Stella McCartney, left, and Ellen MacArthur have called for changes in the garment sector ©Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Stella McCartney, left, and Ellen MacArthur have called for changes in the garment sector ©Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Garment industry 'losing $500bn through underutilisation'

1 December 2017

Materials used in clothing release half a million tonnes of microfibers into the ocean a year, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF).

Microfibers are small synthetic threads that can enter water systems simply through washing plastic-based textiles including polyester, nylon and acrylic. These plastics damage environments, can enter the human food chain and might be impossible to remove from the water. 

EMF is calling for the textiles industry, of which apparel is the largest sub sector, to coordinate on finding alternative materials.

The issue is similar to the problem of microbeads that the cosmetics industry has recently had to face.

In a vision document published this week, EMF said the industry needed to coordinate its innovation efforts to create less damaging materials that avoid negative impacts at all stages of the value chain. 

As well as “drastically” reducing the amount of microfibers that are washed into water systems, the report also lists a number of other chemicals, including pesticides and harmful dyes, which the industry should work towards eradicating. It said that  “improving transparency along the value chain, a robust evidence base and common standards” were needed to remove harmful materials.

The report was released by Ellen MacArthur with the backing of designer Stella McCartney. As well as changes to manufacturing, it also calls for a raft of changes to the way clothing is designed, consumed and disposed of. 

“Today’s textile industry is built on an outdated linear, take-make-dispose model and is hugely wasteful and polluting,” said MacArthur.

“[The report] presents an ambitious vision of a new system, based on circular economy principles, that offers benefits to the economy, society, and the environment. We need the whole industry to rally behind it.” 

EMF called on manufacturers to design clothes to last longer, to make items easier to rent, resell or recycle and to use materials the don’t release toxins or pollution during manufacturing or washing.

Less than 1% of material used to make clothing is recycled, representing a loss of $100m a year and generating a high cost for disposal, the report said. This is part of an estimated $500bn a year of value lost through underutilisation. 

The report predicts that if the fashion industry does not change, it will use a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was established by MacArthur to lobby for, and support the creation of, a circular economy where products are built and designed with their disposal or re-use in mind. 

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