textile articles repository

Textiles: Environmental issues and sustainability

The ethical and social issues faced by the textile industry in terms of sustainability and social issues.

0 8,698

Textile designers and manufacturers are under social pressure to reduce the impact of textiles on the environment. Careful use of raw materials and natural resources in textile production will ensure that they are available to future generations. Textile technologists are constantly seeking to develop new fibres that have improved performance and are sustainable.


Many consumers are interested in green and ethical issues and are demanding sustainable products. “Sustainable” refers to products that have been designed and made to have a lesser impact on the environment and improve the working conditions and economic security of those making the product. Responsible designers modify design ideas to ensure that sustainability issues are taken into consideration when making decisions about the choice of materials and method of manufacture.

Product design and sustainability

A growing number of textile companies are adopting a company image that shows them as environmentally friendly and having chemical values, and many well-known retailers include an ethical collection in their product range. They recognise that consumers are increasingly “keen to buy green”. This is a current fashion trend but also essential if the textile industry is to be sustainable in the future.

Sustainable product design will include:

  • Sourcing organic, biodegradable, reclaimed or recycled fabrics and components
  • Selecting fabrics that have been specially developed as sustainable
  • Developing a product that can be easily dismantled for reclamation and can be recycled
  • Designing a high-quality product with an extended life
  • Making use of modern, easy-care finishes, which reduce laundering requirements
  • Reduction of waste and pollution during manufacturing
  • Processing fabric without the use of toxic chemicals, such as bleach and toxic dyes
  • Use of renewable energy to power machines, and increasing water efficiency during manufacture
  • Labelling products to inform consumers
  • Applying fairtrade policies, for worker’s health and safety and for economic benefits
  • Careful consideration of location for manufacturing and method of distribution to cut carbon emissions

Labelling to promote sustainability

Many environmentally friendly products are clearly labelled to justify to the consumer why they re sustainable. Eco-certification is necessary to identify a sustainable product and to detail a product’s origin, place of the manufacturing process and the scale of sustainability. This is still a developing area of the textile industry.

Ethical fabric production

Organic Cotton

Cotton producers often use synthetic chemical fertilizers to boost crop production, pesticides to kill off insects that will damage cotton crops and herbicides to prevent other plants from growing alongside and competing with the main crop. These chemicals increase productivity but can cause ill health and injury to cotton workers, and also traces of the chemicals can be found in the finished cotton products.

Organic cotton is grown without the use of such toxic chemicals. Many consumers prefer to buy organic cotton so that they are not contributing to cotton worker’s health problems and to feel safe using the organic cotton product. In recent years the demand for organic cotton has dramatically increased, especially for baby clothes and accessories.

Tencel – a modern fabric

Designers may choose to use a fibre such as Tencel, which is considered to have less impact on the environment than many other fibres. It is a regenerated fibre made from the cellulose found in wood pulp from sustainably grown and harvested trees, and the solvents and water used in processing are continually recycled. It is one example of a bio-fibre, but other plant materials can also be used to source cellulose, such as bamboo, sweetcorn and the soya bean.

Tencel is biodegradable, strong, soft, lightweight, drapes well and is breathable. Tencel is, therefore, a popular choice for a sustainable fashion garment. However, Tencel requires harsh chemicals to fix the dyes to the fabric so a fabric with natural colouring may be preferred, such as that made from a newly developed, naturally pigmented coloured cotton plant that does not require dyeing at all.

Recycling textiles

Why is the recycling of textiles important?

There is a growing awareness of the depletion of the world’s natural resources, and designers need to respond to society’s changing attitudes to environmental issues. Textile companies are working to reduce the impact of textiles production on the environment. If designers and manufacturers source more fabrics and components from textile waste or pre-used textile products, then the need for newly manufactured materials could be reduced, saving energy and raw materials. There is a need to continue to reduce textile waste in landfill sites through recycling.

How ar textile products recycled?

  • Fabric off-cuts, roll ends, surplus and slightly damaged fabric are used by designers to produced unique pieces. This is an example of sustainability.
  • Second-hand clothing is donated, swapped to sold to be reused by another person. Clothing banks, door-to-door collections and charity shops provide second-hand clothing to the high street and bales of clothing are exported to less economically developed countries.
  • Garments and household textiles are deconstructed, and the fabric is reused. Vintage fabrics from the 1960s and 1970s may feature in a designer’s fashion collection, or industrial wipes may be made form suitable clothes. Food sacks, lorry tarpaulins and items such as garden umbrellas are recycled to make unusual fashion bags etc.
  • In fibre reclamation, woollen fabric is shredded into fibres for use in mattresses or as insulation materials or for felting. The fibres can be re-spun into yarn.
  • Plastic bottles are ground up and made into pellets, then melted and spun into polyester fibres for fleece fabric or previously used polyester fleece is recycled into new polyester fabric.

Is recycling a new idea?

Past generations needed to reuse textile product or reclaim fabrics to perhaps overcome a shortage of available or affordable textiles. Expensive garments were often handed down in families from one generation to the next or from lady to maidservants: restyling and refitting to suit the new owner. Patchwork quilts made from scraps of fabric have traditionally recycled treasured remnants.

Textile recycling and fashion

Contemporary textile designers are inspired by the past to feature reclaimed fabrics and other recycled materials. These individual creative textile pieces appeal to some consumers who what sustainable or finale one-off products, which also influencing mainstream fashion. Many top fashion designers and textile students are exploring the idea of customising or upcycling garments or recycling materials. Many consumers will continue to demand fast fashion (as compared with slow clothes). However, the designer can ensure that biodegradable or easily recycled fabrics and components are specified for the fast fashion garments or that they can be designed for quick disassembly to lessen the impact on the environment.

