Denim Dollars: Sustainability, responsibility and the knock-on effects of changes in fashion manufacturing

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With the news that the UK will be making the transition from paper to plastic banknotes, it seems timely to reflect on the materials that have been used previously. So called ‘paper’ money is actually manufactured from cotton. In the USA, this cotton has been derived largely from recycled jeans.

Denim off-cuts and discarded jeans are among the U.S. Mint’s primary sources of material for manufacturing dollar bills. Increasingly, however, this sustainable practice has become more difficult to maintain. Since the introduction of lycra (spandex), the purity of denim fabric has been compromised. Stretch-jeans and jeggins contain such a high proportion of lycra that they cannot be recycled for use in paper money. The U.S. mint is now facing something of a crisis. It is no longer able to maintain its sustainable manufacturing processes, and is having to source its cotton directly from cotton plantations.

Much has been written about the incompatibility of fashion and sustainability[1]. Fashion is driven by conspicuous waste – the constant demand for newness – and consequently the fashion industry is responsible for more material waste than almost any other design industry. 1 million tonnes of textiles are added to landfill every year.

Though it is essential to pursue sustainable practices, there are industries that rely on this waste. The U.S. Mint is just one of many businesses that engages in textile recycling, in the form of fibre reclamation. If we were to stop engaging in conspicuous consumption, those industries would be deprived. A ‘make-do-and-mend’ culture would solve the problem of waste, but would also harm businesses that rely on discarded clothing.

Of course, this is only true if conspicuous consumption happens in conjunction with proper disposal (recycling) of last season’s clothes. So long as we continue to offer our waste for recycling, we can continue to support these other industries.

But regardless of consumer’s willingness to recycle, our waste is only useful if it is manufactured as recyclable in the first place. Jeggins, with their high lycra-content, cannot be reused by the many industries that need pure cotton. The U.S. Mint’s current crisis demonstrates that the problematic incompatibility of the fashion cycle and sustainable values is not as simple as it may initially seem. The problem extends beyond our desire to be ‘en vogue’. Indeed, in the right circumstances, conspicuous waste can be a good thing: a practice that sustains other industries.

The problem of textile waste arises not from conspicuous consumption, but from fashions that use non-recyclable materials. Once the networks are in place to enable easy recycling, there should be nothing to prevent consumers from ethical disposal of unwanted clothes. Responsibility therefore lies not with the consumer, but with the manufacturer, who must produce garments from fibres that have potential for reuse.

Throughout this discussion it is vital not to consider the fashion industry in isolation. Textiles have wide-ranging use, in money and numerous other design industries. Wherever recycling takes place, materials are transferred between those industries. It is therefore likely that whenever anything changes in clothing manufacture, it will have knock-on effects elsewhere. If clothing manufacturers want to pursue ecologically sound practices, without compromising the flow of ‘fast fashion’, they must be aware of how their waste is employed in other industries.

References:
[1] See, for example, Fletcher, Kate, Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change, London: Laurence King, 2011.

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