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Interview: sustainability for the textile sector

Textile is one of Hedgehog's focus sectors; it is a sector with a big environmental impact. In this interview, co-founder Saro Campisano shares sustainability challenges for this sector, and how textile organisaions can take their steps towards sustainability.

Textile is one of Hedgehog's focus sectors; it is a sector with a big environmental impact. In this interview, co-founder Saro Campisano shares sustainability challenges for this sector, and how textile organisaions can take their steps towards sustainability.

Saro Campisano
Co-founder Saro Campisano

Why is sustainability important for the textile sector?

The textile sector is a massive industry, and consequently, it carries a substantial environmental impact. Therefore, every gain made in this sector truly matters.

It is also a sector at the forefront of sustainability legislation; organisations will have to comply with various (inter)national laws and regulations in the coming years.

Simultaneously, the textile industry is under intense scrutiny, both in the media and among consumers. We have all heard about the negative impacts of fast fashion: stories about the enormous pile of textile waste, the consequences of online shopping behavior, and also issues related to social sustainability, such as working conditions in factories.

Awareness of these issues is increasing, and producers are expected to take responsibility and ensure that their impact becomes more positive. This is also echoed by our clients in this sector; customers and stakeholders are increasingly demanding sustainability information.

Textile is one of Hedgehog Company's focus sectors, and we guide various organisations (both B2C and B2B) towards sustainability internationally. These can be manufacturers or clothing brands.

What sustainability challenges does the textile sector face?

The textile sector is characterized by complex production chains that span the globe. For producers, it is challenging to precisely trace where and how each step is carried out.

This presents a significant challenge, as producers have contracts and relationships with specific companies and workshops, often located in Asia. However, these parties further outsource work to other workshops, and the producer has little to no visibility into these processes. Up to now, companies could somewhat hide behind this complexity, but regulations will increasingly make it harder to turn a blind eye to these practices.

Moreover, many commonly used materials have a significant environmental impact, including cotton, polyester, and the dyes and chemicals used in production.

The industry is of massive scale, with high demand and supply, resulting in various consequences. For instance, it is currently challenging for producers to access organic cotton. There is simply too much demand, which is positive in itself, but it often leads producers to opt for non-organic cotton. While organic cotton also has an environmental impact, the production requires less synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

One challenge lies in the fast-fashion business model: sustainability goals do not align with this model. But as long as there is demand, producers will continue to manufacture in this manner. Conversely, as long as there is supply, consumers will continue to make these purchases. It's a chicken-and-egg question, where hopefully both producers and consumers will start making sustainable choices.

Rek met kleding

What sustainability developments are coming for the textile sector?

An example is the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF). That is a new LCA methodology developed at the request of the European Commission, and the textile sector is among the first sectors where the PEF will apply. Read more about the PEF here.

According to the PEF, all LCAs within the textile sector will follow the same methodology. This standardization allows for effective comparison of products.

Another example is the Digital Product Passport, part of the Eco Design for Product (ESRS) legislation. Textile, along with consumer electronics and batteries, is among the first sectors to implement this. Manufacturers must add digital information in a unique product label, providing detailed product sustainability information and information about the entire value chain.

Since the summer of 2023, the UPV Textiel applies in the Netherlands. This makes producers responsible for the collection, recycling, reuse, and waste phase of the products they bring to the market. Producers will also have to pay for these steps. Through the UPV, producers are encouraged to use more recycled textiles in their products.

Lifetime extension is also part of the ESRS; producers will soon be obligated to take responsibility for their clothing after consumer use. This suddenly makes it crucial for producers that their products last as long as possible.

And it is now still a challenge to recycle products at the end of their life cycle. Who will recycle them? Clothing is collected at a general point, not specifically at the producer. Completing the recycling loop is indeed a challenge.

What can a textile organisation do to become more sustainable?

The first step is to understand your impact. This is interesting for the organisation itself, your consumers, and also for your investors. And by gaining effective insights into your impact, you can take steps to reduce it and differentiate yourself from competitors.

Often, clients ask us to determine the impact at the product level through a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), and complement these insights with a calculation of the carbon footprint of their organisation; determining the total greenhouse gas emissions released at the company level.

It's gratifying to see that many clients, after receiving our results, want to take further steps themselves. They start monitoring the development of their emissions, calculate a carbon footprint every year to see if their impact is increasing or decreasing, or they also want LCAs for their other products.

Visualistion of the steps towards an LCA

What insights to get from an LCA?

An LCA reflects the total environmental impact of a product throughout its life cycle, covering all stages from raw material extraction to production, transportation, and consumer use.

Your impact does not end after production; the consumer's usage phase, including washing and ironing, also contributes to the impact. Therefore, sustainability is something that both producers and consumers need to work on together.

Communicating this is good for bonding with your consumers. One of our clients, Studio Anneloes, has added QR codes to their products, allowing customers to view the insights from the LCA. They can see the exact environmental impact during the product's production: how many kilowatt-hours of energy, how many liters of water, and how many kilograms of CO2.

The challenge is to communicate this in a way that resonates with consumers, making it understandable and concrete. For example, an impact of 2.5 kg CO2 might mean nothing to many consumers.

You can also use an LCA to compare the environmental impact of different production processes. This is something we did for a shoe manufacturer who produces one model in Portugal and one model in Asia.

Apart from environmental gains, an LCA can also bring financial benefits. By making your production process more efficient or changing it, you can save on energy, packaging costs, or transportation. The insights also provide guidance in discussions with suppliers: if, for example, your biggest impact comes from your suppliers, you can sit down with them to see how that impact can be reduced.

Want to know more? Get a free 30-minute consult with one of our sustainability experts.

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