Moral issues

vintage corsetA fashion for ethical products

Many consumers are keen that the fabrics and components used in the making of a product should be from a sustainable source. The current interest in buying ethical environmentally friendly products is a fashion trend but it is also seen as predicting a long-term change in the way people shop.

Many manufacturers are including fairtrade principles in their company policies to make their products appealing to consumers. They promote their textile goods using the recognised marks. When consumers see the symbol on product labelling they can buy the product, feeling confident that no worker has been exploited in the process of making it and that it is environmentally friendly.

A growing number of retailers are including ethical products in their ranges in response to consumer demand for organic, recycled and fairly traded goods. Also, some high street stores now include an ethical concession shop within their flagship stores. For example, People Tree, a well-known internet fairtrade clothing company, has a small concession shop in Topshop store on Regent Street, London.

Moral issue influence design

A responsible designer will ensure that design ideas are developed to make the product sustainable and will work with the client and manufacturer to apply fair trade principles to the making of the product. Textile products are often made in less wealthy countries where labour costs are lower and perhaps factory health and safety regulation are less stringent, so it is important to check the stages n making to see if they conform to fairtrade standards. There has been much publicity about the use of child labour in textile production in developing countries. Many consumers are upset by this exploitation and are keen to avoid buying products made by children. This target market would prefer to buy from companies that support their employees’ local community through long-term commitment to pay fair wages and provide for the education of worker’s children.

The ethical design is also concerned with the appropriateness of the product for its target market. This particularly impacts on children’s products. For example, society generally agrees that designers should avoid making body-revealing sexy products for children, or those that include inappropriate printed slogans.

Animal rights’ supporters believe that animals should not be killed to obtain their fur for fashion products. The Queen’s Guards wear the iconic traditional fur had made from Canadian black bears that are shot by agreement with the Canadian Government. However, the British Ministry of Defence is testing new fabrics to find an ethical alternative that will replace the bear fur but allow the hat to keep its shape and repel water.

Social and Cultural Influences

Social Change

parachuteNew textile products are being developed to meet the needs of consumers and to appeal to their desire for up-to-date and fashionable items. Designers are often inspired to respond to changes in society (e.g. new ideas, technological advances and changes in the political and economic climate) and to world events.

In times of war, resources will be spent on funding the conflict, and materials for fashion products may be rationed or patriotic designs may be inspired. Technology may advance more rapidly in response to wartime requirements. For example, during the Second World War, Nylon, a newly developed synthetic fibre, replaced silk in parachutes, as it was a cheaper fibre and would not need to be imported. It was also a popular new fibre for ladies’ stockings but was not readily available owing to wartime restrictions.

In times of plenty, consumers may have an increased disposable income to spend on fun clothing and home furnishings. As populations alter because of immigration, a new mix of people will bring their religious and cultural interests into society. The next generation will express their identity through new clothing and fashion designs. Gender issues may impact on design when the roles of men and women alter, perhaps with changes in types of employment and int the clothing needed for different workplaces. For example, trousers for females became more acceptable when they were worn by the women who worked on the land or in factories during the Second Wrld War; afterwards, they remained a popular item of clothing for women.

Now there is better healthcare and longer life expectancy, designing for elderly people and those with disabilities may be a future priority. As our society changes, designers respond to the latest issues and influences.

Fashion responds to society’s search for the new

After the Second World War women desired feminine clothes that did not look like a civilian version of a military uniform and they were tired of the rationing, which had resulted in straighter styles with less fabric. In 1947 Christian Dior presented a fashion look comprising a fitted jacket with a nipped-in waist and full calf-length skirt. Christian Dior’s new look gave a very feminine fashion silhouetted, with extravagant use of fabric. This new fashion was a great success because it responded to society’s need to move on from the war years.

Today, wearable electronics are increasingly popular with those consumers who want communication and entertainment devices. New computer technology has altered the way people communicate and provides opportunities for entertainment from music, video, and computer games. This has led to rapid development in textile and Bagir MusicStyle iPod tailored jacket.

Military Use

Society funds the development of new textile products for military use. One example of this is a solider’s glove called a ‘Handwear Computer’ Input Device (HCID). Push button sensors sewn into its fibres can act as a computer mouse. Sensors embedded on the back of the hand are used to activate radio communications, view and navigate electronic maps, and send commands. The glove can detect the movements of the soldier’s command hand gestures to communicate with other soldiers. Some camouflage uniforms also feature toxic chemical detectors, micro-fuel cells and transmitters to that a soldier can be tracked.

Queen's costume

Cultural influences on consumer choice

Within society, some people may be restricted in their choice of textile products by their religious beliefs and customers. For example, Muslim women are encouraged to cover the head and body and so they often wear longer styles and headscarves. This is taken into consideration when designing for their target market.

Traditional Costume

Most countries have a traditional costume that may vary according to the region within the country. The older generations might prefer to see traditional clothing worn by all, but the increase in global communications has influenced many younger people worldwide to conform to a Western approach to fashion. Conversely, designers are inspired by the traditional crafts seen in different cultures, and fashion trends may be influenced by themes taken from a wide variety of countries. For example, African, Asian, and Oriental textiles often colours could inspire a knitwear designer to develop a range of knitted striped fabrics in bright colours.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.