What does sustainability mean in the context of functional work and personal protective clothing? Bernhard Kiehl offers an explanation and outlines the way safety and environmental challenges are being met by responsible companies.
The invective to “reduce, recycle, reuse” is a phrase we have all become used to in our daily lives. From minimising the number of plastic bags we use for our groceries, to recycling our food waste for compost, we are, more than ever, encouraged to think of the environmental consequences of our behaviour and to adapt our actions accordingly.
Raising awareness of the impact we can have on the environment, has, in recent years, taken a broader approach to take on board the wider and more challenging concept of ‘sustainability’. But what does this really mean in the context of the personal protective clothing market and what are leading clothing companies doing to make their products more sustainable?
The term ‘sustainability’ was defined in a 1987 report by the World Commission on Environment and Development, using what has become known as the ‘Brundtland Definition’. This is the most internationally accepted definition and affirms that sustainability means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.1
From this, the principle of sustainability has become more widespread and familiar over the years. In 2005, the World Summit for Social Development identified sustainable development goals, such as economic development, social development and environmental protection. These three pillars have served as a common ground for numerous sustainability standards and certification systems in recent years, in areas such as the food and clothing industries.2
Impact of ‘fast fashion’
Having an awareness of sustainability issues is a starting point but does not automatically lead to good practice. While governments and local authorities have made some advances in establishing recycling regimens, it has sometimes been a challenge to persuade commercial companies to introduce ethical and sustainable production practices, for fear of the bottom line suffering. Consumers too, looking for affordable clothing, sometimes neglect to look beyond the immediate concern of price.
With the emergence of ‘fast fashion’ in the mid-1990s, unsustainable design, low cost and low-quality clothing has flooded the market. This increases the speed of the fashion production cycle and gives consumers the opportunity to buy the current season’s trends at low prices.3
But the environmental impact of these changes has been negative and staggering. ‘Fast fashion’ is connected to poor employment conditions and the tendency to discard clothes after a short time. Globally, 7.5 billion garments enter landfills every year, and an estimated total of 0.8 to 1 million tonnes of textiles in the UK alone meet the same fate. Used clothing accounts for approximately 350,000 tonnes of these landfilled textiles in the UK worth an estimated £140m. In China’s growing economy, the total annual production of textile waste is estimated to be over 20 million tonnes.4
In the wake of increasing concern about clothing production and consumption patterns, a number of bodies have joined forces to raise awareness, monitor and change practices. These are as divergent as celebrity Livia Firth’s high-end fashion campaigns, such as the Green Carpet Challenge and Fashion Revolution Day5 to, at the other end of the scale, non-governmental organisations dedicated to helping consumers re-use their existing clothing by up-cycling, repairing and reconstructing.6
Major clothing and fabric manufacturers have taken note of the environmental issues and have for some years been joining forces to produce high-quality clothing while minimising negative impacts. In other words, all of these companies and bodies believe it is important to ask questions about how clothes are produced, used and discarded and to turn their passion for clothes into sustainable practices.
One might think that functional work clothing, and especially personal protective clothing, would be exempt from the sustainability concerns of high-fashion
or the high street, since by its very nature, work and protective clothing needs to be durable and fit-for-purpose. But in fact, this sector of the clothing industry has been beset with quite specific and specialist challenges over the years.
For instance, making garments waterproof and long-lasting, has in the past involved the use of potentially harmful materials such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). For over 10 years, many responsible leading companies have been working on ways to reduce and eliminate PFOA from the raw materials they use.
Adhering to its own strict product safety standards in addition to industry-wide standards, Gore was one of the first companies in the sector to successfully manage the changeover to PFOA-free raw materials for its entire range of textile products.
The move affects all membranes and durable water repellency (DWR) treatments for the whole range of fabrics used in finished products such as mountaineering, fashion and lifestyle garments, footwear for outdoor sports and casual wear, and work wear for fire and police services.
Since 2010 Gore has certified all its facilities to conform to the globally recognised bluesign system. These are in place to reduce the environmental impact concerning the entire textile supply chain.
In addition to rigorously regulating the use of chemicals in products, the system also strictly limits emissions to water, air and land and has stringent guidelines concerning the health and safety of employees and the protection of the environment along the entire supply chain.
Since the early 1990s, Gore has also held the Oeko-Tex standard 100, which requires companies to commit to testing fabrics to ensure that they do not pose a health risk, according to requirements that exceed those laid down by statutory regulations.
Gore is also a founding member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which utilises the Higg Index, a tool for measuring a product’s sustainability performance across the industry value chain. The coalition’s vision is an apparel and footwear industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on the people and communities associated with its activities.
By employing a life-cycle assessment approach, members are able to consider all aspects of their products. This starts with the production of raw materials by suppliers and includes all elements of manufacturing and transportation. Members also consider the impact of the washing and drying performed by the consumer over the lifetime of the garment.
Keeping up to date with scientific research ensures that responsible companies in the clothing industry are aware of the best ways to produce sustainable products. As well as reducing and eliminating harmful materials, research has shown that making clothes that will last for longer, and encouraging consumers to buy fewer, better quality items, would be the most effective way of achieving sustainability.
Research by Dr Julian Allwood and researchers at the Institute for Manufacturing in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge supports the view that the single most effective means of reducing the environmental impact of a product is to maximise its lifespan.
The university, which carried out a large-scale study, published in 2007, explored the environmental, social and economic sustainability of clothing and textile production, consumption and waste, and focused on future possibilities for greater sustainability within the UK.
The researchers concluded that: “the impacts of the sector are largely driven by the volume of material passing through it – so the greatest beneficial change would occur if we purchased less clothing and kept it for longer”.7
Responsible functional clothing companies have been following this good practice for some time. Focusing on the entire production process, the raw materials and the health and safety of their employees, have been key.
Moreover, such companies are continuing to explore best practice in deconstructing, recycling and reusing textiles. What is needed now is a greater push for education to challenge and change consumer habits. Where purchasers – and responsible clothing companies – go, the rest will follow.