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The world’s enormous appetite for cheap apparel with a short life span means that huge amounts of microplastics are ending up in our oceans. Norwegian fashion figureheads and companies are taking steps to make fashion more sustainable.
Just how environmentally damaging is the global fashion industry? According to a 2019 UN report, it is the second most polluting industry in the world. Manufacturing of clothing, textiles and shoes accounts for 8 to 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than the emissions from shipping and air traffic combined. It also consumes 93 billion litres of water each year, equivalent to the annual water need for 5 million people.
The picture gets even bleaker when microplastics are added to the mix. These extremely small plastic fragments or fibres find their way into the marine environment and accumulate in the food chain. Over 1.5 million metric tons of microplastics are being released into the ocean each year – and 35 per cent of this comes from the fashion industry.
This is due in good part to the use of polyester, an inexpensive, versatile and wrinkle-free material produced from petroleum-based fibres. When polyester clothes are worn, washed and thrown away, they shed microfibres. These make their way via waste treatment systems to the sea.
The good news is that there is growing awareness among consumers and manufacturers alike about how detrimental the fashion industry is – particularly when it comes to microplastic marine pollution. More stringent environmental standards are being introduced throughout the entire value chain, and many companies are incorporating sustainability into their business strategy. Here several key actors on the Norwegian fashion scene share their thoughts on how to reduce the environmental footprint of fashion.
One thing is sure: thinking and practices in the fashion industry have to be revamped. Otherwise we will not be able to meet global targets for emission reductions or keep the oceans clean and free of plastic.
Gisle Mariani Mardal – Head of Innovation at the industrial cluster Norwegian Fashion Hub and a long-time proponent of sustainability – shares his take on the matter.
“Sustainable fashion is about finding new solutions for the production and consumption of clothing. Research shows that this accounts for 80 per cent of fashion’s environmental footprint. In other words, we have to develop new business models that are profitable, but not at the expense of the environment, society and people.”
At the heart of the problem, according to Mardal, is “fast fashion”, which involves manufacturing a large volume of clothing at the lowest possible cost. The clothes are then used briefly before being thrown away. It is a rapidly growing problem. Compared with 15 years ago, the average global citizen buys 60 per cent more clothing and wears the clothing only half as long.
“To solve this problem, we must reduce production volume and increase the use of the clothes we buy. Research also shows that an average person wears an item up to four times. By simply doubling this use, we can reduce the item’s environmental footprint by 49 per cent,” he says.
Nina Skarra, a Norwegian pioneer in sustainable fashion and the only Norwegian representative in the non-profit organisation Responsible Ecosystems Sourcing Platform (RESP), agrees.
“We have to stop thinking that we can attain sustainability in the business models used by the cheap fashion chains, with high volume at low cost. Regardless of how you twist and turn it, it will not be sustainable. This is not difficult to understand – it’s plain old common sense. You reap what you sow. Focus must be placed on creating new business models where profitability is the result of design, technology, production, and ethical and environmental sustainability,” she says.
“There are tremendous opportunities for companies that are taking sustainability seriously and beginning to pave the way for the use patterns of the future,” she adds.
Although the problem seems straightforward – we buy too many clothes and use them too little – the solution is complex. Changing consumer attitudes is important, but we will not come too far by giving people a guilty conscience. Plus it is difficult for consumers to make planet-healthy choices: the value chains in the fashion industry are hard to trace and there is little transparency.
Mona Jensen, founder of the Norwegian brand Tom Wood, identifies several concrete steps clothing manufacturers can take to become more sustainable.
“A number of clothing brands release collections that are way too big in terms of styles and volume. And many companies, for instance, use recycled materials without knowing whether the rest of the production process is sustainable or whether the quality of the final product will be good enough. This is a new issue about which there is far too little knowledge and experience,” she says.
Jensen explains that Tom Wood releases only two collections each year, with relatively few pieces in each collection. By building on a classic design year after year, the company can use the same piece in multiple collections. So it is not dependent on producing a large volume of new clothing each year and it can help to relieve the pressure on consumers to follow trends.
“We use only high-quality, durable materials, and work as much as possible with natural materials, although they cost more,” she says.
The Norwegian sneakers manufacturer New Movements is another example of how fashion can become sustainable. The company’s mission is to make sneakers that last, with a minimal environmental footprint. Instead of fashioning sneaker soles from plastic, New Movements uses recycled and natural rubber.
The company also uses recycled plastic in its laces – two bottles in each pair. It collaborates with the Norwegian company Empower, which has devised a system allowing people to exchange plastic waste for tokens at certified recycling stations, to give individuals an economic incentive to collect and reuse plastic waste.
Norwegian Nofir, meanwhile, has developed a system for large-scale collection of plastic fishing nets and ropes. Each year Nofir’s system collects some 7 000 metric tons of raw material for recycling. Among other products, this plastic is used to manufacture ECONYL®, a strong nylon yarn that can be used in clothing, carpets and other textiles. The yarn is used by global luxury brands such as Burberry, Prada and Stella McCartney.
These are just some of the ways Norwegian companies are working to reduce the negative impacts of clothing and shoe manufacturing, including microplastic marine pollution.