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June 21, 2020 7 min read

EMERALD BERLIN has a mission: it makes sustainable fashion and links it to international charity projects. But what exactly is sustainability, what does it mean for us, and how do we recognize sustainable and fair fashion? This is what this article is about.

Sustainability, what exactly is it?

The term was coined about three hundred years ago and originally comes from forestry: Only as many trees in the forest should be felled as can regenerate naturally within a certain time. This was a simple rule, but it ensured that the regenerative system of the forest was preserved and intact.

Living sustainably: an intact earth for our descendants

Today, we understand the term sustainability to mean basically the same thing, but in a much broader sense: it is an economic principle that can satisfy human needs while at the same time preserves the basis of life for future generations. There is no uniform definition, but the principle usually includes the following three dimensions: environment, economy, and society. It also takes into account the dimension of time, namely the view into the future, in which our children, grandchildren and all following generations will still find an intact earth worth living in. Our actions today have an influence on the future, in a positive as well as in a negative sense – this, too, is in the principle of sustainability. At the same time, it also includes an understanding of justice between the generations.

17 Goals for sustainable development

In the Agenda 2030, the United Nations have formulated 17 goals for sustainable development (Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs). They apply to all states and express the conviction that global problems can only be solved by working together. The 17 SDGs cover the three dimensions of sustainability and are mutually dependent. Five principles lead the way: people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. Under these principles, the change to an economic and lifestyle lifestyle that does not exploit the planet’s natural resources but respects them for us and all our descendants must take place.

Sustainable consumption, sustainable production

Goal 12, also known as SDG 12, deals with consumption and production conditions, for example in the textile industry, one of the most important consumer goods sectors. This sector generates more than 850 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year through the production, transport and use – washing, drying and ironing – of clothing. That is far too much.

To understand the magnitude, consider the following figures: The CO2 emissions per person in 2017 in Germany were 8.7 tonnes (30.36 tonnes for the front-runner Qatar, 1.61 tonnes for India). In order to achieve the climate targets for limiting the global rise in temperature, these figures would have to fall drastically: to two tonnes, or even better, to one tonne per capita per year. Each person – worldwide – should therefore not cause more than 1,000 kilograms of greenhouse gases, applying to all areas: transportation, food and other consumption, clothing ...

For comparison, here are a few examples of what produces how much greenhouse gases:

  • long-haul flight Düsseldorf - Sydney and back: about 5,000 kg
  • domestic flight Berlin - Munich and back: about 250 kg
  • one kilogram of frozen beef: about 13 kg
  • production of one pair of jeans: about 15 kg
  • production of a t-shirt: about 5 kg.

Environmentally conscious living

To achieve this, we must change our consumption habits quite drastically. Sustainable tourism and food are starting points, as the examples show. But we also have leverage in textile industry to make some desperately needed improvements, by changing production techniques and working conditions. In other words, we need to find a new way of dealing with clothing as a consumer good, but we also need to make fundamental changes in production. To do this, we need rules for environmental protection, but also for occupational health and safety.

Not so easy, because the textile industry operates in a highly globalised market. Around nine out of ten garments that end up in German shops are imported, for example from China or Bangladesh. Wages and non-wage labour costs are so low here that the clothing can be produced at a much lower price than would be the case with workers from other countries.

Fair-Trade clothing: against unfair working conditions

Fair clothing focuses on the working conditions of the people involved in the creation of a garment along the production chain, especially in emerging and developing countries. Specifically, these are people in cotton cultivation and harvesting, in textile factories during dyeing or other chemical finishing, seamstresses, packers, transport workers and others. In many countries, there is no fair pay, but exploitative working hours, poor health protection and inadequate safety standards. People are exposed to toxic substances, receive no or only inadequate protective equipment, are not allowed to organise in trade unions – and yet their wages are barely enough to survive. In the fight against this injustice, fairtrade standards have been formulated which farmers, owners of cotton plantations and all other companies along the so-called value chain must comply with. These transparent standards include not only social but also ecological and economic criteria.

