Recent public awareness of the escalating problems due to diminishing natural resources are helping focus attention on the need to adopt sustainable and healthy lifestyles. Even Wal-Mart, the Sultan of PR hype and hyperbole, has undertaken a major campaign to introduce organic foods and organic clothing along with sustainable business practices. Sustainable clothing and green eco fashion have entered mainstream consumer consciousness with a barrage of recent media attention. But what really is sustainable clothing and is it different from organic clothing?
While concepts of “sustainable clothing” and “organic clothing” share many similarities, they have different roots and history. Where organic clothing grew and evolved out of the organic agriculture movement, sustainable clothing is a product of the environmental movement. They are both working towards the same ends but one has the feel of the farm and the other has the feel of the lab. One of the most apparent differences between the organic approach and the sustainable approach is the emphasis that the sustainable approach places on reuse and recycling of manufactured products. For example, Milliken & Company’s Earth Square Renewal Process allows used carpet tiles to be reused by deconstructing the used carpet tiles and then reconstructing them in new patterns and new colors. This reduces landfill waste and provides the customer with “new” carpet at about half the price of truly new carpet.
Improving a corporation’s sustainability footprint and reducing environmental impact is about more than just recycling materials. It requires a more holistic corporate approach that includes reusing environmentally-friendly packaging, reducing manufacturing and operational waste and pollution, improving building energy efficiency and reducing energy consumption, moving towards the use of renewable energy, improving shipping and transportation efficiencies, and designing sustainability into the products and services that are sold to the public.
Milliken & Company has a very long tradition of environmental good stewardship. In the early 1960’s Milliken formalized one of the first corporate environmental policies for reducing their corporate impact on the environment. Milliken also built one of the first voluntary waste water treatment facilities and implemented large tree planting programs on corporate lands. Milliken has replaced 30% of their natural gas consumption with methane that they capture and “harvest” from the community landfill. Today, due to their tree planting programs resulting in 138,000 acres of trees and environmental manufacturing diligence, Milliken & Company is the only carbon-negative manufacturer in the carpet and textile industry.
Milliken Carpets employed Design for the Environment (DfE) principals to design sustainability into their products. The Design for the Environment (DfE) program blossomed out of the Environmental Protection Agency's partnership program with private sector corporations to help businesses reduce environmentally damaging business and manufacturing processes. DfE promotes “integrating cleaner, cheaper, and smarter solutions into everyday busine3ss practices.” Milliken is also a founding member of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).
The economic sensitivities of sustainability are also more pronounced in the sustainability movement than in the organic movement. Sustainability is often justified because of decreased costs due to reclaimed and recycled materials and reduced energy consumption. The Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability (MTS) has developed the Unified Sustainable Textile Standard which attempts to establish standards that address what MTS calls the triple bottom line of economic, environmental and social performance for all aspects of the supply chain – from the acquisition of raw materials and natural resources through manufacturing to shipping and transportation of the finished garments and textiles.
A major goal of the MTS Unified Sustainable Textile Standard is to increase the economic value of sustainable textiles throughout the supply chain by enhancing market demand for sustainable textile products and garments. A major analytic tool in the MTS Unified Sustainable Textile Standard is life cycle assessment (LCA) for monitoring the environmental effectiveness of major processes and phases throughout the supply chain.
The MTS Unified Sustainable Textile Standard stipulates that a sustainable textile can be natural fiber or synthetic, petrochemical-based as long as throughout its supply chain all processes are environmentally-friendly and protect the health of humans and ecological systems. This is probably the most significant factor that differentiates sustainable textiles and clothing from organic textiles and clothing.
The MTS Unified Sustainable Textile Standard also establishes acceptable levels of emissions in textiles and garments from toxic chemicals such as carcinogenic or reproductive toxicant Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) and formaldehyde. For example, “the maximum concentration for formaldehyde emitted at 96 hours in emissions tests (following a ten-day conditioning period), shall not result in a modeled indoor air concentration greater than ½ the chronic reference exposure level (CREL) established by California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). Testing shall be in accordance with CA/DHS/EHLB/R-174 - Standard Practice for the Testing of Volatile Organic Emissions from Various Sources Using Small-Scale Environmental Chambers.” While standards for sustainability such as these will help create garment manufacturing processes and clothing that are more environmentally sustainable and wholesome, these standards do not necessarily protect people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities nor do they necessarily protect people from acquiring chemical sensitivities.
