The Balance Festival Journal recently asked me to write a piece on the things to consider when purchasing activewear with ethics and the environment in mind. Here’s my take on what you should be thinking of, although not exhaustive this will give you an idea of the key questions you should expect from a sustainable brand.
Are they fair to people?
Remember the people behind the products by looking at a brand’s approach to defending workers’ rights, working conditions and fair wages. Do they produce their collections in huge quantities in far flung factories where regulations are much more relaxed than they are in the EU and where people the workforce are being forced to work on a low wage or do they produce locally within the UK/EU where the workforce are treated with respect and are paid a living wage?
It’s a misrepresentation of sustainability is when a brand calls the line ethical and eco-friendly yet the lines are being mass-produced in factories by people on low wages, working all hours and on the other side of the world therefore increasing the carbon footprint tenfold. How can this be sustainable let alone ethical?
There’s also a dilemma in that there are now many high street brands that have launched eco-friendly activewear, yet this may have been produced using the revenue streams of their mass market produced lines.
What fabrics are used?
From a design point of view, are the garments created for longevity, and what fabric is used to create those designs? For instance: there are many natural fabrics such as bamboo and viscose that are not as eco-friendly as we are led to believe. Look for brands that use sustainable fabric created by rescuing waste like fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpet flooring and industrial plastic from landfills and oceans all over the world. Also look for brands that use fabrics created from 100% recycled yarn from plastic bottles (rPET).
The amount of virgin plastic produced every year is currently estimated to be around 350 million tonnes, which is roughly the same as the entire weight of humanity (1). Sadly 91% of this waste isn’t recycled and so the majority of this plastic has either ended up in landfill or has found its way into our oceans causing huge devastation to our marine life. This is also a growing threat from microfibers that cannot be extracted from the water and can spread throughout the food chain.
Currently, less than 1% of non-wearable textiles are recycled back into new textiles due to the current technology and economic limitations and, according to Worn Again Technologies, “there are enough textiles and plastic bottles above ground and in circulation today to meet annual demand for raw materials to make new clothing and textiles” (2).
The sustainable fabric that we use in the majority of Scultura’s collection is created with something called 100% ECONYL® regenerated yarn. Also known as ECONYL® regenerated nylon, it’s nylon waste collected from landfills and oceans around the world and is transformed through a radical regeneration process into ECONYL® regenerated nylon. It's exactly the same as brand new nylon and can be recycled, recreated and remoulded again and again. This means that brands can create new products without having to use new resources.
How much water was consumed to make your clothes? How many trees were felled?
Does their supply chain also work to reduce their environmental impact as a result of producing the components that eventually create the garment? Look for brands that are transparent about how much water is used in the production of their products. Around 20% of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric dyeing and treatment and every year the fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water — enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people (3).
The supply of clean and unpolluted water is critical for our planet, its ecosystems and for all inhabitants to survive and thrive. There are already more than two million people living in water stressed areas globally and with the fashion industry already representing more than one tenth of the water used by all industry types, serious action must be taken in order to reduce the amount of water used in the production of clothing.
What chemicals are used in the production process?
Many textiles are dyed and treated using chemicals to provide enhance features to our clothing. These include resistance to water, stain prevention, reduction in bacteria and mould growth, odour resistant and to stiffen material to prevent creasing.
Unfortunately, some of these chemicals that are converted into the components of our clothing can be released into the environment via the production, consumption, and disposal of fabrics and which in turn can affect our health and the environment. Much like with the fabrics, however, there are better options available; Oeko Tex fabric has been certified free from hazardous chemicals and is therefore deemed safe.
What is the carbon footprint of the clothing?
Global warming is probably the biggest threat to the planet currently and it’s happening so fast that humans and animals are unable to adapt to the change. The fashion industry is responsible for 10 % of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. At this pace, the fashion industry's greenhouse gas emissions will surge by more than 50 % by 2030 (3).
Does the brand have accreditations to vouch for its sustainability?
There are a number of accreditations that are awarded to businesses that demonstrate a commitment to being an ethical and sustainable business such as Oeko-Tex and ISO14001.
Whilst thankfully some traditional activewear brands are attempting to rethink their sustainability strategies, the majority of brands and more recently high street brands, fighting for a piece of the market, still relentlessly produce activewear collections using virgin fabrics and continue to operate within a ‘fast fashion’ environment.
By operating in this way and continuing to produce in huge volumes, in many cases within unethical factories, the activewear industry will continue to contribute to the overall plastic pollution problem and to the much wider environmental issues, until this approach to producing garments is no longer an industry standard.
What happens to your clothes once you’ve finished with them?
Another point worth considering is the brand’s commitment to circularity with regards to their products after
you’re done with them. Are they working towards recycling their products in order to create new garments once the appropriate technology is available to do so? What are they doing in the meantime - do they offer a take back service to ensure their products don’t end up in landfill?
All in all, it’s important to look at how a brand addresses fast fashion and the damaging consequences of fashion consumption. This will include chemical usage and minimising water waste, using sustainable fabrics and a commitment to sustainability developments going forward, as well as recycling initiatives, such as how they address energy efficiency and waste.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of green washing going on in the industry – that is, brands who mislead consumers into thinking that they are producing garments that are sustainable. Sustainability is also about having the data to back up these claims and a truly sustainable brand will adopt an all-encompassing approach to sustainability from the heart of their business through to design, production, sales and delivery.