure that some people use the word as a kind of free ride, just to be able to not move away from the place where they are. And please don’t misunderstand me: the more people and companies truly decide in favour of a more sustainable way of life and work and live it, the more our Mother Earth – which is currently showing us very clearly that we humans can no longer carry on as we have done up to now – is happy. Nevertheless, I wonder whether the word «sustainable» has really been thought through to the end.

The definition of sustainable fashion

Let’s take a look at what science has to say about sustainability. The term originated in the German language several centuries ago in forestry. Hans Carl von Carlowitz first used the term in 1713 in his work Silvicultura oeconomica in the sense of a long-term responsible use of the resource wood. Even back then, the aim was to preserve the regenerative power of our ecosystems. And that is what it is all about today. If one follows the definition of the Platform Utopia, sustainable products leave the smallest possible ecological footprint and are, so to speak, «balanced» in terms of their ecological balance. Sustainable products should therefore have a long service life and also have as little impact on the environment as possible during production and disposal. Or, to put it more clearly: a little bit of sustainability is just as impossible as a little bit of pregnancy. Either completely or not at all.

According to this statement, sustainable clothing and materials leave the smallest possible footprint – whether during production, when delivered to the customer, while wearing the products, and during disposal or, better still, recycling at the end of their product life. The latter ideally happens in a closed loop – but let’s take a closer look at that in a moment. The most important question in this context is: how can this seemingly rather high standard actually be implemented in the individual steps of the product life cycle? How does a fashion producer achieve the highest possible level of environmental protection?

SympaTex ist Gründungsmitglied des Konsortiums wear2wear, das sich der Schließung des Textilkreislaufs verpflichtet hat.

Why is it important to pay attention to sustainably produced fashion?

First of all it helps to look honestly. Unfortunately, this has not been done in the textile industry for a long time. Perhaps that is exactly why we are now at this point: we are the second dirtiest industry in the world – right after the oil industry! Frightening, isn’t it? Because we, as functional specialists, are part of this industry, we at Sympatex committed ourselves almost four years ago to taking an even closer look, in other words, to identifying the biggest environmental sins of our industry – in order to see where we can start and what homework we still have to do ourselves. We have identified four core problems (CO2 emissions, water consumption, use of chemicals and waste of resources) that need to be tackled as quickly as possible in cooperation with the entire industry and adequate solutions found.

Why are recycled materials better for the environment?

I’ll pick out the topic of recycling and take a closer look at it in this blog post. The reason: let’s all push this topic and manage to close the textile cycle, solve or reduce some other core problems (e.g. the high water consumption of petroleum-based textiles).

Bild: SympaTex
Gegenüber erdölbasierter Produktion von Polyesterfasern bringt das Recycling deutliche Einsparungen bei Wasser- und Energieverbrauch sowie beim CO2-Ausstoß

The quantities of raw materials consumed by our industry alone are almost unbelievable: approximately 100 billion items of clothing and 23 billion pairs of shoes are produced annually. That wouldn’t even be so tragic if 97% of this didn’t come from new raw materials and only a very small proportion from recycled materials or from the closed textile cycle. This means that every year vast amounts of raw materials are used for the new production of textiles and shoes. You don’t need to be a visionary to realize what an immense waste of raw materials this is each year anew.

After all, we are collecting world champions in Germany and also in parts of Europe and regularly bring our clothes that are no longer needed or worn out to the textile container. But unfortunately about 50% of the collected clothing, which can no longer be reused by textile collectors in a high quality way, is exported to third countries, ends up in landfills or even in open fire. As the fashion industry is increasingly turning to producing cheap clothing in high cycles for the fashion-thirsty society, the quality of the textiles decreases with the price – and thus even more clothing will end up in landfills in the future. We must take action against this. We have a great responsibility as industry and society. As industry, we must be aware of what we are doing to the environment if we continue to throw cheap products onto the market. As a consumer, however, I must also ask myself what I am doing with my greed for cheap fashion products.

Bild: Schoeller Textil
Funktionsjacke rEvolution Hybrid: Die weltweit erste upgecycelte Funktionsjacke aus 30% recycelten Alttextilien und 70% recycelten PET-Flaschen ist das neueste Ergebnis von wear2wear

At Sympatex, we use recycled and recyclable polyester laminates wherever possible. This creates the best possible conditions for being returned to the recycling process at the end of the product life cycle. We have also joined forces with market partners to form the European wear2wear consortium in order to close the textile cycle in the functional textile sector as quickly as possible. The aim is to create new, high-quality functional textiles from old functional textiles. At the same time, as little waste as possible should be produced. This refers to textile waste that cannot be returned to the textile cycle due to its nature.

We have therefore set up a separate task force within the company to promote the topic of «Design 2 Recycle«. We advise our partners and customers from the sports or fashion sector to produce as far as possible a single type of product. In the case of polyester, this also means processing ingredients such as buttons and zippers made of pure polyester or already recycled polyester. The more pure the functional jacket or trousers are produced and the fewer seams it has, which in turn have to be sealed waterproof with seam-sealing tapes, the easier it is to recycle the functional textile at the end of the product life cycle and to up-cycle it into new high-quality functional clothing.

Recycled materials can also solve or at least reduce other core problems of the industry. The fashion industry, for example, is one of the causes of the water shortage that already prevails on a massive scale in many production countries such as Bangladesh or India. The reason for this is that vast amounts of water are used, for example, for washing or dyeing clothing. The Indian textile industry alone, for example, consumes around 1.6 billion litres of water every day.

By the way, did you know that cotton has an immense water consumption? Two thirds of the water consumption of textile materials worldwide is due to cotton processing. A further disadvantage of cotton is its loss of quality during recycling. This is different with polyester, which has virtually the same performance values after recycling. A further advantage is the water saving when choosing recycled polyester. If one compares the production of 1 kg of recycled polyester fibres with 1 kg of petroleum-based polyester fibres, the water saving of around 90 percent is outstanding – instead of 60 litres of water, only 3 litres are needed for 1 kg of fibres.

Can I afford sustainably produced fashion?

Currently, recycled or sustainably produced clothing and shoes are often still quite expensive by comparison. Many people are put off by this and classify sustainable clothing under the heading «too expensive». This is a great pity, because especially in this sector there are often very creative approaches. Especially if you don’t necessarily want to be nomber one thousand and one who is wearing the latest T-shirt of the brand XY, you can make interesting discoveries in the sustainable sector. Just then I might even be willing to spend a few more Euros – especially under the aspect that you don’t buy a cheap «disposable product», but a high-quality favourite item that you appreciate, care for and then wear for a longer period of time.

Bild: Sympatex
Motiv aus der aktuellen SympaTex-Kampagne „Zirkularität ist Teil unserer DNA“. Ähnlich der Geburt eines Kindes, läutet die erste voll recycelte Funktionsjacke die Geburt einer neuen Ära ein.

Besides, it does not necessarily have to be more expensive if you do a little research. In principle, as in all areas of the free market economy, the price is determined by demand.

Dr. Rüdiger Fox says aptly about this in the above-mentioned interview at ISPO 2020: «The more recycled material is in demand, the cheaper it will be and the market will turn fast«. This means that we all have a little bit in our hands to be able to positively influence the quantities – and thus also the price – of sustainable fashion. If these are not good prospects …

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