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Can textiles actually be climate positive?

By Charles Ross, RCA lecturer, Do Lectures team member, and Performance Days presenter.

The rumour (though now discounted) was that the textile industry is the second worse polluter of this planet. However, as with all matters, that is not the whole story – there are even areas where the industry has a positive effect.

Impacts are measured in precision through three main footprints: the energy (carbon), the water, and the waste. On top of this, is the process used to produce textiles. Go back two generations to the 1970s (when we used to manufacture our garments in the UK & polycotton was the new material – which allowed the Fast Fashion growth to happen); unionised labour standards were part of British life. Now, as most garments are made in Asia, much of the associated information is hidden from us. This Millennium has seen the growth of CSR standards – there are more than 1000 of them in current circulation, but these are voluntary codes. The three worth paying attention to are the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s HIGG Index (the whole process), the Fair Wear Foundation (labour standards), and BlueSign (chemicals).

What coronavirus has demonstrated (to the embarrassment of those who trumpeted about the improved living standards) is the colonial attitude that some of the fashion brands resorted to in pulling out of orders. It was like going back to 2013 and recreating the hatred expressed towards textile attitudes post-Rana Plaza. That incident saw the industry pull together and rise up from the tragedy – the Bangladesh Fire Accord now exists, without the blame being pointed towards those who cleared the building as safe to work in the day before after cracks had appeared from the extra weight the foundations had to support from the tripling in size from the granted building permission. Most of the brands I have worked with were amazed to find their garments were being made there, as opposed to the factories where they had placed the contracts. Post- covid the same opportunity exists for textiles to change for the better.

Cotton and polyester have succeeded in becoming the two most used fabrics because of their price points. This also sums up how the textiles are split: natural and synthetic – but whatever choice is made: the cost is all important. The reason why textiles were offshored and are slowly moving back west from China is because of the price of manufacturing (the most elastic part of construction charges). Covid-19 has demonstrated that no matter what the price is, supply of PPE is more important, so there will be a manufacturing resource established back in this country – similar to the Berry Agreement situation in the US.

Cotton has come in for a battering in recent years as the water footprint has been revealed; on top of which the pesticides and herbicides used for the growing of it make two of the top five most common carcinogenic chemicals found in the oceans; plus the poor labour practice of those countries around the Aral sea. All the alternatives: lyocell, hemp, linen, bamboo, wool, and so on, are more expensive to produce – so have not taken off to fill the gap. Polyester has been seen as the main contributor of Plastics-to-the-Ocean (although this is up for debate in light of current research). Hence why cotton is still used as a common base material. However, wool has seen a rebirth since the turn of the Millennium, especially led by the finer antipodean Merino varieties that have had better distribution.

Thus, unless newer fabrics can offer the price-pointing, Type 1 cellulosic or PET will always win through. The lobbying that stopped the 1 pence sales tax proposal in the Environmental Audit Committee’s Fixing Fashion (2019) report saw it completely rejected by Parliament last year, so to move to a more expensive raw material will not be successful – unless there are tangible added benefits.

Merino wool has already reminded us all how the keratin fibre offers benefits that have yet to be replicated by synthetics – it is the ultimate generalist fabric: suitable for environments from the desert to the snow-capped mountains, but also offering an antibacterial quality (is this the main reason why so many more did not die in the awful trench conditions of WW1?), a flash-proof layer, and the best smell absorbency – all without use of heavy metals or chemicals. Merino comes mainly from antipodean farms & has been the focus of the Textile Exchange’s Responsible Wool Standard for animal husbandry, the 2.1 version of which came out in May 2020.

However, there are some Swiss and British Merino farms, the latter being the Bowmont variety whose entire stock is bought up by the cold-water surf brand: Finisterre. Most of the European wool is the coarser type which is too uncomfortable for next-to-the-skin wear of today’s society, but offers other benefits. Some of this goes into bedding & carpets, but HDWool is now using it as insulation wadding by combining it with a PLA – which offers a more durable structure to stop quilting through repeated washings. Hypnos bedding & The Woolroom are customers specifying Regenerative Agriculture wool for their product portfolio; a trend that is expected to grow as the information age allows greater provenance of consumer products.

