The textile industry, much like other sectors, bears significant responsibility for the increasing ecological concerns. With the rise in fast fashion coupled with a linear business model, the amount of environmental waste generated exceeds the average. According to data provided by the Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation, about 92 million tonnes of garments end up in landfills every year globally. If the trend continues, it is expected to reach 134 million tonnes a year by the end of the decade. These numbers reflect the perils posed by the conventional fashion model to both Mother Earth and its inhabitants. Above all, it echoes the need to nurture circular fashion to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2030 as proposed by the United Nations.
At present, the textile industry faces two significant hurdles in terms of adopting and promoting a circular economy: excessive use of blended fabrics and non-ecofriendly chemicals.
Most materials produced today are composed of two or more different types of fibres. Blending fibres is quite a popular practice across the industry aimed at improving the fabric’s overall performance and properties. It helps enhance durability, comfort, breathability, and resistance to wrinkles.
Another truth is that separating these types of fabrics for recycling poses an enormously challenging task due to the complex intertwining and strong bond between the fibres. Without sorting them, recycling is unlikely, and to do so a number of petroleum products are required. Regardless of the fabric being unblended, from refining the raw material to dyeing it, the fibre undergoes several chemical treatments. This reduces their quality and durability, making it difficult to repurpose them. The more extensive the chemical treatment, the more damage it causes to the fabric. Besides the chemicals, even some manufacturing processes contribute to the rising environmental burden.
Green chemistry can prove to be significant in overcoming all these pertaining issues as it promotes the use of sustainable materials and manufacturing processes. Introduced in the 1990s, the concept of green chemistry is based on 12 principles, including waste prevention, maximizing incorporation of raw materials into final products, energy efficiency, and use of renewable feedstocks. This involves designing chemical products and processes for minimizing or eliminating the production of anti-green substances and protecting natural resources.
Garments produced using eco-friendly chemicals and processes are much more durable and resistant to wear and tear. Naturally, they look new for longer and are discarded less frequently compared to conventional clothing. They are also easy to recycle and cause less damage to the environment. For instance, fabrics like lyocell (made from wood pulp of eucalyptus or other fast-growing trees) are easily recyclable and environmentally friendly as compared to cotton.
Clean chemistry also plays a pivotal role in creating non-toxic, eco-friendly dyes, thus preventing environmental pollution of land and water bodies. Furthermore, adopting green processes reduces water consumption and energy usage during textile manufacturing. The principles of green chemistry also encompass the creation of biodegradable and compostable packaging materials to reduce waste. These products can naturally break down after usage, returning to the environment without causing harm.
Switching to environment-friendly solutions brings a glimmer of hope on the horizon, paving a path towards a more sustainable and circular economy. By minimizing our reliance on ecologically unfriendly chemicals we can establish a closed-loop system. Reprocessing used and discarded garments to create new textiles can lower the consumption and demand for virgin materials such as using recycled polyester in place of virgin polyester. Furthermore, it can reduce the carbon footprint of the industry, moving a step closer to building a sustainable future for all.
However, implementing green chemistry in the textile industry is not that easy. The process entails significant expenses compared to traditional methods. Investing in research, development, and infrastructure for such practices may not be feasible for some fashion companies, particularly the ones with limited budgets. Green chemistry alternatives also may not always offer the same level of performance and the potential benefits may not always be immediately clear.
Additionally, there is insufficient awareness regarding the technology and effectiveness of this practice. This keeps many companies from adopting it. They do not even feel motivated to explore this method due to a lack of adequate support or incentive options. Even in terms of supply chain management, implementing green chemistry practices across this network is something that require more deliberation. The fashion and textile industries’ supply chains are often global, involving multiple stakeholders. Collaboration and coordination among various parties may be a complex process.
Another notable obstacle is the confusion between green chemicals and ‘organic’ sourcing. Both concepts are often used interchangeably and are believed to be one and the same thing. In reality, there are significant differences between the two. Green chemicals refer to environmentally friendly substances that have minimal impact on human health and the environment, from production to disposal. Organic sourcing, however, refers to the practice of using organic materials in clothing, accessories, and textile production. While both aim to be environmentally conscious, they address various aspects of sustainability.
As environmental concerns intensify, green chemistry offers a promising solution, paving the way for circular fashion. The textile industry can become 100% recycled if certain necessary changes are implemented. Both pre-and post-consumption materials can be recycled to produce new fabrics if they are processed well the first time, utilizing green chemicals and processes. Inculcating this method while producing fabrics and yarns can be the first step toward creating a sustainable future for all.
It will not only help to reduce environmental pollution but also present new opportunities for innovation and economic growth. However, to reach this goal, not only companies but the active participation of consumers is equally pivotal. Spreading awareness and sensitizing consumers towards the cause can increase the demand for recycled products. Eventually, this can result in easier adoption and execution of ideas by companies and stringent measures to ensure sustainable practices throughout the supply chain. Only through collaborative efforts, circular fashion and a sustainable future can become a reality.