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The realities of sustainability when starting a clothing brand

In the development phase of Sim & Mack, we had clear aims about being a sustainable brand and what that might entail. On face value, it would primarily be defined by the fibres chosen for each garment. Packaging would also have to be environmentally friendly, either recycled, or compostable to avoid the damage that can occur through microplastics. On face value, both natural fibres and ideally organic fibre seemed to be an obvious solution for our garments. While we also had to be practically focussed on what fabric was available to a start-up label with low volumes of production, we soon realised that with many choices and challenges, we should take a step back to consider what sustainability even means?

The history

To understand the roots of sustainability, we need to go back to 1972, the year of the ground breaking UN Conference on the Human Environment. This was a pivotal moment in the world’s understanding of the need to balance the needs of humans with those of its surrounding environment. At the time though, the modern understanding of sustainability was yet to be formalised. This occurred with the UN’s 1987 Brundtland Report which defined sustainability as ‘the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’[1].

In more recent decades, sustainability has encompassed a raft of issues headlined by the impact of increasing carbon dioxide emissions on global temperatures. The defining moment came in 1988 when a NASA scientist informed a US Congressional Committee that the first five months of that year were warmer than any of the previous 130 years, and that it was 99 percent certain not to be a natural variation, rather linked to increasing carbon dioxide and artificial gases in the atmosphere[2]. The world has also become much more focussed on the impacts of chemical use in agriculture, particularly to soils and water ways, while increasing landfill and pollution in oceans has shone a spotlight on the need for effective recycling outcomes. We could go into the detail of all these issues, but the practical outcome for a clothing brand like ours is an awareness that we must move towards carbon neutrality and do everything possible to reduce the environmental impact of both our garment production and associated packaging.

Sorting the wheat from the chaff

With a better appreciation for what sustainability is all about, Sim & Mack could be founded on solid ground. So back to the topic of organic fibre, which in our case is primarily cotton. While this remains an ideal for the brand, it is not necessarily as black and white as it seems on the surface. In theory, organic fibre is grown without artificial fertilizers or synthetic chemicals but there is only high level agreement at an international level as to specifically how organic agriculture is defined. For example, there is no one agreed international organic farming standard, with the closest substitute being the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM - Organics International) which defines organic agriculture ‘as a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people; relying on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects’. IFOAM endorses a ‘family of organic standards’ which comprises over 50 organic standards from around the world, including three from Australia alone.

Fortunately the textile industry beyond the farm gate is better served by a harmonised organic standard through the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). GOTS specifically aims to ‘ensure organic status of textiles, from harvesting of the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labelling in order to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer.’ However, it is important to remember that GOTS does not certify the organic production of fibre, which still relies on the IFOAM family of organic standards. Furthermore, GOTS ‘covers the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading and distribution of all textiles made from at least 70% certified organic natural fibres’. When searching for certified organic clothing, GOTS is the best available benchmark and consumers should be aware of organic clothing lacking this credential. However, it is important to be mindful there are two GOTS labels; ‘Made with Organic’ which only requires 70% organic material and ‘Organic’ which requires 95% or higher organic materials. There are also ongoing issues in world textile markets with the significant volume of organic clothing sold which industry experts argue far outweighs the volume of certified organic fibre production, and Australia is not immune. At present, there are no commercial volumes of organic cotton grown in Australia but there are still clothing brands which claim to use Australian organic cotton.

A practical balance

From Sim & Mack’s perspective, organic cotton while desirable is not necessarily the ‘be all and end all’ of sustainable fibre production. We are also supporters of certified Australian cotton, albeit conventionally grown, but benefiting from significant advances in sustainability over the past three decades. For example, compared with a bale of irrigated cotton produced in 1992, Australian growers now use 48% less water, 97% less insecticide and 34% less land.[3] Sim & Mack also recognises that Australian farmers are subject to materially higher labour and environmental standards than countries that produce the majority of the existing organic fibre crop, particularly India and China.

We also need to focus on ensuring our garments last, another key element of sustainability which can sometimes be overlooked when brands become too fixated on broader environmental issues. This is where we need to decide, for example, to adopt a small fraction of manufactured elastane in the ribbing of a garment to enable it to last much longer.  While we will always look for a natural solution to any challenge, sometimes the technological advance to make it a practical choice just isn’t there yet.

Sim & Mack will continue to make decisions on sustainability with the best available information at hand to ensure you, our customers, know we are constantly striving to produce quality garments that don’t compromise the needs of future generations.

 

[1] G.H Brundtland, ‘Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future’, United Nations, 20 March 1987

[2] Shabecoff, P – New York Times, ‘Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate’, June 24 1988

[3] Cotton Australia and Cotton Research and Development Corporation – Australian Cotton Sustainability Report 2019

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