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The production chain is key to achieving sustainability

A t-shirt made from organic cotton is not always a better environmental choice than one made from conventional cotton.  And viscose can be among the worst and best environmental choices, depending on the factory. A new study shows that a transparent and environmentally responsible production chain is often a more important sustainability factor than the choice of materials.

In order to assess the extent of the environmental impact an item of clothing has, the entire lifecycle perspective must be taken into account.

– Yes, it is not enough to just look at what material the garment is made of. All resources used in the manufacturing must be included. A factory may use organic cotton, but at the same time dye the fabric with toxic dyes and produce its electricity and heat from fossil fuels such as coal, says Sandra Roos, researcher at RISE and co-author of the study's two reports, Part 1 and 2 of The Fiber Bible from Mistra Future Fashion.

An important conclusion in the reports is that differences in the way the producers work in the production of fibres all the way to finished garments often have a greater environmental impact than the fibres in the garment.

The report authors reject simplified comparisons between clothing made from fibres classified as being either “green” or conventional, “good” or “bad”. Instead, the focus should be on whether the producers have a functioning environmental system and how the textile fibres are used throughout the entire life cycle. For clothing, the life cycle includes everything from the cultivation of for example cotton or flax and the spinning of yarn to weaving, dyeing and sewing.

In the study, the researchers have also investigated whether new fibres used in clothing and marketed as being sustainable really are better for the environment. One conclusion is that there is rarely enough data to classify the fibres as actually being sustainable and that such classification can therefore be misleading.

– There is a risk that investments in new fibre technology will not be made where the environmental benefits are greatest. The lack of data can also lead to erroneous or uninformed decisions regarding the choice of new fibres. This applies to both its environmental performance and the technical properties, says Gustav Sandin, researcher at RISE and co-author of part 2 of The Fiber Bible.

According to the researchers, there is no doubt that new alternatives to conventional cotton are needed, which is the most used natural fibre in clothing. The reason is that the cultivation often involves irrigation and the use of pesticides.

In practice, some cotton has long been replaced by forest and synthetic fibres for economic reasons. The results show, however, that none of the alternative fibres available today have all the characteristics offered by cotton.

– Instead, we need to look at what type of fibre is suitable for what kind of products, says Sandra Roos.


Mistra Future Fashion

The Outlook Report and The Fiber Bible parts 1 & 2 reports has been produced by researchers at RISE working on the Mistra Future Fashion research programme, which is one of the largest in the world looking at sustainable fashion, with a vision of a system shift to a fashion industry that is circular and sustainable. The programme aims to deliver insights and solutions that will be used by the Swedish fashion industry and other stakeholders to significantly improve their environmental performance and strengthen their global competitiveness.

Mistra Future Fashion started in 2011 and was extended with a second phase from 2015 to 2019. The main findings of the first phase, which also point out the direction of the second phase, were compiled in a Future Fashion Manifesto in September 2015.

Mistra Future Fashion is funded by Mistra, the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research, and is coordinated by RISE Research Institutes of Sweden.

More information about Mistra Future Fashion can be found at http://mistrafuturefashion.com. For questions about the programme or further research results, please contact Åsa Östlund at asa.ostlund@ri.se

The reports referred to in the article are available for download below:

The Outlook Report

Rex, Okcabol, Roos. Possible sustainable fibers on the market and their technical properties. Fiber Bible part 1. Mistra Future Fashion report 2019:02

Sandin, Roos, Johansson. Environmental impact of textile fibers – what we know and what we don’t know. Fiber Bible part 2. Mistra Future Fashion report 2019:03

Åsa Östlund

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Åsa Östlund

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+46 10 516 62 11
asa.ostlund@ri.se

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