How would you define ‘sustainability’?
I think that this image taken from Wikipedia illustrates well the three basic aspects that must be taken into account when speaking about sustainability: environment – society – economy – the so-called three ‘pillars’ or three ‘legs’ of sustainability.
To be sustainable a product has be made according to environmentally, socially and economically sound methods.
Environmental sustainability may be described as an interaction with the environment that avoids the depletion or degradation of natural resources and allows for the preservation of the environment in the long term. This involves a responsible use of natural resources, the limitation of hazardous substances, the reduction of wastes and of the emissions released into the environment, thus ensuring that the environment is preserved for future generations.
Social sustainability focuses on the development of mutually beneficial relationships among workers, customers and the community at large and requires the establishment of practices that do not exploit people or have a negative impact on workers or communities.
Economic sustainability refers to a production that is run according to criteria of business efficiency, productivity and profit.
In what contexts is sustainability an issue? Think more broadly here – not just textiles – and write a list.
There are several areas of human activities in which sustainability can represent an issue. I have done some research online and these are some of the contexts in which sustainable approaches can be used:
Management of natural resources: the management of natural resources is perhaps the first and most fundamental area to explore when discussing sustainability, since all areas of human activity are involved with the their management or mismanagement. Natural resources can be defined as all raw materials coming from the Earth that mankind cannot produce but can only use to produce secondary products, such as air, water, sunlight, plants, land, animals. A sustainable development can be obtained only with a responsible use of natural resources that can satisfy the needs of mankind without compromising those of future generations. Natural resources can be classified according to several methods, one of them being their non-renewability or renewability. Renewable are those resources that can be – within limits – naturally replenished, like sunlight, air, wind, water, while non-renewable are those resources that cannot be renewed or that can be renewed only very slowly like minerals and fossil fuels.
Agriculture: getting more specific, sustainability in this area aims at preserving the ecosystem by studying the relationships between living beings and their environment. The expression ‘sustainable agriculture’ has been in use since the Eighties when it was defined as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will last over the long term” by the Australian scientist McClymont in his book New Roots for Agriculture.
Sustainability in agriculture focuses on satisfying human food and fibre needs, enhancing the environment quality, making an efficient use of non-renewable resources such as natural gas, protecting the economic viability of farming and the life quality of farmers and communities.
It can be obtained for example by the use of farming methods that protect the environment by rotating crops, reducing the reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, diminishing the waste of water, selecting drought-tolerant species.
Forestry: sustainability in forestry implies the regulation of forest resources to meet the needs of communities like obtaining wood as a source of fuel, for the construction industry and for manufacturing paper while preserving the forest in the long term since forests are a key element to capture and store carbon dioxide and maintain the water cycle.
Trades and industries: all manufacturing and business activities have to deal in different ways with the use of natural resources and the impact on the environment for example in relation to the management of wastes and the use of pollutants. For every trade it is possible to analyse how to obtain a sustainable production or service throughout all the different stages.
Consumption habits: this huge area involves a use of products and services that minimizes negative impacts on the environment and the communities. It deals for instance with water and energy consumption, transportation of goods and people, development of alternative fuel sources, use of environmentally-friendly products.
How do you think sustainability might be addressed in relation to the production and consumption of textiles and other manufactured products? Use the stages of the life cycle to help you with this question.
Sustainability issues – social, economic and environmental – vary from sector to sector, so they should be ascertained and studied on a case to case basis.
I am personally involved with textiles, jewellery and ceramic making so I shall try to pinpoint some sustainability implications at the different life cycle stages taking textiles as an example.
Stage 1 – Agriculture/raw fibre production:
- choice of sustainable materials like natural fibres (cotton, hemp …) over non-sustainable ones like synthetic fibres derived from petroleum like polyester, nylon
- within natural fibres preference given to more sustainable ones: for instance hemp, bamboo, soy have a lower environmental impact than cotton
- reduction of water consumption and/or waste
- reduction of use of pesticides by using for instance ladybugs as natural pest control in farming
- growth of naturally coloured cotton varieties in order to avoid as much as possible synthetic dying of fibres
- innovation through development of eco-friendly fibres such as: 100% biodegrable cellulose fibres for a cradle-to-cradle cycle of reuse, Qmilk fibres made from the industrial milk industry wastes (Qmilk GmbH), yarns from used ground coffee beans (S.Café® brand)
Stage 2-6 – Ginning/carding and spinning – Weaving/knitting – Processing – Manufacturing
- High electricity usage may generate increase of greenhouse gas emissions
- Choice of renewable energies over fossil fuels to generate power
- Reuse/recycle of waste materials obtained during manufacturing processes
- Reuse/recycle of water
- Reduction of use of chemicals, hazardous substances and pollutants in manufacturing processes
- Limitation of worker exposure to extreme heat, chemicals, dust and pollutants to avoid health issues on workplace
- Specialized training for workers operating machinery or handling chemicals to increase security levels
Stage 7 – Distribution/retail
- transportation issues involving generation of traffic, pollution and emissions
- issues regarding packaging: reduction of non-recyclable wastes
Stage 8 – Use/consumption and end of life
- use of biodegradable detergents and non-toxic cleaners
- use of recycled PET plastics to make textiles
- recycling of discarded clothing by donating to charities, selling to consignment shop or reusing to make new clothes.