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Sabine Anton-Katzenbach

Expert Opinion

18th January 2012, Hamburg

Sustainability in Textiles & Clothing: Why Should We Care?

“The main goal of social sustainability is to create and maintain the well-being of a community as a whole. The integration of all members of the community into this process is a prime concern.” Sabine Anton-Katzenbach.

Sabine Anton-Katzenbach reports from Hamburg Sustainability is the mega-trend of our time. The range of sustainable products and services is constantly on the rise. However, the concept of sustainability cannot be viewed in isolation but demands a holistic approach: it is not a case of "either ... or" but rather "both ... and".

Sustainability, as we understand it today, means the use of resources to meet our needs without depleting them. Our universally accepted concept of sustainability is based on three pillars: sustainability of the environment, of society and of the economy. The objective of environmental sustainability is the preservation of nature and the environment for future generations, and the responsible stewardship of renewable resources and ecosystems.

Economic sustainability means developing business practices which provide a sound basis for income and wealth without exploiting economic resources such as raw materials, energy or workforces. The main goal of social sustainability is to create and maintain the well-being of a community as a whole. The integration of all members of the community into this process is a prime concern.

Does it make sense?

One compelling, tangible reason why sustainability issues should be of relevance to all those involved in the production and care of textiles are the two billion garments which are sold in Germany every year. Only a small proportion of these are manufactured in countries in which appropriate environmental and social standards are enforced. The larger part of our "second skin" comes from low-wage countries where the exploitation of workers - mainly women and children - is the order of the day and environmental protection is practically unknown.

In these countries, the garment industry can easily create a situation in which the economy becomes a virtual monoculture, destroying traditional economic and social structures and creating a high degree of dependence. Moreover, it can be the source of considerable social unrest if, for example, manufacturers shift production to other locations where goods can be produced even more cheaply.

Cotton shortage calls for action

It is an undeniable fact that future shortages of resources such as fibrous raw materials will create the need for increased sustainability in the textile chain. The availability of natural products such as cotton will decrease due to rapidly growing global demand for garments. Countries like China, Brazil and India will be claiming an increasingly large proportion of the cotton harvests for their own use.

This will have serious implications for Europe: increased global competition for dwindling resources, growing difficulty in procuring sufficient textiles and garments to meet demands, as well as deteriorating quality and rising prices. At the same time, a ruthless exploitation of nature is to be expected. For in order to meet at least part of the global demand for textile fibres, cotton production will have to be expanded.

However, there will be a high price to pay, including the depletion of water resources, the degradation of soil quality as well as health risks for farmers in most of the producing countries.

Holistic approach

In order to maintain the viability of their business, stakeholders of the textile, garment and textile care industries will be required to seek and implement new, long-term sustainability concepts. They will be forced to consider the complex, interconnected nature of the global economy as well as social and environmental aspects. Isolated measures or the reduction of the issue to mere figures cannot be the answer to the sustainability question.

They can be no more than a vain attempt to put out a number of small fires in the midst of a raging bush fire - the proverbial "drop in the bucket". Changes can only be brought about by a combination of environmental, social and economic factors, and require the inclusion of the whole supply and processing chain. But as always, somebody must make a start and there must be people who are prepared to take the ideas on board and be inspired by them. Only then will things be set in motion.

First steps by the textile industry

The textile and garment industry and contract rental companies have taken the first steps on the road to a sustainable future. The Association "textil+mode" (Berlin) and its member associations have developed a "Code of Conduct for the Textile and Fashion Industry", which was adopted at the beginning of 2010. These standards exceed the legal requirements and are intended to promote awareness of the industry's social responsibility.

The Frankfurt-based "Industrieverband Textil Service (intex)" has gone one step further. In addition to adopting its "Principles of Textile Service" in November 2010, the Association has also become a member of the UN Global Compact. This initiative, developed by the UN, is a strategic policy initiative for businesses that are committed to aligning their operations and strategies with ten universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption. 

The resolutions passed by the associations are only recommendations and serve as a non-binding guideline for the member companies. Nonetheless, the number of companies which have adopted them and made them a central element of their company philosophy is on the increase. And the more companies that participate, the easier it will become to effect changes. This is one more shining example of what can be achieved by standing together. 

Sabine Anton-KatzenbachSabine Anton-Katzenbach

Our correspondent, textile finishing specialist Cert-eng. Sabine Anton-Katzenbach provides technical consultancy services for the textile and apparel industries through her company, Büro für Textiltechnische Beratung. She is also an accredited journalist and her clients include companies from the chemical, fibre, textile and apparel industries, textile service companies, marketing agencies and publishers. [email protected]

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