One of the most common ideas amongst consumers is that buying cotton clothes is good enough for sustainability. Being a natural fibre makes cotton biodegradable and that is the ultimate goal. Yes, but sustainability in fashion needs a more holistic view beyond just the fibre used to make the garment.
Key aspects of sustainability includes looking at -
- Sustainable fibre: the raw material for our clothes is one a key determinant of the impact to the environment. There are multiple different kinds of natural and synthetic fibres with different pros and cons of each material.
- Durability of the garment: to increase the number of times it is worn. Even if we use the best fibre but make a flimsy garment that the consumer tosses away after one or two washes, then it does more harm than good.
- Production process: the production of the actual fabric and garment itself has several points of impact on the environment. From air to water pollution the fashion industry has several processes like spinning and dyeing that are responsible for ecological damage.
- Sociological impact: Labor exploitation in agriculture to the actual garment factory. Across the value chain, unhealthy working conditions and unethical labour practices are common in the fashion industry.
- End of life - with minimal recycling, we are throwing tons of clothes into landfills or burning them. Managing end-of-life through recycling is an important consideration.
Though, for each of these aspects, there is a lot of debate on what is more sustainable. Even if we look at the first aspect of sustainable fibre, we have divergent points of view. While some believe organic cotton is the best, there are others that swear by alternate natural fibres like hemp or bamboo. Yet others believe that all-natural fibres put a strain on earth; hence, only recycled natural or man-made fibres are the best. There are supporters of recycled polyester as well. Recycled polyester retains much of its strength, hence making it a stronger fabric that can be used for years.
Labels and Certifications is another complex area for consumers to understand. With different bodies and standards, which certification to follow and look out for?
With so many complex and intertwined issues, what is the consumer supposed to believe when it comes to sustainability in fashion?
Institutes like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation have done great work in laying out a sustainability vision in simple terms for the consumers to understand. Read more on this in our blog, "What is Sustainable Fashion".
With regards to certifications, we think that the following two are the most important ones for consumers to know:
- GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards)
- GRS (Global Recycle Standards)
These certifications are the most comprehensive standards for organic and recycled textiles. They both look at the incoming raw material and the complete production process. For cotton, all processes like ginning, spinning, weaving and manufacturing are evaluated. The evaluation criteria include both environmental and social considerations. Importantly, the evaluation is carried out by a third party. This whole approach makes them the most stringent and difficult certifications to achieve. At the same time, these certifications provide assurance that the products have the minimal impact possible.
Sustainability in fashion is far more than just "Pure Cotton"! From environmental and social impacts to the way the garment is constructed and disposed of, there are multiple aspects to be considered. So, the next time you are considering buying a garment, take a step back and consider these aspects and look for GOTS or GRS certifications.