The Sumangali principle

The example of the so-called Sumangali principle from India shows that something urgently needs to change here. Translated Sumangali means “happy bride”. In India, dowries are too high for many poor families. That is why they often send their daughters to work in the factories of the textile industry at a very young age, especially in the yarn spinning mills. The women are hired directly by the factory owners and housed in barracks, often outside their homes or even abroad. The contracts usually run for at least five years. The factory owners retain part of the wages, sometimes even the entire wage. It is only paid out after the end of the contract period, i.e. after the full five years. Women who suffer injuries, become pregnant or do not fulfil the contract for other reasons receive nothing. And so the principle has a beautiful name, but is nothing more than modern slavery.

Sustainable clothing: good for the environment and social sustainability

Labels that explicitly offer sustainable clothing rely particularly on renewable materials and a production process without a lot of chemicals and usually with comparatively less water consumption – more on this below. In effect, “fair clothing” and “sustainable clothing” are not the same, even though there is a certain probability that fair fashion has also been produced sustainably, and vice versa. Simply because the principles are interdependent to a certain extent.

More facts about eco fashion

It's the fibre that counts: avoid petroleum

By definition, sustainable fashion cannot be made of polyester, polyamide and other synthetic fibres, as these are obtained from the fossil raw material crude oil. About 0.8 percent of the oil produced annually is used as a raw material for synthetic fibres. In addition, crude oil is needed for the use of the machines in production and transport.

Alternative materials

Sustainable clothing is often made from organic cotton. No pesticides, harmful dyes or other chemicals are used in the cultivation process. However, so far only about one percent of the world’s cotton production comes from organic farming. However, this already accounts for about two percent of the world’s cultivated area. Hence, it would be impossible to switch completely to organic cotton while maintaining the same production volume, because the areas under cultivation would simply take up far too much space – land that is needed for growing food, for example. Alternatives are other fast-growing fibres such as linen or hemp or actually recycled synthetic fibres, a process that is still difficult at present. It is also worth taking a closer look at viscose and newer materials like Lyocell. Although viscose is basically made of wood, it is still a derivative fibre because it is chemically modified in such a way that it can be spun into a thread. This requires a lot of chemicals. Lyocell is a kind of revised version of viscose with great properties, for example, an antibacterial effect – but again, lots of chemicals are used in the fibre conversion process.

Eco clothing and water consumption

To add to the high greenhouse gas emissions of the textile industry, there are other problems: the use of chemicals and water consumption. Especially the so-called textile finishing, meaning treatment, dyeing and printing, is very water-intensive. For every kilogram of clothing produced, about one kilogram of chemicals is used. About 60 litres of water are used per kilogram of clothing for dyeing and treatment. Up to a fifth of the industrial waste water produced worldwide comes from the textile industry. Cotton textiles require a particularly large amount of water, starting with cultivation. Conventional cotton cultivation also uses pesticides and fertilisers that seep into the soil. They poison the groundwater and destroy the livelihoods of local people – in other words, they have a destructive effect on the environment as well as on society. A double reason to take a closer look and buy clothes from responsible companies that address these problems.

Support sustainable companies, buy more consciously

There is another approach, and it starts in our minds: our own attitude about what we wear and the pace at which we consume new clothes. Every year, around 80 billion items of clothing are produced, and on average, each and every German buys 60 new items of clothing a year. Many items are worn only once, twice at most, and then sorted out. Fast fashion is the keyword. But our consumer behaviour gives us quite a lot of leverage. All we need to do is take action. And here is how:

  • Make conscious choices: buy sustainable and fairly produced, high quality clothing. Look at the certifications, find out about the labels’ ecological and social responsibility.
  • Appreciate clothes more: treat them with care, repair them instead of throwing them away, recognize quality.
  • Wear second-hand fashion: buy or exchange used clothes, pass them on to friends.

And you can do much more! Find more tips for your personal sustainability management in everyday life here.

The author of this blog article is Katharina Frier-Obad. You want to give her feedback or have a question? Write her a comment here.

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