What does it take to make a green t-shirt? It’s a question we often get asked here at Green Story. For the month of May, we’ll be answering that. Welcome to the #GreenestTee!

We are taking you through the journey of creating the most sustainable t-shirt in the world: from designing the product as a whole to selecting the fabrics to weaving the t-shirt. We will be dedicating each week of the month to analyzing a different aspect of the supply chain and explaining ways to make it more sustainable. At the end of this 6-blog series, we show you the greenest t-shirt in the world.

There’s a lot to discuss when it comes to creating the most sustainable t-shirt, so let’s start with the basics.

Sourcing and your supply chain

Most of us only interact with any product for a fraction of its total life. We simply purchase a product from a brand, use it and then get rid of it when its purpose is served.  We do not necessarily know how the product has been made nor do we know what happens to it post-usage. And if we don’t know this, then we truly can’t calculate our footprint and overall environmental impact. This is where analyzing the supply chain comes in handy.

A supply chain is the set of stages to get a product or service from its making (the “cradle”) to its disposal (the “grave”). Each stage sets the ground for the next, creating a chain-like reaction as the t-shirt slowly comes to life. Stages include the cultivation of the raw materials, the fiber production, the yarning/knitting (depending on the fabric), dyeing & finishing, sewing, packaging and shipping.

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The Status Quo

Zara’s supply chain is a good example of the status quo in the fashion industry. It is estimated that the retail giant produces 450 million items of clothing/year. In order to remain organized and efficient with this sheer volume being created, regular shipments of new clothing items arrive at stores around the world twice a week. As Zara is a fast fashion brand, their factories manufacture clothing inspired by current trends and fads to churn out products fast.

Essentially, Zara and other fast fashion companies have changed the number of fashion seasons from the traditional two (fall/winter and spring/summer) to over 52 microseasons. You feel out of style within just one week. The factories that manufacture these clothing items have also been optimized for speed and quantity, rather than investing in better fabrics and facilities. Most of Zara’s production occurs in Spain and surrounding European countries, and air travel is used to transport their items to North American markets. Their clothing is most commonly made from cotton and wool, which are both incredibly energy-intensive materials. And because of the sheer volume of clothing being produced, the company also produces large amounts of waste, estimating 1.8 million kg of textile waste in 2015.

Building to Last

In order to combat these scary statistics, the first step for brands is to design for longevity. Design clothing that consumers can invest in and wear for months and years, rather than weeks. Rather than focusing on time-sensitive trends and fads, create pieces that are versatile and well-made. When designing for longevity, there are two aspects to keep in mind: physical durability and emotional durability.

  • Physically, the clothing should be carefully constructed in terms of the size, fit, and length. It should be fairly resistant to stains and odours and the brightness and colour of the piece should not fade with use.
  • Emotionally, the piece should remain relevant to the person over a longer period of time. It should remain comfortable and maintain its original attractive after being washed and worn. The style of the piece should also remain timeless.

Designing for longevity removes the need for 52 micro-seasons and reduces the demand from the consumer-end. In turn, this forces fast fashion brands to slow down and rethink their supply chain.

The Right Focus

Sometimes, it’s hard for brands to control every aspect of their supply chain. We can’t always be perfectly sustainable in each stage as many have no other alternatives. For example: packaging clothing to ship out to consumers still uses tons of wrapping and boxing, but there are currently no good alternatives that ensure the clothing arrives undamaged. That being said, there are still aspects that the brand can control.

Fiber Choice and Production: When designing a product, ensure that the fabric itself is sustainable. For example: choosing organic cotton versus conventional cotton, recycled polyester versus regular polyester, and alternatives such as hemp and tencel. We will be discussing this more in-depth in our blog post next week. In the meantime, check out our free e-book on sustainable fabrics here.

Assembly: While some companies use eco-friendly fabrics, which is great, they do not necessarily have the most sustainable assembly line to accompany this. This is like the idea of fried healthy food – you’re simply adding an unhealthy/unsustainable component onto something good.

Shipping: Companies can also control their transportation methods in terms of shipping their goods out to various retail stores and consumers. Air travel produces around 500 grams of emissions/km travelled, trains produce anywhere from 30 – 100 grams of emissions/km, and ships provide the most sustainable option, emitting only 10 – 40 grams of emissions/km travelled. We will be focusing on this more in an upcoming blog post so stay tuned.

Many companies use water-intensive processes involved in terms of dyeing, bleaching, and washing the garments. They also house their factories in energy-intensive facilities in terms of their electricity grids. Thus, the dream scenario for brands would be to become vertically integrated in terms of owning and controlling their supply chain entirely. From here, the company can work to integrate sustainable practices into each portion of their production line, from incorporating water recycling practices to utilizing waste reduction strategies.

Design + Supply Chain

Taking a closer look at a company’s supply chain is one of the most effective ways to understanding the overall environmental impact that a brand and its products can have. From cultivation to fibre production to manufacturing to shipping, each stage in the supply chain provides its own impact into the overall product. The key is to design products with longevity in mind and to integrate sustainable practices into each controllable stage of the production line.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking you through each stage in the supply chain separately and explaining the sustainable alternatives available. Join us next week as we focus on fiber choices!

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