What 2020 has seen is a collapse of the UK price for the fleece (the clip); this has always been a loss leader for farmers as changing the winter coat for the spring conditions will provide a better quality of life for the sheep. Normally the shearing costs around £4 an animal, but almost £3 will come back from selling that wool. Right now, farmers are considering that the fuel used take the fleeces to the buyer is costing more than they get for the keratin product (some only get £0.15 a kg – the price last year was close to £0.50), so some have taken to burying or burning it.

Against all the trend H Dawson, the wool merchants in Bradford (the world’s capital of wool) is paying up to 85p per kg for wool from sheep farms practising ‘Regenerative Agriculture’. RA is the buzz word of both Patagonia & The North Face this year – so what is the attraction?

It is known how mono-cropping is not good for the land as it means extra chemicals are required to revitalise the ground or control the problems that it attracts. Regenerative agriculture offers the opposite. The easy definition of this practice is to put more back into the land than you take from it. In terms of sheep farming it translates to fields that are fallow on the crop rotation, but also allowing the grass to grow longer (by not letting the sheep graze it down to its roots). The two instant benefits connected to longer grass (which means longer roots): more carbon stored beneath the ground & also less soil erosion. If calculations are applied – the average wadding in a jacket sequesters an extra 100 kg of carbon.

The other benefit of letting the grass grow longer is that the sheep will not graze down to the level of where the faeces is – so no antibiotics are routinely required.

The RWS has progressed in the right direction (it is centred on animal welfare), but it is still not up to the land management parameters that the Allan Savory Institute leads on. What H Dawson’s Woolkeepers programme provides in addition is animal well-being ethics, as the strongest yarn comes from the most stress-free sheep, which is the overriding aim.

Cotton growing is improving, but the Global Organic Textile Standard is known not to be the most productive crop, plus still allows copper sulphate to be used to control pests (which is not great for the soil). There is a debate as to whether the Better Cotton Initiative cotton is the best compromise between GOTS & regular cotton production. Originally BCI was devised as a stepping-stone to organic, but conversations continue as to whether it offers the best outcome for most farmers in terms of crop management & output. What is known is that no cotton cultivation method offers the land management benefits that Regenerative Agriculture brings.

Nature does not create waste for itself, so every output is balanced with it being a feedstock for something else.

At a time when the biggest problem is actually the over consumption of textiles (we own 4 fold the amount of clothing we owned 50 years ago, driven by the low purchase price, just like with the cheaper food prices) – could there be a move towards quality & respect for styling, rather than just being fashionable? The recognition that H Dawson has become the first textile company to achieve the Red Tractor standard should be taken seriously.

For more information about the topics raised in this article, please contact Charles Ross on charles@email.com

This expert view is part of BMI’s spolight week on bio-based textiles. Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Bio Market Insights’ editorial team and management.


If you were interested in this bioeconomy story, you may also be interested in the ones below.

Read: Expert view: Will ‘greenwashing’ work out to be good for textiles?

Read: Wool might be sustainable and flexible but its price continues to fall as exposed in viral Facebook post.

Read: Spotlight on bio-based textiles: Sustainable innovation – don’t be blinkered by large brands

Read: Expert view: Will ‘greenwashing’ work out to be good for textiles?

Read: Spotlight on bio-based textiles: How to make sure modern slavery is not embedded in your sustainable cotton products

Read: Deputy editor’s view: Cleaning out one’s closet 

Read: Spotlight on bio-based textiles: Regenerative materials sourced from plants, not petroleum-based synthetic plastics

Read:  Introducing bio-based and sustainable components to long-standing supply chains.

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