Sustainability has gained a lot of traction in the textile industry over the last few years. Purchase decisions are no longer only made on the basis of fashion and comfort. Consumers are increasingly demanding more eco-friendly textiles.

However, it is difficult for them to make well-informed choices. What exactly should one do when it comes to the use of natural resources such as water and land, production methods, emissions and the overall impact on the environment?

Many consumers don’t even know what the garments they wear are made from. They are not aware that synthetic fibres comprise two-thirds of the global fibre market of approximately 100 million tonnes of virgin fibres used in textiles, hygienic and cosmetic products. Most of the fibres such as polyester and polyamide originate from crude oil. Parts of these “plastic” fibres washed out in households or industrial cleaners turn up as microplastics in the oceans and harm fish and human beings. A large portion of the used clothing ends up in landfills or is incinerated.

Most people don’t realize that naturally derived fibres of cellulosic origin (cotton, viscose, modal, lyocell) make up only slightly more than one-third of all new fibres produced every year. Cellulose comes from nature and is returned to nature due to its biodegradability, and thus does not aggravate the growing problem of marine litter.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

Textile industry has no credible recycling concept

In contrast to paper, aluminum or steel, there is no credible recycling concept for the billions of tonnes of fast fashion items sold every year, mainly from non-biodegradable fibres. Each year about 60 million tonnes of new fibres are used to make garments, and no plausible concept exists on what to do with them when they are no longer needed. As a result, three-quarters of these products are disposed in landfills or incineration plants.

The textile industry is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions due to its production technologies and transportation. Studies calculating the sector’s CO2 emissions were first published only recently.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation put global textile industry emissions at 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per-year, close to the level of emissions from the automobile industry. Since the industry started taking its huge ecological footprint seriously, various initiatives emerged: one of these is the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, signed by leading fashion brands, suppliers and other partners under the auspices of the UN's climate change initiative. Signatories, including the Lenzing Group, are committed to a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2030.

Consumers want brands to disclose origin of apparel offered

Consumers are demanding more detailed data about the origin of the clothes they wear, especially in Europe and the US. Eighty percent of consumers want brands to disclose how their supply chain operates, according to a 2018 survey by IPSOS MORI on European consumer attitudes to sustainability and supply chain transparency in the fashion industry.

Sustainability has also slowly begun to gain in importance in other parts of the world, especially Asia. This is important because 2018 was a milestone. For the first time in history, more than half of apparel and footwear sales were generated outside of Europe and North America. If we want to make the textile industry a greener one, we need to support sustainability, especially in emerging markets across Asia-Pacific, Latin America and other regions.

Traceability is key to educated purchase decisions

In light of all this, as important players in the textile industry, we are called upon to help consumers make educated purchase decisions. Traceability, whether enabled by tracers or using new digital technologies such as blockchain, is a very important aspect in the effort to create a more eco-friendly industry.

Blockchain enables consumers to identify sustainable clothes

The Lenzing Group, in cooperation with TextileGenesis, is one of the very first companies to offer digital traceability to customers and partners as well as consumers. Blockchain technology enables brands and consumers to identify sustainable wood-based fibres in finished garments or home textiles across each fibre-to-retail production and distribution step. The technology also allows consumers to verify garment composition and the underlying textile supply chain at the point of sale, simply by scanning the barcode with a mobile device.

Without true transparency it will be impossible for consumers to make well-informed and responsible decisions. And that is what is needed to accelerate the transformation to a fully sustainable textiles industry.

Transforming Markets

During the last 50 years there has been unprecedented progress in human indicators – life expectancy has increased to record levels; infant- and maternal mortality has fallen; more girls are staying in school; more people have been lifted out of poverty than ever before; and inequality between nations has narrowed. The market system has served us well.

But deep fractures are beginning to show: gaping inequality within almost all countries; record environmental degradation and species loss; and the broader impacts of irreversible climate change. Our markets are unsustainable – and we need a new economic model.

To tackle these challenges,Transforming Markets is one of four focus areas at the World Economic Forum's 2019 Sustainable Development Impact summit. A range of sessions will bring stakeholders together to take action that places human and environmental health at the core of market systems and value chains. These include building sustainable markets, responsible supply chains, moving beyond disposability, circularity and scaling solutions of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, among others.