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Sustainability in the Decorated Apparel World: It’s Complicated

The differences between sustainability and greenwashing are key to fighting climate change

By Steve Kahane, Contributing Writer

Waste produced from discarded clothing has reached gargantuan heights. Image courtesy of International Coatings

October 24, 2023

Keeping us clothed is a $1.5 trillion industry that consumes a lot of resources and casts a large environmental footprint. According to the World Bank, the fashion industry uses over 24 trillion gallons (90 billion cubic meters) of water. That’s enough to meet the needs of five hundred million people.  An estimated 20 percent of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric treatments alone. The fashion industry contributes 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international air travel and maritime shipping combined. At its current rate, the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions are expected to increase by more than 50 percent in the next 10 years.

While the impacts of apparel production alone are significant, waste produced from discarded clothing is now, in some areas, overwhelming. According to National Geographic, the average person today buys 60 percent more clothing than they did 20 years ago and wears those clothes for only half as long. This trajectory has been fueled by two trends: “fast fashion” and synthetic fabrics. Fast fashion is a phenomenon where stylish, inexpensive clothes, often made with synthetic fabrics, are mass produced and discarded as fashion styles change. reports that the use of synthetic fibers has doubled since 2000. Two thirds of clothing today is made from petroleum-derived synthetic fabrics. These fabrics make up most athletic garments and much of our everyday apparel.

Closet of clothes

The average person today buys 60 percent more clothing than they did 20 years ago. Image courtesy of International Coatings

Less than one percent of used clothing today is recycled or reused. The United Nations terms the large volumes of apparel waste being generated as “an environmental and social emergency” for the planet. The numbers are staggering. Three-fifths of all clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators within a year of production. This translates to a truckload of discarded clothing being dumped or burned every second.

Most used clothing finds its way to countries in Africa, South America or southern Asia—countries that are now overwhelmed by the amounts of clothing they have collected. In Ghana, the pile of discarded clothing on the outskirts of the capital has risen to 65 feet. The Atacama Desert in Chile, once NASA’s testing site for the Mars Rovers, is now better known as the world’s fastest-growing dump for discarded clothing.

Recent headlines have highlighted growing concerns with the apparel industry’s ‘one-and-done’ mindset, and accusations that some companies are “greenwashing” their products and practices. How, though, can we accurately gauge sustainability in the apparel world?  When does sustainability messaging cross the line to greenwashing? For those truly committed to helping preserve the planet, the key is to be informed. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.

As a start, what exactly is the difference between environmental sustainability and greenwashing?

Sustainability is the concept of producing and consuming clothing in a way that minimizes negative impacts on the environment, society, and economy, both now and for future generations. Sustainability involves adopting practices that consider the entire lifecycle of garments, from the sourcing of raw materials to their disposal. It is about fostering a more mindful and responsible approach to clothing production, decoration, use and disposal.

Greenwashing refers to deceptive marketing practices where misleading, false or unsubstantiated claims about products or practices are made to give the impression that they are ‘greener’ or more environment-friendly than they actually are.

With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the factors involved when it comes to sustainability and the apparel industry with an eye toward making informed choices.

Looking for ‘Greener’ Choices

The good news is that many major brands and retailers have taken notice and are considering more sustainable and environment-friendly practices. However, not all these practices may be as ‘green’ as they appear. Here are some facts to consider.

Spinning loom

Some polyester garments are being spun from recycled plastic bottles. Image courtesy of International Coatings

Much of the attention, for example, has been on materials, not processes. Great Britain’s Guardian newspaper reports that textile mills are now responsible for an estimated three-quarters of a garment’s lifecycle emissions.  Any efficiencies gained from processing fibers into yarns and then into textiles could have a significant impact on a garment’s lifecycle environmental footprint.

As for the fabrics themselves they may or may not be as environment-friendly as you think. It might seem that organic cotton would be a greener choice over synthetics. Would your perception change if you knew that it takes hundreds of gallons of water to grow, dye and treat one cotton shirt, and that many polyester shirts are now being spun from recycled plastic bottles? What if you then consider that synthetic fabrics made from recycled plastic may speed that plastic’s path to a landfill? According to The Guardian, PET bottles can be recycled over 10 times. The same cannot be said for recycled plastic that is used just once to make a fast-fashion synthetic garment that is likely worn a few times before being discarded.

