Can Fashion Match Food For Sustainability?

The hospitality sector has done much in recent years to improve sustainability. As well as many hotels and residents looking to use more green energy and become more energy-efficient, many have embraced the concept of reducing food miles by using locally-produced ingredients where they can.

However, the question may be asked as to whether they are able to do as well when it comes to hospitality uniforms? Could many establishments on either side of the Atlantic be send out staff wearing far from sustainable work clothes to serve sustainable food?

Cotton is a material where this concern may apply heavily around the world. For example, writing for the Conversation, associate professor at RMIT University in Vietnam Rajikshore Nayak posed an unusual question: What to oranges, coffee grounds and seaweeds have in common? The answer is that all are more sustainable than cotton.

He explained that while cotton produces far fewer carbon emissions than polyester, other materials from which clothing fibres may be drawn include coffee waste, recycled plastic bottles, plus “seaweed, orange, lotus, corn and mushroom”.

While this may sound an unusual array of organic materials to make into clothing, their lower carbon footprints make them a must for sustainability, Prof Nayak argued. He observed that some notable clothing names - such as Patagonia, Mud Jeans, Ninety Percent, Plant Faced Clothing and Afends - are already seeking to incorporate these fibres into their products.

However, he added, “the true turning point will likely come when more of the biggest names in fashion get involved, and it’s high time they invest.”

Prof Nayak is not alone in calling out fashion, not least because of the shortcomings of cotton, where a key issue is the high volume of water needed to grow it (In the worst case scenario, the diversion of river water to grow cotton and other agricultural produce in the Soviet Union led to the environmental catastrophe of the disappearing Aral Sea).

Whether it is by using alternatives to cotton, cutting down on synthetic materials or simply working to curb the throwaway culture of ‘fast fashion’, it seems the clothing sector has a long way to go. As Politico notes, the pressure in the EU is being ramped up, with a European Parliament report noting that the number of clothes owned by Europeans has doubled in the last 15 years.

The report also noted that the European Commission is looking at legislation in this area, although nothing has happened yet.

Since EU membership is now a thing of the past, the UK won’t be tied to anything Brussels decides to do about the situation, but there is clearly plenty of public concern in the country. The recent 50 Shades of Greenwashing report by Sensu Insight found that when it came to making claims about environmental credentials, the fashion sector was trust less than any other. 

That may raise some major challenges to companies in London to raise their game, but the same is bound to be true in the US, across Europe and elsewhere. If fashion is to follow food in learning ways of maximising sustainability in an authentic way, it appears much more will, and less green washing, is needed.

February 05, 2023 — Jacob Blakey