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Food and society

Sustainable fashion, clothes for the environment

In an era where speed matters, even fashion has become “fast”. But producing such a large number of garments at knock-down prices comes at the expense of environmental sustainability and the health of those who work in the industry.

Fashion isn’t just runway shows or shops packed to the brim with special offers and sales. Behind every single piece of clothing is the work of many and, in no small measure, environmental impact which is too often overlooked or underestimated. The WWF reminds us that the industry surrounding cotton, the fibre which is used to make nearly half of all fabrics, employs more than 250 million people around the world with a production system which doesn’t take environmental sustainability or the outlook of labourers into account. 

It’s never “just a t-shirt”

Producing a kilogram of cotton (enough for a t-shirt), requires approximately 20,000 litres of water, not to mention the hectares of farmland occupied by plants and the carbon dioxide produced to transport and process the fibres. This is precisely why we need to rethink the way cotton is farmed and how its fibres and the resulting fabric are produced, as explained by the backers of the Better Cotton Initiative. Established in 2005 as part of a round table of experts on various topics led by the WWF, the BCI was created to find sustainable solutions for farmers, the environment and for the future of each industry. 

The initiative, which many recognisable international brands adhere to, seeks to implement comprehensive change in the current production system, based on three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social and economic. The approach seems to be working, if we take the over 43,000 Pakistani cotton farmers involved in the initiative as an example: they’ve reduced water use by 16% and have boosted earnings by 109% compared to those who continue to use older methods.


The fabric footprint

Globally, cotton is the most common non-food crop and its impact on the environment goes well beyond what one might imagine. Even fibres have a footprint, which can be calculated thanks to the three “footprints” described in Eating Planet, used to evaluate the environmental impact of food. Based on the carbon footprint, ecological footprint and water footprint models (which refer to impact in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, land occupied and water used, respectively), the Center for Sustainable Economy and the Sustainable Cotton Project have developed a tool which calculates fabric’s footprint. “By doing so, cotton producers and consumers can compare the environmental impact of cotton produced conventionally and that produced sustainably, and then make more informed choices”, explained the experts at the Sustainable Cotton Project, an internationally-recognised, California-based project which is working to change the cotton production system. 


From crop to shop 

A t-shirt that lasts 30 years isn’t enough to make fashion sustainable on its own, but it’s a step in the right direction. Tom Cridland, an English fashion designer who has yet to turn 30 but who nonetheless is at the helm of one of the most famous sustainable fashion brands, is convinced of it. “Today fashion is one of the worst industries for the environment: 25% of all chemicals used around the globe are for fabrics, and 10% of greenhouse gas emissions are linked to clothing”, explained Cridland, who wants to revolutionise the way we think of and experience fashion with his 30-year-guaranteed garments. “People should buy clothes while also thinking about what’s behind them and what impact they have on the environment”, he said, highlighting the fact that people often buy garments which are worn just a few times and then thrown away. And to those who point out that fashion changes quickly and it’s not feasible to wear a piece of clothing for 30 years, he’s ready with a response: “A few pieces are classics; they’ll never go out of style.” 


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