Working Towards Sustainability: Clothing
I am sure that everyone reading this will be aware of reports on the news about climate change and the dangers that it poses to our planet. While the focus is often on the automotive and travel industries, what may be less reported or known is that among the biggest pollutants of the environment today are every day items which are consumed without even thinking. In this particular case, I will be discussing the clothing industry.
I want to start by making it clear that this blog is not aimed at vilifying or shaming anyone for wearing a particular type of clothing or anything like that. What we want to do is share our knowledge and findings from research about the clothing industry and to make it easier for you as a consumer to buy clothing that you know is sustainably sourced and packaged with a minimal environmental footprint.
So what risk to the environment does clothing pose?
According to the World Bank in this article published in 2019, the fashion industry was responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions. On top of this, around 20% of the worlds waste water is produced from fabric dying or treatment and half a million tonnes of micro fibres are deposited in the ocean each year (the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles).
In a Forbes article from 2015, the industry is also considered the largest polluter in the world next to oil and their report suggests around 70 million oil barrels are used to produce the world’s polyester fibre. The United Nations agree and based on these figures, the industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than aerial and maritime transport combined.
What are the clothes we buy made from?
Of the synthetic fabrics produced today, around 55% contain polyester which is a man made fabric constructed from a type of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The term ‘polyester’ describes a category of polymers produced by mixing ethylene glycol (derived from petroleum) and terephthalic acid… so in layman’s terms, your polyester clothes are made from plastic, petrol and acid! Although sources differ on the exact figure, they all agree that more than half of the world’s clothing is now made from this fabric.
One of the biggest problems with this is that once the clothing reaches the end of its lifecycle, it will end up in landfill and as a plastic, it will take up to 200 years to decompose as it is not biodegradable. Also, recent studies have also found that when items of polyester clothing are washed, microfibres are released from garment, of which they estimate around 40% ends up in rivers and the ocean.
There have been attempts made to reduce the impact of polyester upon the environment by working towards using recycled polyester but there are more than a few problems associated with this. Although it is great that efforts are being made, one of the issues with attempting to recycle this fabric is that the quality degrades every time it is heated so only lower quality items can be produced after the process is complete which doesn’t really meet with the current demand.
This article by Fashion United is really eye opening and discusses the matter in more detail.
Organic Cotton Vs Standard Cotton:
You may have noticed on our product descriptions that all of our T-Shirts are made using 100% organic cotton. It sounds great to say but what does that actually mean?
One of the main problems of using standard cotton for clothing is that the crop uses huge amounts of water… and it has been calculated that around 3000 gallons of water would be required to make a single T-Shirt which is causing significant damage to the ecosystem, as many cotton producing areas are susceptible to drought. Although more expensive to buy, we know that organic cotton is 80% rain fed which reduces the pressure on the water table in these areas.
Another issue related to farming techniques is that an estimated 17% of the worlds pesticides are used in the production of standard cotton. Whilst pesticides are great from stopping the crop from being eaten, they have a detrimental effect to the environment and the people who live there and alarmingly, the WHO (World Health Organisation) has produced figures showing that in developing countries approximately 20,000 individuals die of cancer and suffer miscarriages as a result of chemicals sprayed on conventional cotton.
Thankfully, the production of organic cotton is required to meet certain agricultural standards and no chemicals or pesticides can be used. As well as reducing harmful chemicals on the land, organic farming has helped to improve water quality and on an economic level, the lack of investment in pesticides allows the local farmers to grow more than one crop which can supplement their income and reduce the financial impact of a bad growing season.
Find out more about the benefits of organic cotton.
What about the Inks used to print on a T-Shirt?
So many items of clothing, and especially t-shirts, are printed with designs today. But what is less known is how those designs are applied to the garment and what that means for the environment. We began to produce our clothing through existing companies who had the infrastructure in place to create the designs we wanted to share. On one hand, this isn’t ideal as producing a printed T-Shirt in a factory will produce higher carbon emissions, however, as some designs were too complex to reproduce ourselves (to start with at least), it was our only choice at the time.
However, we always ensure that the inks being used were as sustainable as possibly and we exclusively use Direct To Garment printing. DTG printing is a process of printing on clothing using modified inkjet technology which applies special textile inks directly into the fibres of the clothing. The inks used in DTG printing are generally water based, pigmented inks that are naturally sourced and environmentally friendly (more about this later).
Sean working on a screen print of his Odin Godmask design
Now, we are moving towards producing the majority of our T-shirts in house and have set up a screen printing studio to enable this. By working this way, we are able to have full control over the entire process and can reduce our carbon footprint further, especially when it comes to ink choices…
The industry standard for the screen printing of designs on T-shirt for years has been an ink type called Plastisol which despite being very easy to use and durable is unfortunately derived from PVC… So what is the problem with PVC?
The full name for this plastic is Polyvinyl Chloride and at the time of writing, around 33 million tons of PVC is being produced every year and the product ranks 3rd in terms of global plastic output and consumption.
One of the major problems with PVC is that it is not biodegradable at the end of a products lifecycle and even after decades, the only breakdown of items made from this plastic is granulation where the pieces simply become smaller.
Also, in both the manufacture and incineration of PVC, a substance called dioxin is produced which accumulates inside the exposed animal and the dioxides make their way up the food chain. But the harm of these chemicals inside the animals’ bodies does not stop there. Dioxins as a result of PVC may disrupt the hormones of animals, causing birth defects, infertility, and developmental problems with their young.
Water Based Inks:
One of the main reasons that water based inks aren’t more widespread is that they are harder to use and take longer to dry thank other options such as the plastisol. However, as this type of ink is 100% solvent and plastic free, we believe it is worth the extra time. It is worth noting that water based inks can only be described as truly environmentally friendly when they are used and disposed of correctly. The majority of environmental damage that can occur is due to waste, especially in the clean up process but as only water is needed to remove the ink from the screens, there is no need to use harmful chemicals in the cleaning process.
There have been a number of reports that question the merits of water based inks based on the additional time required for the ink to dry but as we wont be reliant on a production line, we have afforded ourselves the luxury of time to give the garments as long as they need.
We have chosen to work using Hunt The Moon inks as they do not contain any toxic chemicals at all (including white spirits which are often present in other water based inks on the market) and are also certified as Vegan.