Sustainability in the Fashion Supply Chain

This marks the first Svaki Dan blog post. In our blogs, we aim to dive deeper into the world of the business of fashion – and particularly the role of sustainability within it.

This week,  I give a more high-level overview of the fashion supply chain, and the role of sustainability within this realm. In future newsletters, I will pick certain themes to dive deeper and link it to recent news from the industry and/or provide other case studies of brands, suppliers, or innovators, who are making an impact.

The Sustainability Problem in Today’s Fashion World

Fashion is one of the most unsustainable and pollutive industries on the planet. 

This does not only stem from significant energy, water, and chemicals usage during manufacturing but also from excessive consumption and then product abandonment into landfills shortly after. 

Worse yet, transportation across global supply chains doesn’t help solve these issues any further.

How do materials play a role in this?

Global fiber production reached a record 113 million tons in 2021 and is projected to only continue growing  (Textile Exchange Program). This increase is particularly bad for the environment since this is newly grown (not recycled) fiber. 

This does not only stem from significant energy, water, and chemicals usage during manufacturing but also from excessive consumption and then product abandonment into landfills shortly after. 

To fully understand the issue at hand, it’s important to look into what fibers are actually made of – and how that has developed over the past several decades.

Two thirds of the fiber markets are made up of synthetic fibers. These overtook cotton and have dominated the fiber market since the late-1990s. And it is easy to see why.  The benefits of polyester are bountiful: Polyester is light, strong and easily dyed, can be woven or knitted and easily blended with other fibers. You can use it to create almost everything from athletic clothes to faux fur jackets or silky dresses – and even better, it is incredibly cheap, which is why fast fashion players love it even more. 

Take the juggernaut of the fast fashion world today, Shein, as a case study: Bloomberg and The Royal Society of Arts recently published a study that found that more than 95 percent of Shein’s clothing contains polyester. But it’s by far not only used by companies like Shein but you will likely also find it in many of your regular or higher-end joggers, dresses, tees, and more.  

But why is the use of polyester such a problem? Polyester (yarn) is made from petroleum. Yarn production in the fashion industry now accounts for about a fifth of the 300-400 million tons of plastic produced globally each year. It has a massive impact on carbon emissions – but the environmental impact doesn’t stop there. 

Synthetic textiles like polyester shed tiny pieces of plastic with every wash and wear. These microplastic particles pollute  the oceans, freshwater and land. A few years ago, the U.S. Geological Survey found that more than 70 percent of microplastics found in river water came from fibers. Another study from 2017 found that more than one third of microplastics found in oceans can be traced to textiles, making them the largest source of microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans. 

This ties to a big topic for a future newsletter: Textile recycling and where our clothes end up. As a teaser: still 85 percent of all textiles end up in landfills or are burned, which is the equivalent of a garbage truck’s worth of textiles per second per the US Environmental Protection Agency. 

So then, why not stick with cotton? Well, cotton comes with its fair share of social and environmental risk unfortunately. For one, producing cotton requires a lot of water and can be very chemically intensive, as pesticides used contaminate the soil and groundwater. We will dive deeper into cotton in a future newsletter in a few weeks. If you are looking for a really comprehensive deep dive on the topic though, the Textile Exchange has some great reports on the issue – see here.

Organic cotton is a more sustainable alternative here. This cotton is grown in agricultural systems that work with nature, rather than against it. How?  Organic farming systems have the potential to sustain and promote the health of soils, ecosystems, and people in communities. Besides using organic cotton (as we do in our Svaki boxer briefs), we also use Supima cotton, which is a cotton only grown on around 500 family-owned farms in the US. You can learn more about their practices around water management, soil conservation and more on the Supima website.

We are going to dive deeper into different fibers and fabrics in the coming newsletters and posts. In the meantime, the below graph hopefully provides a good overview of the make-up of today’s fiber market.

What stands out is the fact that more than 80 percent of all fibers used comes from fossil based and other “conventional” sources (such as non-organic, regular cotton). Just under 10 percent come from some form of recognized renewable source (e.g., Better Cotton Initiative, Organic Cotton, Supima Cotton). Around 8 percent come from recycled materials (almost exclusively recycled PET bottles) and still far below 1 percent comes from recycled pre- or post-consumer textiles.

Mainstreaming the use of recycled fibers or some form of sustainably sourced renewable material will be key for GHG emissions reduction, biodiversity loss prevention, soil health protection, and water consumption minimization. 

In pursuit of sustainability and style, our swap model and diligent choices of materials used and supply chain partners are only a starting point, but the cornerstones of our business model nonetheless. Our core mission is to help you elevate your approach to your every day. And with that, I hope you have a great week ahead! 

Best, 

Ben

Founder, Svaki Dan

ben@livesvaki.com

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