The MTS Unified Sustainable Textile Standard examines garment sustainability in five areas of sustainability:
1. Safe for Public Health & Environment,
2. Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency,
3. Material, Biobased or Recycled,
4. Facility or Company Based,
5. Reclamation, Sustainable Reuse & End of Life Management.
For each of these five areas of sustainability, the sustainable impact of the garment is monitored across 12 categories:
- Global Warming,
- Ozone Depletion,
- Photochemical Smog,
- Human Health,
- Ecological Toxicity,
- Fossil Fuel Depletion,
- Habitat Alteration,
- Criteria Air Pollutants,
- Water Intake,
- Solid and Hazardous Waste.
To achieve favorable ratings in the five areas of sustainability, a garment often only has to achieve positive ratings in only 7 out of these 12 categories. The standard defines four levels of sustainability achievement:
- Sustainable Textile Achievement
- Silver Sustainable Textile Achievement
- Gold Sustainable Textile Achievement
- Platinum Sustainable Textile Achievement
The level of sustainability that a textile product achieves is determined by an elaborate point system that allocates points based upon degree of achievement for the different categories within the different areas of sustainability. Textile manufacturers and suppliers conduct their own testing and supply MTS with the testing and certification results. The standard is designed to encourage textile manufacturers and suppliers to continually monitor and improve their sustainability ratings. That’s the theory, anyway.
McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) and GreenBlue are two other organizations on a mission to introduce sustainable design, manufacturing and business practices. MBDC is a process and design consulting company dedicated to helping manufacturing companies incorporate environmental awareness and sustainability into all aspects of their product designs and manufacturing processes. GreenBlue, originally a part of MBDC and then spun-off as a separate non-profit organization, has developed a comprehensive Sustainable Textile Standard based upon the “cradle-to-cradle” approach developed at MBDC. According to GreenBlue, conventional industrial design has been based upon the “cradle-to-grave” approach. A company harvests raw materials, combines them in the manufacturing process giving birth to a new product, sends it out into the world where it does its job, and the product eventually becomes old and used up and is then thrown into the rubbish heap where it is buried in one of the ten’s of thousands of landfills infecting the land near all cities and towns.
GreenBlue has recognized that intelligent, sustainable design is the key to creating sustainable manufacturing and industrial systems and that every aspect of a product’s lifecycle – from cradle to cradle – must be designed for sustainability.
The cradle-to-cradle approach requires new thinking about industrial design and the relationship between industry and the natural environment. We must design products so that when a product reaches the end of its lifecycle, it can be reborn into new and perhaps completely different products. It’s basically designing for product reincarnation and transformation.
The GreenBlue Sustainable Textile Standard and the MTS Unified Textile Standard have the same requirements defining sustainable textiles and sustainable garments:
- All materials and process inputs and outputs are safe for human and ecological health in all phases of the product life cycle;
- All energy, material, and process inputs come from renewable or recycled sources;
- All materials are capable of returning safely to either natural (biological nutrient) or industrial (technical nutrient) systems;
- All stages in the product lifecycle actively support the reuse or recycling of these materials at the highest possible level of quality;
- All product lifecycle stages enhance social well being and support the principals of Free Trade.
Five metrics are used to measure the degree of sustainability at each manufacturing step within the garment and textile industry and we quote:
- Safety of chemical and material inputs;
- Energy efficiency and mix;
- Water efficiency and effluent quality;
- Recycling and actual reclamation;
- Social equity for workers. (end of quote)
MBDC offers a five-tier sustainability certificate for companies wishing to be certified according to the MBDC cradle-to-cradle sustainability standards.
A new breed of synthetic textiles designed for full lifecycle sustainability is beginning to appear on the textile market. These new environmentally sustainable fabrics are manufactured using sustainable and recyclable materials, renewable energy sources during manufacturing processes, and manufacturing practices engineered to be safe for the health of workers and the environment.
With their Eco Intelligent collection of sustainable polyester fabrics, Victor Innovatex has relied upon the Cradle-to-Cradle design approach advocated by MBDC. Originally a wool mill founded in 1947 as Victor Woolens, Victor Innovatex specializes in industrial textiles for office furniture and commercial fabric panels.
As part of their Eco Intelligence strategy, Victor Innovatex has defined these measures for sustainability:
- Product and material transparency – maintain a precise inventory of all chemicals used in the manufacturing process and in the product;
- Material and chemical input safety – all chemical inputs are evaluated according to criteria established by MBDC for human health and ecological toxicity;
- Recyclable and recycled content – by using recycled fiber content in their manufacturing processes and also by developing new markets for recycled materials;
- Renewable energy and resource efficiency – by using renewable energy from their own hydroelectric facilities and by using it efficiently.
