Engineering out fashion waste

Annual growth in global demand for clothing is projected to increase from 1.5% in 2016 to between 3.5 and 4.5% by the end of 2018, and is likely to continue to grow beyond this.

The increase in demand makes the environmental challenges for the industry more prominent – an industry already associated with high water and chemical use, and greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention poor labour conditions.

Ultimately, reducing the environmental footprint of the fashion industry is dependent on both engineers designing and delivering improved industrial processes, and the public changing their behaviours. Investing in research & development, whether examining the length of fibres or the way they are spun in order to understand shedding, or even  researching a coating to limit fibre release – will have negligible impact unless we also change our shopping habits. Donating used clothes to charity and buying less, more durable clothing is the most effective method to reduce clothing waste. Building longevity into clothing will require a change in attitude to clothing and fashion from the public and the industry which has mastered and benefited from the economic cycle of fast fashion.

Besides their technical skills, engineers have a wider advocacy role in order to encourage this change in consumer habits. By contributing to the public debate on waste, engineers can emphasise the small steps that we all can make in order to reduce our footprint, particularly with regard to the aftercare of our garments. This might include advocating for individuals to wash their clothes at a lower temperature, use mesh laundry bags to catch threads, or install filters on washing machine waste pipes.

In order to improve the environmental impact of the clothing industry, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers recommends: 

  1. The UK Government in collaboration with the fashion industry should invest in initiatives which provide incentives for the development of more environmentally friendly fibres. Research & development investment can make a significant impact on improving the sustainability and efficiency of textile manufacturing. For instance, a research team under Herbert Sixta at the Aalto University, found an ionic liquid which can dissolve cellulose from wood pulp, producing a material that can be spun into fibres. When the liquid was applied to a poly-cotton blend, it dissolved the cotton, but not the polyester, allowing it to be filtered out. The dissolved cellulose could then be used to make stronger fibres.
  2. The UK Government should work with the fashion industry and manufacturers to develop a comprehensive framework to tackle ‘greenwashing’, or false sustainability claims. Corporate Social Responsibility is an essential element of a brand’s identity. It helps a company position itself as a responsible business and market itself to ethically conscious customers. However, sometimes a company’s claims don’t always add up. The UK industry should look to the Higg Index, a US industry self-assessment standard for assessing environment and social sustainability throughout the supply chain.
  3. The UK Government, fashion industry and manufacturers should support the development of mechanical and chemical fibre recycling technologies, particularly those which are able to separate blended fibres. Fibres produced by mechanical recycling  are shorter and inferior in quality to virgin fibres, which in turn makes them less valuable. Chemical recycling will play a more prominent role in recycling, as the method develops.
A WRAP report has identified relatively few barriers to the uptake of the textile fibre recycling technologies. 


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