On sustainable textiles
April 29, 2021
Every year, Fashion Revolution Week commemorates the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013 that killed over 1000 garment workers, mostly young women, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Since then, Fashion Revolution has sought to demand action to increase transparency in the global textile industry and to end the industry’s exploitation of people and the environment.
To highlight these themes of transparency and sustainability (economical, ecological and social) in the textile industry, I’m writing a few blog posts about the topic and this text on sustainability is the third one. Also check out the past posts in this series: “On textiles, consumers and sustainability” and “On textile fibres and sustainability”!
What is a sustainable textile?
What does a sustainable textile look like? There are many questions related to sustainability in the textile business, ranging factory working conditions to materials, and measuring a brand’s or product’s sustainability is not easy.
In the field of textiles sustainability generally means practices that don’t include destroying natural resources, child labour, forced labour or other kinds of employee abuse. In addition, the whole business model of a brand can be evaluated when looking at sustainability: is the brand only producing products to sell more and to generate profit, or are more equal and sustainable working conditions at the heart of its activities?
When talking about working conditions in particular, one indicator of socially sustainable production can be evaluating whether the product originates from a low risk or a high risk country. In countries where legislation is minimal and the employees have few opportunity to unionise production is more at risk than in countries where legislation is strict. In high risk countries, these risks can be wages that are too low to live on, excessive working hours and environmental pollution among others.
Sustainability reports or websites that companies produce may shed light to their sustainability efforts and practices (for those companies that produce such reports). In these reports the company may for example disclose the percentage of certain fibres in their production, in which countries and factories their products are made and how working conditions are surveyed.
“Made in …”
When talking about textiles and sustainability the focus is often on production: where and how the end product was sewn. The sustainability of textile materials—where and how a fabric, yarn or fibre was produced—is much more difficult to find out by looking at the end product, because the “Made in …” tag only tells where the end product was put together.
The fabric that’s used to make a piece of clothing, and the yarn and fibre that were used to make it may all be produced in different locations from the one in which the end product was sewn. These supply chains remain hidden from the consumer unless the company deliberately discloses them.
Certificates for sustainable textiles
If you want to know whether the production chain of brand or product ethical and environmentally sustainable, you may want to see if the product has been granted any certificates. The textile industry has several certificates for sustainability, and they are granted based on criteria like eco-friendly materials and socially sustainable production. Some of the most known certificates are GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) and Oeko-Tex.
A GOTS-certificate is granted to an organic textile based on the whole production process of the product. GOTS certifies end products only—it does not certify the fibres themselves as organic (this is done by local organisations instead). An Oeko-Tex-certificate is granted to products in which there are no chemicals left that could harm human health. Both certificates have a number a criteria the product needs to match in order for the certificate to be granted.
In addition to GOTS and Oeko-Tex there are other product or materials certificates out there. There’s also BSCI (Business Social Compliance Initiative), a network of businesses that aims to increase social responsibility in global supply chains. The BSCI is not a product or materials certificate but rather a network through which member businesses can obtain auditing services and information about their suppliers.
In search of sustainable textile brands
Very few textile companies are actually perfect when it comes to sustainability because there are so many aspect to it. I try to think about sustainability as a spectrum, not as an “ON/OFF” situation where a company either is 100% sustainable or not sustainable at all. So, instead of expecting perfection I think it’s important to look at the overall picture and evaluate how much the companies are doing for sustainability.
For those who are interested in knowing more about sustainability in the textile business, there is information out there! You can find information about different certificates online, and you can read about a brand’s sustainability efforts on their website or in their sustainability report when these are available. Fashion Revolution’s “Fashion Transparency Index” also ranks brands according to how much brands give out information about their sustainability measures, so that’s another good source of information! For Finnish brands in particular, check out Finnwatch, a non-governmental organisation that investigates the global impacts of local businesses.