ARTICLE WRITTEN BY: Ndubuaku Kanayo
The textile industry remains a significant player in the global economy, by providing employment for millions of people around the world. It is estimated that between 20 million and 60 million people are employed in the textile industry worldwide.
Despite these benefits, it’s becoming crystal clear that the way we design, produce, and use clothes have some drawbacks to the environment as large amounts of non-renewable resources are extracted to produce clothes often used for only a short period of time.
A WASTEFUL TEXTILE INDUSTRY
Due to clothing underutilisation and the lack of recycling, it is estimated that more than $500 billion of value is lost every year, even as the average number of times a piece of clothing is worn decreased by 36 percent between 2000 and 2015.
Although the textile industry produces and sells somewhere between 80 billion and 150 billion garments a year globally, the World Bank posits that 40 percent of clothing purchased in some countries is never used. All the while, clothing production has doubled with factors like a growing middle-class population, the emergence of a fast-fashion phenomenon and an increased number of new styles and collections driving market growth.
In its 2017 report titled A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, the Ellen McArthur Foundation projects that should this current trend continue, the total clothing sales would reach 160 million tonnes in 2050.
Meanwhile, less than 1 percent of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing, thereby leading to a loss of more than $100 billion worth of materials annually.
Today’s linear system of create-and-waste uses a large amount of resources and has negative impacts on the environment and people.
FASHION POLLUTES OUR PLANET
According to the World Economic Forum, fashion production makes up 10 percent of humanity’s carbon emissions, while also drying up water sources and polluting rivers and streams.
As stated by the World Economic Forum, 20 percent of industrial water pollution is attributed to the dyeing and treatment of textiles, even as it has been estimated that around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibers shed during the washing of plastic-based textiles, such as nylon polyester or acrylic, end up in the ocean annually.
While local communities benefit from employment opportunities, the environmental downsides pose a serious threat to health as the mere discharge of untreated production wastewater can pollute local rivers used for drinking, fishing or even bathing.
A 2017 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35 percent of all microplastics – miniscule pieces of plastic that never biodegrade – in the ocean came from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester.
As industry and customers become increasingly aware of the effects of the current linear system in the textile industries, some retailers and brands have started addressing these specific socio-environmental challenges within their supply chains – individually and collectively.
NIGERIAN INITIATIVE TURNS NYLON INTO FASHION
Noticing how people in her community usually dump textile and plastic wastes by the road side, with some even going to the extent of burning them, Adejoke Lasisi, a young lady from Nigeria, decided to craft an innovative solution which focuses on training young people to recycle plastic and textile waste.
The initiative, called the Planet 3R, aims to reduce the landfill space by recycling clothes and nylons and creatively shredding these old clothes and used nylons and then converting them into finished products.
By collecting discarded sachets of drinking water made from nylon and weaving them into finished fashion products like clothes, slippers, mats, bags and other accessories, the initiative employs an eco-friendly strategy as nylon water sachets remain a major pollutant blocking drainages and littering the streets of major Nigerian cities.
“People were always complaining about the pure water nylon sachets everywhere. I worked out that it would be great to make these nylon sachets into colourful clothing,” Lasisi stated in an interview with Al Jazeera.
Lasisi further explained the process which involves sorting, washing and thoroughly disinfecting the material; then, the material is sun-dried and weaved into fashionable products.
“After sorting, we wash the material thoroughly and disinfect it, after which we dry it in the sun. The whole process takes three days. Once dried, we shred the material with scissors into thread-like strands. Then, we can begin to weave them on the loom,” she stated.
Speaking on the impact of the initiative, Lasisi further noted that the initiative has been able to collect a tangible number of recyclable waste from the streets, while also training and employing youths in the state.
“In the space of one year, we have also been able to achieve some of our goals for which includes the collection of 58,352 Kg of recyclable waste from the street, training of about 102 youths virtually and physically sensitization of over 4300 students across various secondary schools in Ibadan Oyo state on waste management and recycling,” she said on her LinkedIn.
“We have also employed 16 individuals which have overall contributed to a cleaner and safer environment. In the next 5 years, this initiative would have impacted millions of lives as the idea can be replicated in different communities across the globe,” she added.
FASHION INDUSTRY STILL POSES GLOBAL CHALLENGES
Although nylon has the right texture for weaving, which makes it easy to dye, the drawbacks of using nylon in textile production range from poor heat/light resistance, deformability and the fact that nylon clothing is susceptible to fuzzing and pilling after being worn for a long time.
Even as most of these efforts are focused on reducing the impact of the current linear system, such as using more efficient production techniques or reducing the impact of the materials, the challenges around low clothing utilization and low rates of recycling after use still persist.
To move past incremental improvements and ensure a shift from the linear arrangement to a circular economy for the textile industry, the Ellen McArthur Foundation proposes concerted global collaboration in its report.
Adding his voice to the report, Tim Kasten, Deputy Director Economy Division, UN Environment notes that “It is evident that the moment for mainstreaming circularity and changing our consumption and production system is here.”
“There are strong signals and evidence from the science on current and future resource constraints and planetary limits, and growing political and business leaders around the opportunities it offers,” he added. “This report will surely inspire many success stories, new solutions and practices from all actors which are called to transform the textile value chain.”