How Your T-Shirt Saves the World

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This blog is part of a month-long focus around sustainable fashion across HuffPost UK Style and Lifestyle. Here we aim to champion some of the emerging names in fashion and shine a light on the truth about the impact our appetite for fast fashion has around the world.

Garment factories in poor countries might look dirty and dangerous to westerners, but in fact, they are one of our best hopes for poverty reduction and human development.

The strangest thing about the debate about “fast fashion” and garment factories in poor countries is that it carries on as if there were no research on the subject. Western activists rail against “sweatshops”, but among researchers and economists from left to right there is a consensus that these jobs are the stepping stones out of poverty. All countries that have managed to industrialize its economy and combat poverty in modern times have done so by moving into such labor-intensive exports markets.

Again and again we are supplied with examples of bad working conditions and lousy wages in garment factories in Cambodia and Bangladesh. These countries are incredibly poor compared to the west, and it is easy to create a shocking impression by putting footage of poor workers side by side with footage of spoiled brats wearing their clothes. But that is just lazy sensationalism. If you want to improve the lives of the poor you must analyze how those jobs affect their situation and the economies of those countries.

In fact, few countries have seen such rapid progress as Bangladesh and Cambodia in the last decade, according to the World Bank. The number of extremely poor in Bangladesh fell from 44 to 26 million between 2000 and 2010, despite the population growing by 15 million. Since 2004, the level of poverty in Cambodia has more than halved, from 52 to just over 20 percent. It is “one of the best performers in poverty reduction worldwide”, according to the World Bank.

This is a stunning success in the countries that need it the most, and the export sector has been instrumental in bringing it about. It increases the workers’ productivity, and therefore also their wages and working conditions, which has been especially important for women. In a study from the International Food Policy Research Institute, the researchers show that the increase in Bangladeshi wages from the garment sector “dwarfed” the rise attributed to government programs.

In its report on Cambodia, the World Bank says that if more people are to benefit from this positive development, there is a solution that will make every critic of globalization think it is a typo: “Use the same working conditions that are found in the clothing factories and apply them to other industries.”

And the most important thing is that the new knowledge and technology these factories bring in facilitate the creation of new companies and industries. The garment industry in Bangladesh was kick-started in 1979 when a local entrepreneur and South Korea’s Daewoo trained 130 workers in modern production. In 1987, Bangladesh had hundreds of garment-export factories, exports had surged and 115 of the original 130 workers had left to start their own businesses.

Obviously even the best jobs in very poor countries look bad compared to what we are used to in Europe and America, but that is not the alternative in an economy at a low level of capital and education. As a worker I interviewed in Vietnam once put it, the main complaint to management was that she wanted the factories to expand so that her relatives could get the same kinds of jobs.

One may well bemoan the fact that progress is not being made even more quickly. I can understand that. I also want everything – now! But things are moving faster than ever, and it is happening because of the very industries the activists have reserved their special contempt for. The world needs more jobs like these, not fewer.

*This story first appeared on HuffPost UK Lifestyle blog here.

End of Life vs. End of Use: Circular Economy, Getting More From the Clothes That We Wear

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About 13 years ago, I was travelling in a beat-up “bakkie” (or, as we Americans call it, pick-up truck) through a dusty, northern Mozambican town. With a bucket on her head and a face lined from years of hardship, an elderly woman walked slowly down the road, quietly going about her business… while wearing a bright red Ohio State sweatshirt, complete with their mascot, Brutus Buckeye! This sweatshirt, probably discarded at one point in a Salvation Army depot in Ohio, found a new owner in the most unlikely place.

And while one can argue the merits of second-hand clothing imports and their effect on African apparel industry, the following conclusion is clear: When we discard our unwanted clothes, they do not go away.

Rather, the “lucky” ones go on to reuse, after being sorted, categorized, packaged, and shipped, often to faraway lands. This fascinating video shows what happens when these discarded duds arrive in India. “Maybe the water is too expensive to wash them,” says one of the sorters, perplexed by the state of the clothing sent by the West.

Image: Still of the film Unravel, directed by Meghna Gupta

But what happens when a piece of clothing is too worn to be, well, worn again? Has it reached its end of life? Judging by the millions of tons of clothing ending up in landfills across the world, one would think so. But it doesn’t have to be.

Clothes that cannot be worn again can be taken apart. The “easy” way is via mechanical fibre recycling, which entails chopping the clothing into small pieces to create new fibre. But this process weakens the fibre, which still needs to be blended with a high proportion of new (or virgin, in industry speak) fibre. And only a small percentage of total clothing actually goes through this process.

But this process doesn’t work if your old t-shirt is made of blended fibres. And we absolutely love those stretchy, fitted t-shirts, which usually have a bit of elastane. In fact, it is estimated that up to 20% of the world’s clothing is made up of a cotton/polyester mix, which means these fibres cannot be “born again” as new fibre for clothing.

But perhaps not for long. Over the past few years, a number of research institutes and innovators (like Worn Again, Evrnu, re:newcell, Saxion University, Mistra Future Fashion, Deakin University, VTT, Aalto University and Tampere University) have been developing chemical recycling processes that can get more life out of those blended t-shirts. I have had the opportunity to speak with some of these guys to learn more about how such technologies can transform the way we use – and reuse – clothes. As Worn Again states, such technologies can create “Abundance for Everyone. Forever.”

In other words, there is no end of life. Only end of use.

But we’re not there yet. The processes for turning blended clothing into new fibre still need perfecting – and scaling – to help the industry eventually eliminate the concept of waste. So, in the meantime, there are some practical things that we – the customers who love stretchy t-shirts – can do.

