January is awash with people making new, sustainable promises, or trying to be more eco-friendly. This includes challenges such as Veganuary, but people are also committing to other more sustainable choices; for example not buying new clothes for an entire year or pledging to reduce plastic usage. While this commitment to- and driving awareness of- better sustainability is important, it can also raise interesting questions on the true impacts of these choices. In some cases, making the seemingly more sustainable choice can actually have more harmful effects.
In this article, we’ll take a further look at whether making the ‘best’ sustainable choice can actually lead to hidden negative consequences on the environment.
Doing ‘good’ isn’t always the most sustainable solution
While current campaigns and drives to be more eco-friendly create essential attention and awareness of the challenges facing the environment, doing ‘good’ isn’t always the best solution when it comes to sustainability. This can come as a shock to many consumers, but it highlights the complexities in finding sustainable solutions that are truly effective.
It seems counterintuitive, that actively seeking to do better, and make more eco-friendly choices can actually do harm- but it’s true. Often making better decisions in one area, unintendedly, but actively harms another.
This highlights the challenges and complexities in sustainability
For example, being vegan is often actively better for sustainability and the environment. But while this certainly has many positive benefits, is it the best environmentally friendly choice every time? Switching to almond milk has impacted bee health and populations, an example of making more sustainable decisions in one area impacting on another environmentally, despite having the best intentions.
Vegan ‘leather’ is often a popular choice, and is deemed more ethical. But there are environmental trade-offs for ‘better’ ethical choices. Often, real (arguably more sustainable) cow-hide leather is swapped for plastic, petroleum-based leather garments. As well as the toxic solvents used to produce these, they don’t last as long- potentially landing up dumped in landfill much sooner. Plastic-coated fabrics can’t also be easily recycled- further limiting the life of a garment.
Textile sustainability is complex and connected
This isn’t about criticising veganism at all- it’s simply an example of the issues facing true sustainability- that every single decision has consequences, often unintended. Decisions designed to improve sustainability in one area can cause negative impacts in another- it’s a symptom of our ever-connected globe, supply chains and eco-systems. Even when consumers and manufacturers actively seek to make ethical decisions, there is a potential harmful follow on impact in a different area. This is true when it comes to donating unwanted clothes (it’s not always the best solution) the microfibre impacts of keeping and washing certain fabrics instead of buying new, and the potential increase in global energy consumption of reducing plastic through recycling efforts.
So what’s the real solution when it comes to sustainability?
This truth, that doing more harm than good can be depressing and defeating for people to learn about- making them question why they’ve even been bothered to be ‘better’ sustainability-wise in the first place. To truly tackle sustainability, consumers and brands should still be applauded for their efforts, but remain aware of solutions that can drive truly sustainable solutions.
Technology will play an important part in achieving true sustainability- allowing people to continue to make the best choices that have minimal impacts in other areas. Developing sustainable, ethical and non-plastic fabrics that have a minimal environmental footprint, for example, creating vegan leather made from apple skins. But the most effective solution will also be consuming less in the first place- not simply making swaps with their own issues.
Reducing consumption and demand is the best sustainable choice
While some consumers may find this realisation difficult, it’s important to highlight the challenges in creating truly closed-loop, low impact textiles and fashion garments. In order to address these environmental trade-offs, and as with everything sustainable, the real solution is to reduce consumption, and therefore production in the first place. Until consumers are willing to ask- and act- on the question ‘do I really need this?’, no matter how eco-friendly that item is, sustainability will always be compromised.
Textile Consult operates worldwide and in the UK, consulting on a variety of management, training and sustainability issues within the textile industry. Contact us today to find out how we’ll work with you to find effective, sustainable solutions for your company.