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March 25, 2008

From food miles to fabric miles

Killjoy environmentalists would have us stop shopping to save the planet. What a relief, then, to find a website, shopmodify.com, that teaches us how to shop and save the planet at the same time. I especially like their green shopping tips for Spring: "buy a hot eco-friendly outfit, or choose not to take an ATM slip". The ATM-slip idea is too profound for me to grasp right now, so my thoughts turn to t-shirts: They're made of natural materials so you can't have too many of them, right?

Well, yes you can. According to Kate Fletcher's fascinating book Sustainable Fashion and Textiles the cultivation of just one kilo of cotton draws on as much as 8,000 litres of water- much of which ends up saturated with a shedload of pesticides. Waste is also a problem: UK citizens alone generate nearly 40kg each of textile waste every year. Only a quarter of these kilos are reclaimed; the rest go to landfill. Transport costs are also a big issue: the average T-shirt, I learn from the book, travels the equivalent distance of once round the globe during its production.

So now we have to watch fabric miles as well as food miles.

Global food and textile systems are inter-linked to a surprising degree. For example, a lot of people buy t-shirts at Primark, a discount chain famous for ultra-low prices and celebrity customers. Usually described as an Irish retailer (it was started by a family called Ryan - but not the same Ryan who runs the discount airline) Primark is in fact owned by Associated British Foods (ABF), a multinational food, ingredients and retail group.

ABF, to its credit, publishes data about its activities on the Carbon Disclosure Project website. Here, among the largest repository of corporate greenhouse gas emissions data in the world, ABF states that it provides "wholesome and nutritious foods, food ingredients, animal feedstuffs, and quality affordable clothing...and (makes) sure that these are produced efficiently and to a high quality".

The words "efficiently and to a high quality" may be true, but they do not mean "sustainably" - either in production terms alone, or in their impact on the bigger textile system. As Fletcher points out, cheap cotton in Primark takes just as long to grow, and uses just as many resources per unit of weight, as the cotton used in a $200 t-shirt. Also, the price of cheap virgin fibres in Primark is so low that it has become uneconomic for anyone to collect, sort, distribute and resell the clothes we discard. In discount systems like Primark's, over 90 per cent of resources employed become waste within three months of purchase.

But ABF/Primark's global system is only part of the story. Even if Primark were to use only bamboo and soyabean fibres, grow 100% organically, and produce only locally, its t-shirts woud still not be sustainable because of what happens when we get a garment home. The average piece of clothing is washed and dried 20 times in its life: 82 percent of its lifetime energy use, and over half the solid waste, emissions to air, and water effluents it generates, occur during laundering.

Among many quirks in the fashion and textile system is the fact that a $200 t-shirt has a heavier enviromental impact than a Primark one - because it gets washed, rather than chucked away. Buying a "hot eco-outfit", it turns out, is easier said than done.

One of the many strengths of Fletcher's book is the clarity of its analysis of the textile system as a whole. For all the air-head antics of celebrity designers, fashion and textiles is one of the most complex in today's massively inter-linked economy. It involves raw materials, chemicals, emissions, recyclability, and biodegradability - at each of many steps in the chain. Each step is itself a complex process: Growing plants; extracting yarns from them; spinning, weaving and knitting; bleaching; dyeing; fabric finishing; printing, trimming, packaging - and so on.

A product policy based only on "reuse, and recycle", warns Fletcher, might optimise one part of this complex system - but not the whole.

Technical scenarios also suffer from too-limited horizons. One of the more intriguing prospects mentioned in the book is that of self-cleaning, no-wash textiles. But even if no hidden energy or pollution costs in their manuafacture emerge (a big 'if') other re-bound effects, that are impossible to predict, are inevitable. The same goes for the idea of biodegradable textiles designed to be fully absorbed by the earth; we simply can't know for certain what the consequences of "green" landfill on such a scale might be.

The answer is not exclude these, or any other, potential solutions. But it would also be a mistake to focus on particular sub-routines in isolation. What's needed is a simple but radical definition of where we need to be - a zero-waste, zero-emissions system. This would give all actors in the supply chain - farmers, brokers, chemists, designers, producers, retailers, and consumers - something to work towards, together.

Posted by John Thackara at March 25, 2008 01:28 PM


Hi John,
once again, great pleasure to read your posts. I have learned to look at OUR PLANET as not having another, as a whole system of systems, and above all, as being part of the solutions since I a designer and a human. What you described is for me the picture of an economical shift from Plenty/Products/Proft (with the success metrics of MORE) into a new economic of People/Planet/Profit (success metrics of BETTER). Recently, myself with a Japanese colleague, have been working on a Zero-Waste solution for household waste from packaging, in which we have designed an holistic system to eliminate packaging waste in one decade, IF...(like you said) we all work together sharing a common vision. We have to challenge a few myths, such as: that we have to have waste, that waste management (such as recycle) is a good policy, and that blunt tax systems will solve the problem. We found these myths are increasing the problem while we are all becoming 'double' investors in waste: as we buy it, and as businesses will manage it, paid by us. Waste is nothing more than a design fault, behaviour and a man made industry. We have knowledge, technology and above all 'planet sense' to correct this, and save £bs that could be used for other (better) things! Will be interesting to learn more from you and other readers, how we can develop and take this thinking forward!
looking forward to see more through these 'doors'
Maria Ana

Posted by: Maria Ana at March 25, 2008 04:35 PM

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