Nature and Biodiversity

How to make textile and garment production more sustainable

Technological innovation has led to over-production and waste in the textile and garment industries.

Technological innovation has led to over-production and waste in the textile and garment industries. Image: REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Neil Balchin
Economic Adviser - Trade Policy Analysis, The Commonwealth Secretariat
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The Net Zero Transition

  • The rapid expansion of textile and garment production in the past 20 years has been driven by falling production costs and rising consumption.
  • This has led to over-production and fast fashion trends, exacerbating the industry's long-standing environmental and social sustainability challenges.
  • Many producers lack viable or cost-effective options for more environmentally and socially friendly inputs and processes. Here's how that could change.

Producing and consuming garments more sustainably could boost the global economy by almost $200 billion by 2030. However, this requires collective action by industry leaders, manufacturers and consumers.

Textile and garment production and trade have expanded rapidly in the past two decades, driven by falling production costs and rising consumption.

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Technological innovations have made it possible to produce clothes with shorter lead times, enabling the rapid turnover of new clothing lines and facilitating the emergence of fast fashion. This has contributed to significant over-production and means clothes are often worn only a few times before being discarded. Globally, the average number of times a garment is worn has declined by 36% since the early 2000s.

These trends have amplified long-standing social and environmental sustainability concerns relating to textile and garment production.

Addressing these concerns is of paramount importance given their connection to the Sustainable Development Goals. Doing so is critical to global efforts to decarbonize supply chains and curb greenhouse gas emissions in pursuit of a net-zero future.

Economic and social sustainability challenges

The textile and garment industry has a long history of sustainability issues. Stringent competition has placed downward pressure on textile and garment workers’ wages, often leading to low pay, significant gender wage gaps and limited benefits.

Abusive labour practices have been widely documented, as have instances of gender discrimination and workplace harassment. Several high-profile incidents have highlighted unsafe working conditions in factories.

A lack of transparency in garment supply chains has amplified these concerns.

Environmental implications

There are also well-documented environmental impacts associated with producing and disposing of textiles and garments (Figure 1). These industries contribute 4-10% of global carbon emissions, which could rise to 26% by 2050.

Many producers lack viable or cost-effective options to bring in more environmentally friendly inputs and processes. There are also practical obstacles to recycling used textiles and garments, including insufficient infrastructure to locate, collect and process discarded items. Only 13% of materials used across the garment value chain are recycled.

Worldwide environmental impacts of textile and garment production. Author drawing on Drew and Yehounme (2017); Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017); Greer et al., (2013); Lin (2022); Textile Exchange & KPMG (2018); Ro (2020); World Bank (2014)
Worldwide environmental impacts of textile and garment production. Image: upklyak, vectorjuice and vectorpouch/Freepik

Initiatives for more sustainable production and trade in textiles and garments

A range of public, private and multilateral frameworks, standards, initiatives and conventions have been introduced to better regulate the labour market and improve conditions for textile and garment workers.

Improving social sustainability in textile and garment industries
Improving social sustainability in textile and garment industries

In turn, many innovative measures and programmes have been introduced to counter the industries’ negative environmental impacts.

Promoting more environmentally sustainable production of textiles and garments
Promoting more environmentally sustainable production of textiles and garments

Promoting social and environmental sustainability

Better working conditions and safer working environments raise worker productivity and retention. Greater transparency along supply chains can help demonstrate compliance and bring competitive and reputational advantages for suppliers and brands. Compliance with sustainability provisions can avail access to trade preferences.

Here are five policy changes that could support this:

  • More support for suppliers, particularly in the least developed countries and low-income developing economies, to implement and demonstrate internationally accepted standards and systems for fully traceable and transparent value chains.
  • Incentives for investment and innovations to develop sustainable materials and manufacturing practices and technologies, as well as circular business models.
  • Pricing negative externalities, for example, by taxing carbon emissions and water usage or polyester and other synthetic materials to ensure natural materials are more price competitive.
  • Extended producer responsibility legislation to ensure garment producers pay upfront for the costs associated with the disposal of their clothing and accessories.
  • Sustainability-driven tariff regimes with preferential tariffs on less environmentally harmful materials (for example, organic cotton or recycled natural fibres) incentivise their use over cheaper non-biodegradable synthetic materials.

Greater recognition of these advantages, coupled with the implementation of the five policy priorities listed above, can help expedite the shift to more sustainable production and trade in textiles and garments.

The author is an economic adviser at the Commonwealth Secretariat. This blog is based on a chapter on textiles and garments in the Commonwealth Secretariat’s publication on Sustainable Production and Trade: Perspectives from the Commonwealth.

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