The transition from fast fashion
to sustainable fashion
October 8, 2018
By Kristine Dorosko
Policy Officer at the EU Ecolabel European Commission Directorate-General for Environment
Did you know that sustainable fashion can be trendy, hip and affordable to consumers? The transition from fast fashion to sustainable fashion was still a futuristic idea a few years ago, but slowly yet steadily, textiles companies have picked up the initiative. Items such as a carpet made of recycled PET bottles, a pair of jeans that maintain their shape and so last longer and need less frequent washing, and a t-shirt that doesn’t contain traces of unwanted pesticides, are now available in the European market.
Impulsive consumerism and fast fashion are features of 21st century living and never before have we produced and bought so much but worn it so little. Changing consumers' habits and culture is not an easy task and is linked to the financial situation of buyers, especially young people hooked on fast fashion trends.
Yet we expect to see positive trends in consumer behaviour. Based on the findings of the Eurobarometer study (2013), there is strong agreement across the EU about the ethics of environmentally friendly products: 95% of respondents agree that using environmentally products is 'the right thing to do', 91% agree that buying environmentally-friendly products sets a good example and 80% agree that their family and friends would think it was a good thing if they used environmentally-friendly products. It is the responsibility not only of governments but of society as a whole to promote sustainability and spark initiatives at company level. Also, companies and retailers must begin to educate consumers about the choices they are making. There are studies showing that flagship stores could be used as sustainability communication channels for fashion retailers.
The European Commission has developed several tools to pave the road to sustainable production. When it comes to textiles, the EU Ecolabel and Green Public Procurement aim to improve the incentives for sustainable/circular design and production of textiles through the application of a range of scientifically based criteria, covering environmental and social concerns and the full life cycle of a product. From the production of the fibre to the dyeing, washing and final assembly of the product, the EU Ecolabel sets minimum requirements for companies seeking to receive the certification and the ability to market their product across the entire EU. Non-EU countries can also follow the same practice and apply for the label. These criteria are intended to have a direct impact on preserving the environment and ensuring the well-being of the workers and communities surrounding the production plant.
At the moment, there are around 60 companies around the EU that have certified their textile products with the EU Ecolabel, finding that it aligns well with their sustainability values. Austrian-based producer the Lenzing Group, which produces wood-based fibres, was the first fibre company to be awarded the EU Ecolabel. It has been an important benchmark for the company ever since. Due to its high level of public recognition, the EU Ecolabel fosters trust among customers and mitigates their supply chain risks, proving that Lenzing’s fibre production and raw material sourcing (wood and pulp) meet defined sustainability criteria.
According to licence holders of eco-labelled products, many of which are small medium Enterprises (SMEs), sustainable certification helps them compete with global multinationals and is an advantage when they seek to export. It’s one of the most effective ways for SMEs to demonstrate to customers and retailers that they are meeting high environmental standards. One of the priorities for the EU Ecolabel is to work with retailers, as they are seen as important market shapers who are giving choices and offers to the consumers and they are not always entirely aware of the benefits the label is offering.
As there is no Planet B, it is important that businesses and entrepreneurs embed sustainability into the design process. If sustainability and circular thinking are considered at the very first step when designing a product or service, the adverse impact of the textile industry can be reduced.
For example, the Ingredient Brand ISKO™, known for its innovative spirit, is the first denim mill to certify a selection of jeans products with the EU Ecolabel. Water savings, as well as reduced energy and chemical consumption, are key to their production. Around 23% of the water consumption throughout the life of a pair of jeans occurs during consumer care, but the company`s key innovations ensure the highest quality standards and guarantee garments that retain their shape wear after wear, limiting the need for frequent washes and prolonging their life.
At the same time, Austrian LENZING™ Lyocell fibres are produced in a closed-loop production process, which transforms wood pulp into cellulosic fibres with high resource efficiency and low ecological impact. This solvent-spinning process recycles process water and reuses the solvent at a recovery rate of more than 99%.
The challenges that the textile sector now faces in its bid for sustainability are material reuse and its reintroduction back into the economy. A pair of tights are made from very different fibres than a sweatshirt, and the range of fibres used in clothing makes it a very complex and challenging material to separate and recycle. Currently, both the industry and policy makers are putting considerable effort into investigating the recycling options for discarded textiles (post-consumer waste) across Europe.
It is clear that product innovation and process innovation help entrepreneurs to achieve environmental excellence while becoming trailblazers in the fashion industry—proving that it is possible to manufacture certified eco-friendly jeans or a piece of clothing without sacrificing fashion-sense and brand aesthetics.
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