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OM in the News: The Fashion Industry Goes Green

May 16, 2018

In a factory the size of an airport terminal, laser cutters zip across long sheets of cotton, slicing out sleeves for Zara jackets. Until last year, the scraps that spill out into wire baskets were repurposed into stuffing for furniture or hauled off to a landfill near the plant in northern Spain. Now they’re chemically reduced to cellulose, which is mixed with wood fibers and spun into a textile called Refibra that’s used in more than a dozen items such as T-shirts, trousers, and tops.

The initiative by Inditex, the company that owns Zara and 7 other brands, highlights a shift in an industry known for churning out super cheap stuff that fills closets for just a few months before being tossed into the used-clothing bin. Gap promises that by 2021 it will take cotton only from organic farms or other producers it deems sustainable. “One of the biggest challenges is how to continue to provide fashion for a growing population while improving the impact on the environment,” says H&M’s CEO.

The $3 trillion fashion industry consumes vast amounts of cotton, water, and power to make 100 billion accessories and garments annually—3/5 of which are thrown away within a year, writes Businessweek (May 7, 2018). And less than 1% of that is recycled into new clothes. “The equivalent of a dump truck filled with textiles gets landfilled or incinerated every single second,”  says one researcher. To tap into this trend, H&M is seeking to make all its products from recycled and sustainable materials by 2030, up from 35% today.

Inditex last winter started disassembling old clothing to spin into yarns for fashions it markets as “garments with a past.” “We’re trying to find a more sustainable version of all materials,” says an Index exec. Today’s recycled jeans, he says, are typically only about 15% repurposed cotton, because the fiber “gets worn down and we have to mix with new.”

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Why does this industry consume so many resources?
  2. What are the driving forces for change?
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