What is Sustainable Fashion?

Fast fashion has done wonders for consumer choice, but it has come at a cost. The average number of times clothes are worn before being thrown away continues to decline, falling 36 per cent in the 15 years to 2017. In the US the average garment is worn just 40 times before it is discarded.

According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, the world wastes one garbage truck of textiles (about 12 to 14 tonnes) every second.

Synthetic fabrics such as nylon, polyester and acrylic, which make up around 60 per cent of garment production, are all forms of plastic produced from petroleum. Studies show that these fibers release microfibers into the water when washed, which are known to pollute oceans, harm marine life and ultimately find their way into our bodies through the seafood that we eat.

Synthetic fabrics also do not biodegrade, meaning at the end of their life if they are not recycled they are either burned or disposed of in landfills, where they will remain for centuries. According to the World Resource Institute, polyester production releases greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 185 coal-fired power plants every year.

Sustainable fashion is often touted as the solution, but what exactly is it?

Sustainable fashion is a movement toward clothes that respect the environment and the communities in which they are produced.

That means taking into account not just the production of the raw materials that go into the fabric, but where and how the clothes are made, and who makes them.

Sustainable Fabrics

There are three main areas to consider for fashion to be considered sustainable:

1. Raw materials

In general, natural fibres are better for the environment than synthetic ones. Viscose rayon for example is made from wood cellulose, a natural fibre that is biodegradable and contains no plastic.

Choosing a natural fibre is certainly a step in the right direction, but just because a fabric is natural does not automatically make it sustainable:  it’s also important to consider where it came from. APR for example sources its sustainable raw materials from sustainably managed forest plantations in Indonesia using fast growing tree species that excel at carbon sequestration and oxygen release. Trees are harvested every five years before being replanted, ensuring a constant supply of renewable raw materials.

Many of the world’s big fashion retailers have committed to move to 100 per cent sustainable sourcing in the coming years, which makes traceability even more important. We launched followourfibre.com to use blockchain to provide complete transparency to customers that their raw materials are sustainably sourced.

2. Production process

Manufacturing raw materials and fabric can be energy and chemical intensive, from the production of the fabric to the dyes used to give colour. Sustainable producers must work to reduce emissions and recycle chemicals and waste, creating a circular production process.

At APR we work to manage our emissions and chemical usage. By operating a closed loop manufacturing process we are able to recover more than 90 per cent of the chemicals used in production. Our mill is mainly powered with energy generated from renewable biomass and our recovery boilers. We source the majority of our raw material locally eliminating long distance transportation across oceans and land.

3. Community

Finally it’s important to look at the broader impact on the local community. As well as creating jobs in our operations, APR also aims to have a positive impact on the area in which we operate. For example, we have partnered with producers of traditional batik cloth, to help them use sustainable viscose and natural dyes in their work.

Why we need certification

Third party certification is key to ensuring sustainable fashion. Currently the industry has multiple standards, which means different parts of the process are certified by different bodies.

For natural fabrics, the first step is to show that the raw material was grown on sustainable plantations or farms. In APR’s case 100 per cent of our wood pulp is certified, mainly through international body PEFC.

Next is to show that the fabric was manufactured responsibly, in a facility that minimises emissions and chemical and energy usage while taking account of the health and safety of workers and nearby communities. As a new mill that started operations in January 2019 we are working toward achieving key manufacturing certification standards.

Lastly at the product level there are certifications that look at specific attributes, such as whether a product is biodegradable, or is free from harmful chemicals. At APR, our product has been awarded Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX, confirming our viscose is free from any harmful substances and is safe for contact with babies and small children.

The role of consumers in sustainable fashion

The latest Pulse of the Fashion Industry report shows that 75 per cent of consumers view sustainability as extremely or very important. But sustainability is not the main driver of purchasing behaviour – rather, consumers expect sustainability as a basic prerequisite. In other words, consumers are not so much actively looking for sustainable fashion as expecting that all their fashion is sustainable.

In recent years many brands have launched individual products that are sold as being particularly sustainable – an item made of a fraction of recycled material, for example. But increasingly consumers are expecting this to be the norm rather than a unique selling point.

Consumers are voting with their wallet. The industry has more to do, but the direction of travel in favour of sustainable fashion is clear.