More than 70% of the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from upstream activities, such as energy-intensive raw material production, preparation, and processing. That means that more sustainable product making is key in reducing fashion’s carbon footprint. The product moves the needle with regards to sustainability.
If a brand is claiming “sustainability”, check their products. Products are what make the biggest difference in a brand’s sustainability. It’s not about the carbon neutral shipping, or reducing their shop’s energy consumption – although of course this does help. You can tell a brand’s commitment to sustainability through their product.
Here’s the toolkit to differentiate a more sustainable product versus a non-sustainable one.
There are three key elements that impact the product’s sustainability:
Virgin materials produce more GHG than recycled materials. Instead of starting from an already-made material, they start from nothing. Usually, to make a virgin raw material, more processing is required, and thus more water, electricity, chemicals, etc, along with it.
Let’s take leather as an example. Without accounting for the water used in cattle raising, a leather biker jacket made of virgin material (1.32 sq.m. of leather) uses over 27,000L of water – that’s the average water consumption for a person for 13.5 years. Accounting for the cattle raising as well, it’s equal to the average water consumption for a person for 36 years!
Ideally, a product is made completely from natural materials, such as coffee beans, making it biodegradable. That means the clothes are able to decompose by bacteria or other living organisms, thereby avoiding pollution and the processing required for recycling.
Recycling post-consumer water bottles for example, is undoubtedly better than taking raw plastic material, but requires energy in recycling and will ultimately be unable to biodegrade. Although there are a growing amount of biodegradable materials, they’re still very difficult to make. So for now, the availability of high-quality recycled materials means that recycled materials are often our best option.
Some raw materials are just – no matter how you use them – bad for the environment. Read more about them here.
Material preparing is combining different compounds together in preparation for the process. For example, to make culthread’s coffee-cycled vegan leather, we prepare the recycled coffee beans by deoiling, grinding and then modifying it so that it's compatible with our vegan, corn-based PU resin (read more here).
For real leather, the preparation uses a lot of water (as exemplified above) and chemicals, which both damage the environment.
When a material is recycled, preparation and processing can be wasteful, that’s why it’s important to check that the product is recycled in accordance with the GRS (Global Recycled Standard, a global standard for recycling) and OEKO-TEX standards (standard that checks that the material has no harmful substances and was made under socially responsible conditions).
Processing usually involves the final steps of mixing and coating, to ensure that a garment is weather proof and longer-lasting. For example, culthread’s coffee-cycled vegan leather undergoes a foaming and coating process.
The coating is important. Many products use toxic coatings. For instance, to make jackets, some use C6 and C8 water repellents, which contain dangerous fluorocarbons made of carbon and fluorine atoms. These are non-biodegradable and are then washed into our rivers, soils, and nature. Terrible for our Planet, People, and Animals, these toxins have alternatives, such as C0 coating.
That’s just one example of how processing methods impact a product and overall brand’s sustainability. Different clothing types use different methods, the important aspects to look out for are the use of toxic chemicals and water.
We Can Make A Difference
By checking out how a product is made, you’re figuring out the most significant aspect of a brand’s environmental impact (let alone ethical impact).
So-called “upstream activities” tend to be the easiest to hide, don’t get caught in that trap!
If a brand’s not disclosing the materials and where they’re from, that’s a red flag. In an ever-globalised world, where manufacturing is outsourced to the four corners of the globe, traceability is key. It makes products transparent, and we can thereby see exactly where they came from and what they’re made of. Because it’s not just about the final product at our doorstep.
At culthread, we prioritise product over everything else, because we know that that makes the biggest difference. That’s what moves the needle.