In recent decades, the fashion industry's carbon footprint has surpassed that of aviation and sea transportation. Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of Tartu Reet Aus argues that in order to lessen the fashion industry's impact on the environment, fashion designers should consider how their garments might be recycled way in advance.
Today, Westerners can take solace in the fact that clothing worn a few times can be delivered to developing nations, Aus said. On the surface, this even appears to be humanitarian relief. In actuality, however, a substantial portion of the clothes shipped there end up in landfills (bearing in mind that the average EU citizen discards 11 kg of textiles annually).
"Clothes that are not disposed of in Estonia's landfills but are instead collected and delivered, for instance, to Kenya or Africa, cause unfathomable problems there, ranging from environmental issues to the demise of the local fashion and textile sector due to this cheap trash," Aus said on ERR's "Uudishimu tippkeskus" program. "We are essentially sending our own waste there, while no one needs it in such volumes," she emphasized.
Even though the European Union has set a target for the collection of textile waste separately by 2025, only a small part of this waste could now be reused and recycled in Estonia.
Because clothing must be aesthetically pleasing, it is manufactured from a wide range of materials, Aus explained. Later separation is difficult and frequently impossible.
"We always discuss the waste management issue, but we should be discussing the design issue. Why do we design items that we can't do anything with afterwards?"
To exert pressure on producers, eco-conscious consumers should purchase products made wholly of mono-fiber or with the highest feasible proportion of one type of fiber. In Europe, pure cotton textiles could be recycled chemically and mechanically with relative ease, Aus said. At least 90 percent of the mono-fibre is incorporated into her own designs, which are manufactured from textile industry byproducts. Despite the fact that the length of the cotton fibers decreases with each successive circle, this would allow them to be put to use repeatedly.
The professor said that finding the right way to produce raw material, i.e., yarn from recycled fabrics, is currently difficult. "It's a long process, it's a craft and it's very expensive. In the end, you may end up with a yarn that is ideal for testing, but not suitable for mass production. It's understandable why many brands that want to produce products that can be sold right away don't bother investing in this type of product development," Aus explained.
Although a competitive solution on the local market is far from certain, she and her colleagues are currently collaborating with Latvian researchers.
Consumers should keep in mind, however, that when labels are removed from clothing, recycling becomes much more difficult.
Value-based recycling is an additional and easily implemented method for reducing the fashion industry's carbon footprint. Simply said, clothing can be made from very little components. The ones that are currently left over from textile manufacturing. "Most importantly, industrial value-added recycling aids in the reduction of waste in large-scale industries, hence reducing their environmental impact. The environmental footprint of such a product is then close to nil, because the biggest environmental footprint comes from the production of the garment," Aus said.
Future of self-sufficiency and circular economy in Estonia
Long-term, the manufacturing of local textiles would also contribute to the reduction of environmental consequences. Cotton manufacture, like that of oil-based fibers, is particularly water intensive by nature. Up to 10,000 liters are required to make one kilogram of cotton fiber.
"We have a lot of local materials that we have used historically, such as flax. Sadly, the flax industry has vanished. Hemp can be successfully cultivated in our climate. We have sheep. We have the capacity to produce enough high-quality apparel for 1,3 million people, in addition to the recycling industry, which is also very active in this region," Aus said.
Finland, for example, is about 15 years ahead of Estonia in the development of such self-sufficiency, she added.
However, even while searching for environmentally friendly alternatives, she advises people to consider whether the emotional impact of purchasing a new garment is truly worth it.
"Despite all the talk of circular economy and sustainability, mass production continues to expand, and fast-fashion businesses generate respectable profits. Over-consumption is often driven by the low prices achieved by cost-cutting in underdeveloped nations. It is so simple to purchase a pair of 19-euro jeans every two months; 300-euro jeans are not something most people would buy. Once you do, however, you will wear them until they are in tatters."
Editor: Kristina Kersa