Their Eco Intelligent polyester is what they call a “technical nutrient” textile which means that it remains in a closed-loop system of manufacture, reuse and recovery to maintain its value and use through many product life cycles as part of the cradle-to-cradle product strategy. Victor Innovatex’s Eco Intelligent polyester does not contain the carcinogenic heavy metal antimony found in other polyesters and is also free of PBTs. PBTs are chemicals that are Persistent (they do not biodegrade or photodegrade), Bioaccumulative (they accumulate in body tissue and fats), and Toxic. The uses of antimony and PBTs in polyester clothing are some of the reasons that polyesters can be harmful and unhealthy to wear.
At first blush … and even at second blush …the term “sustainable polyester” seems a bit of an oxymoron. Polyesters, nylons and acrylics are synthetic fabrics made from petroleum, a gooey and non-renewable resource. But, polyesters nylons and acrylics that have not been combined with natural fibers are considered by some standards to be a sustainable fiber because they can be recycled into new fabrics and into other products. Nylon is generally considered non-toxic although some chemically sensitive people report skin reactions from close contact with nylon. Acrylic is a suspected carcinogen. Plastic soda bottles, which are produced from polyesters, can be recycled and re-spun into fabrics and outdoor clothing that goes by a variety of names such as eco-fleece. Depending upon the definition and standard of sustainability, these fabrics which typically contain between 70% to 90% recycled plastics might qualify as being sustainable … or they might not.
Many companies, organizations and educational programs have evolved to promote and give shape to sustainable textiles and clothing. One of these is the Sustainable Technology Education Project (STEP), a nonprofit organization that “aims to increase people's awareness of sustainable technology, enabling them to recognize the economic, environmental and social impacts of their own technology choices.” STEP defines eco-fashion as sustainable clothing that is grown and produced without harming the environment and that supports Fair Trade and the rights and working conditions of all peoples involved in the growing, production and manufacturing of clothing at all lifecycle stages. According to the Sustainable Technology Education Project guidelines, eco-fashion and sustainable clothing are generally made from organically grown natural fibers such as cotton, wool and hemp, but they can also be made from recycled petroleum-based materials such as plastic soda bottles and other re-used synthetic fibers. For many, recyclability equals sustainability.
Norm Thompson, the casual clothing company with the tag line “Escape from the Ordinary”, has developed a Sustainability Toolkit and Scorecard designed to evaluate and rank a wide variety of products mostly related to garment and textiles and their production and manufacturing environmental impacts. The Norm Thompson Sustainability Toolkit helps producers, manufacturers and consumers understand how different growing, production, manufacturing, shipping and transportation decisions affect a product’s sustainability ranking and environmental impact. Curiously enough, they do not directly define sustainability but rely upon the reader to infer their definition from their evaluation criteria and content.
After searching through the hundreds of garments on the Norm Thompson web site, we could find only 10 garments that could be considered sustainable or organic clothing and 6 of those were varying styles of organic cotton bras. For a clothing company concerned about sustainability, synthetic fibers outnumber natural fiber garments and most of the natural fiber clothing is made from conventional, pesticide grown and chemically finished manufactured cotton.
Many schools, universities and institutes have created courses and curriculums for sustainability as part of their design and environmental studies programs. One of the more interesting is the Okala Ecological Design course developed by the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) which draws upon traditional Native American respect and veneration for Nature.
Okala is a Hopi Indian word that translates into enviro-speak as “life sustaining energy.” IDSA sites Oren Lyons, Faith keeper of the Onondaga, as saying, “What you people call your natural resources our people call our relatives.” Hopi Indians, a people dating back 5,000 to 10,000 years to the Aztecs of Mexico, have developed a sustainable lifestyle and harmony with Nature that have allowed them to survive in peace in the arid and harsh environment of Northern Arizona.
The Okala Ecological Design course attempts to stimulate ecodesign ideas and products whose sustainability can be quantifiably verified. One of the major tools that they use to verify sustainability in designs and products is the U.S. EPA’s Tool for the Reduction and Assessment of Chemical and other environmental Impacts (TRACI) to measure the environmental impact for Sustainability Metrics, Life Cycle Assessment, Industrial Ecology, Process Design, and Pollution Prevention.
The Okala Ecological Design course examines and explores intelligent and sustainable eco-design from a broad and comprehensive set of perspectives including historical, environmental, scientific, engineering, aesthetics, social, economic, cultural, health and mystical/religious. Hopefully, courses such as this will become more common and perhaps even required in all high schools and universities.
This has been a short and cursory examination of sustainability in the garment industry. If we could just transition the garment and transportation industries to sustainable industries, the impacts on the environment, personal health, and social health would be tremendous. This is our goal.
Purely Beautiful & Sustainable Clothing