Complex and non-transparent supply chains are currently the biggest challenge facing the fashion industry - solutions require new standards and innovation
Author: House of Eden
Currently, there are no regulated and uniform standards that define what constitutes sustainable fashion. This often results in misleading claims by companies when it comes to their commitment to the environment. Natural, eco-friendly, organic - these are just a few of the terms brands like to use to publicly position their products as sustainable. If these terms are used for marketing purposes without clear and measurable goals, this has long been known in the industry as greenwashing. Here are some approaches to breaking the fashion supply chains.
When is fashion sustainable?
Natural is not the same as sustainable. Materials of natural origin such as viscose or bamboo are not directly environmentally friendly, this depends among other things on their extraction. According to Canopy, more than 200 million trees are felled each year for viscose production, making the material largely responsible for deforestation unless they come from a certified source. Bamboo grows quickly, but is often treated with pesticides during cultivation and chemicals during further processing.
Source & Copyright by Spinova
Vegan alternatives to leather and fur are currently highly praised in fashion. Since the materials have no animal origin, they also enjoy a sustainable reputation. However, it is not uncommon for them to be made from petroleum-based plastic, which is just as damaging to the planet. Real material innovations such as Mylo ™ or Pinatex®, on the other hand, try to produce vegan textiles based on mushrooms or pineapple leaves.
Complex supply chains enhance a lack of transparency
The restructuring for companies towards sustainability requires several factors and is a lengthy process. The most critical success factor on the sustainability agenda, however, is the transparency of the supply chain. With 70% of all emissions in the fashion industry, the value and supply chain has the greatest impact on the ecological footprint.
In addition, fashion labels purchase a wide variety of materials from countless producers, which only gives an idea of the complexity of the supply chain and makes traceability almost impossible. This makes cross-company collaboration more difficult and enables manipulation. According to PwC, only 40% of companies have visibility of their producers' emissions, while only 7% have oversight from raw material suppliers, leading to the major challenge of availability of verified materials. This is further complicated by the lack of segmentation and slow progress in digitalisation.
Ecological challenges in the supply chain
But sustainability begins much earlier - the product design significantly determines the structure of the supply chain as well as recycling through the choice of materials selected for the garment. The number of materials selected and the chemicals used make recycling difficult and increase resource consumption. Mixed textiles often cannot be recycled at all because the materials cannot be separated. The choice of colours and dyes used are also crucial.
According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation's New Textiles Report, the fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water a year. A significant part of the water consumed ends up as undrinkable wastewater due to the dyes, salts, alkalis and heavy metals it contains, which is also illegally discharged into rivers and seas and has a negative impact on the ecosystem.
Source & Copyright by © Global Organic Textile Standard
Potential solutions for more transparency in the supply chain
Many sustainable companies like Everlane or Asket show consumers the production site for each product, for example. To increase transparency, companies must prioritise different aspects of the supply chain. The following criteria are decisive:
- Set up production guidelines and standards
- Control water and energy consumption
- Provision of sustainable raw materials and material innovation
- Fair working conditions
- Reduction of toxic chemicals
- Recycling and circular production processes
Use of next-gen materials
While water waste and the resulting water scarcity is one of the critical factors on the sustainability agenda, there are already potential solutions such as bio-inspired materials. For example, a microbe that produces pigments depending on the PH value in which it is found, thus enabling different effects on the fabric. The key to this method is that it uses 500 times less water than the usual dyeing processes and does not involve the use of chemicals.
The Colorfix company relies on the processing of molasses - a by-product of sugar, for the coloring of textiles. Furthermore, the biotech company uses the by-products of biofuels for fixing, which is the most toxic process of textile dyeing. By reusing the waste products, 10 times less water and 20 times less energy is used.
Source & Copyright by Colorfix
One key challenge is Next-gen materials, which are supposed to revolutionize the fashion industry, are more sustainable than the fabrics to be replaced and have no animal origin. They are ecological, social and economical. The Dutch company Qorium grows the cells of a cow into leather while MycoWorks agricultural waste processed into mycelium, which can be used as leather. The entire process takes one to two weeks and recycles resources into a product that is completely degradable and manufactured without chemicals.
Another company, Spinnova, has set itself the goal of producing the cleanest fiber in the world. The Spinnova fiber does not contain any harmful chemicals, has minimal water consumption and CO2 emissions, does not contain any microplastics and is 100 percent circular. Other recycling pioneers like Econyl® and Repreve® process nylon waste and polyester residues into new textiles.
The implementation requires defined procedures and requirements:
Three main factors have to be considered: The source of the raw materials, the production including the factories and the working conditions, as well as the distribution network. Clear procedures and defined requirements must be set:
- Recognize the risks of a lack of supply chain transparency
- Define guidelines for all suppliers in the supply chain
- Enable the measurability of transparency
- Clear internal and external communication
- Collaboration and digitization
By using digital technologies such as blockchain, data can be collected and processed more efficiently to support qualified decisions on the issue of sustainability. Among other things, blockchain technology thus enables more transparency, protects against manipulation and offers control options in distribution. Transparency in the supply chain can have a significant positive effect on the development of companies in the direction of sustainability.
With the growing biodesign movement and advancing digital fashion offerings, there are now many options on the market that make it easier for companies to make the transition to sustainable fashion. While the switch to recyclable material alternatives and the use of the latest technologies is one of the simpler tasks, the first thing that companies need is the understanding and goal of working not only economically but also ecologically.