Image: Swishing Party, courtesy of

Love our clothes! We can be inspired by the tips from the Love Your Clothes movement, helping us to think about how we buy, use, and pass on our clothing.
For every new piece of clothing we buy, we can gift or swap an old piece… give it to friend, take it to a charity shop ,recycling centre, a “take back” scheme, or take it to swishing party.
Pull a Mark Zuckerberg. We should not be afraid to wear the same thing, every day, to work. Apparently, this also helps us to be more successful in our careers.
Check the labels. Until cotton recycling technologies really take off, a blended t-shirt (e.g. cotton and polyester) is harder to recycle than one that is of a single fibre – whether natural or man-made. Let’s go for that 100%.
Tell our friends…and kids. The clothing we love is taking its toll on our earth. At least 350,000 tons of clothing end up in landfills in the U.K. alone. In the US, just 15% of used clothing and textiles are diverted from landfill and incineration. We all have a role to play. Let’s spread the word and bring back our clothes.

And the more that we do that, the more we can give new life to our old clothes.

**This story first appeared on Huffington Post here.

The Human Cost of Water in Fashion

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Can you imagine what it’s like not to have clean drinking water because it’s been used or polluted? Whether we like it or not, producing our clothes contributes to this. Right now, this is the reality for communities in water stressed regions of fashion producing countries such as China, India and Bangladesh. When we think of the ethical footprint of fashion, labour exploitation and poor working conditions typically come to mind. This human cost of water from fashion is as urgent an ethical, as well as environmental dilemma.

The reality is that to produce clothes we use and pollute significant amounts of water. This impacts both people and the planet. Cotton growing, as well as dyeing and finishing processes are particularly water intensive. For example, about two million Olympic sized swimming pools of water are used each year to dye our clothes! The water footprint embedded in a pair of jeans can be as high as 10,000 litres! Also, the apparel supply chain cuts through many countries where water is already scarce. These include the top 10 cotton producing countries in the world such as China, India, USA, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Australia and Turkey. It is ironic that China and India produce most of the world’s garments, yet have some of its most water stressed regions!

2015-09-17-1442485581-9175229-PratibhaSyntexHuffPost.jpg Photo by permission of Pratibha Syntex

Given that the same amount of water is on the planet now as when it was formed, why are water constraints increasing and what has changed? The answer is rooted in our increased use and pollution of water – not just from fashion, but other human activities. Increased population and urbanization are key features in the growth in global demand for water for drinking, sanitation, food, and energy. According to the World Economic Forum, by 2030 four billion people are expected to live in water stressed areas and global freshwater demand will exceed supply by over 40 percent if this “business as usual” continues. With the apparel market expected to grow 3-5% in the same time, demand for water will exceed supply. It’s clear that water efficiency measures alone – the mainstream fashion industry focus at present – will not solve the problem. The bottom line is that the human, environmental and business case for solving these water challenges is critical.

So how can we responsibly manage water and what does success look like? The UN Sustainable Development Goals out this month see success as a world where available and sustainably managed water is a human right for all. Solutions to get there include legislation, market and financial incentives that drive long term responsible water management. Price can be a major incentive if it reflects the true costs and benefits of water, but this is rarely the case. For example, if the cost of water and energy was accurately factored in cotton, it would cost around $US7.50 per tonne as compared to its current $US1.50 per tonne! If this was the case, sustainably produced cotton would be cheaper than conventional cotton. Other parts of the solution include infrastructure and technology that can leapfrog improvements and collaborations to scale action quickly.

The good news for fashion is that potential solutions from brands, suppliers, governments and NGOs have begun to emerge. On the government front, China’s 2015 “Water Ten Plan” is the country’s most stringent water policy to date. Under this, textiles are among the industries being hit hardest to clean up its act. According to Debra Tan, Director of China Water Risk, “Fashion is not only dirty, it is thirsty and since China has declared ‘war on pollution’ to protect its limited water resources, fashion faces unprecedented pressures.”

Peak Performance Dyedron jacket, Credit: Tomas Monka/Peak Performance

From brands and suppliers some innovative low water and even “zero water” fashion solutions have emerged. For example, DyeCoo’s zero water and process chemical free dye technology is being used by Nike in their (ColorDry) and in Peak Performance Dyedron jackets. For jeans, Levi Strauss & Co’s Water-Less™ technology and production improvements have saved one billion litres of water since 2011. They have reduced the water used to produce a pair of Levi’s® 501® jeans to about 3800 litres. Indian textile manufacturer Pratibha Syntex uses organic farming techniques and applies best available water efficient dyeing techniques to fabric manufacturing. With an eye on the future, they are pioneers developing highly water-efficient fabrics that are not cotton dependent.

So could “low or zero water” fashion be the next trend? What would it look like to use no water to make a garment, or better still, provide a net surplus to the local community where it is produced? We are already seeing “zero” replacing “reduction” for fashion’s chemical and pollution impacts though initiatives such as the Roadmap to Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals. This trend is also seen in other sectors where there is a shift away from a “doing less bad” approach to impact reduction to “enhancing” the communities and environment a business interacts with. I look forward to fashion that always gives us style while respecting every human’s right to clean and sustainably managed water.

Dorothy Maxwell PhD is Director of The Sustainable Business Group , authors of the State of the Apparel Sector Water report for the recent Global Leadership Award in Sustainable Apparel 2015 (GLASA) at World Water Week 2015.

**This story first appeared on Huffington Post.