Many brands and retailers have environmental initiatives directed to the materials used to decorate apparel. Materials must conform to regulatory requirements and to brand-specified “green” choices. How much greener are these choices?  Let’s focus in on a smaller but important part of the industry—apparel decoration and screen-printing inks.

Textile Screen Print Inks

Today’s apparel decoration market is dominated by three types of inks: water based, plastisol and acrysol. A common misconception is that water-based inks are the most environment-friendly (and benign) choice since they are largely water and contain natural ingredients. Not the case, as water-based inks, like plastisols

and acrysols, are plastic based. They traditionally consist of 20- to 70-percent solids that include binders (usually an acrylic or urethane), pigments, fillers and additives. Water-based inks rely on solvents that evaporate off leaving the pigmented binder compounds (the solids) on the garments. These solvents include water, alcohols, glycols and acetates, as well as retarders and mold inhibitors.

Plastisols and acrysols are considered 100 percent solids, which means they provide virtually a 100 percent yield. They contain plasticizers that cross-link with the plastic resins and become part of the ink film. Plastisols and acrysols don’t evaporate, and they don’t cure until they are heated; therefore, they don’t dry on the screen and are easy to use.

So which ink is the most environment-friendly? Hard to say without also considering the printing, handling and disposal processes involved with each of the inks.

Printing with water-based inks requires more energy than with 100 percent solids inks. The extra energy is needed to drive the evaporation of solvent liquids and to vent the moisture and fumes during curing. Energy is also needed to power extra flashes (usually after each color) and drive larger print machines (to accommodate the extra flash stations). Water-based printing usually requires higher dryer temperatures and longer dwell times to assure complete curing.

Recycle T-Shirt

Sustainability involves adopting practices that consider the entire lifecycle of garments. Image courtesy of International Coatings

Water-based printing consumes water, not just for the inks, but for production (for example: mist sprays for humidity control) and daily cleanup of the screens.

The misperception that water-based inks are harmless because they’re largely water and contain natural ingredients leads to practices that may harm printers and the environment. Solvents and chemicals released during curing can contribute to indoor and outdoor air pollution and may be harmful unless precautions are taken to avoid inhalation of fumes. Printers may also mistakenly assume that water-based printing wastes can be poured down the drain or into the environment.

Printing with plastisols and acrysols generally consumes less power than water-based printing. Plastisols and acrysols also don’t require the extra energy needed to evaporate off liquids. What’s printed on the garment remains on the garment. These inks contain little if any volatile materials, so there is little if any fumes escaping during the cure process. Plastisol and some acrysols can be printed wet-on-wet, so they don’t need to be flashed after each color. Fewer print stations are needed, and less energy is required to power the print process. Many plastisol inks can now be cured at temperatures as low as 275°F (135°C) which further reduces energy consumption.

Plastisol and acrysol printing tends to generate less waste than water-based printing. Plastisol and acrysol inks don’t cure unless they’re exposed to heat and there is little if any liquid that evaporates off the inks. Consequently, there is no need to clean screens daily. The inks can be left on the screen or put back in the bucket at the end of a print run.

So which ink is greener? We’re not suggesting that any one of the three types of ink is better or greener than the others. In the end, it’s how you manage your shop—materials, energy, workflow, reuse/recycle and waste—that will largely determine how “green” your operation is. And finally, the attention paid to textile inks often masks the fact that the inks typically represent less than five percent of a finished garment by weight, with the balance often being non-degradable synthetic fabric.

Moving Forward and Emerging Good News

Many apparel manufacturers, brands and retailers have begun to explore ways to reduce the environmental footprint created largely by throw-away “fast fashion.” H&M, one of the companies at the forefront of fast fashion, recently launched an in-store recycling program in Hong Kong, where machines create new garments from old ones.  Avery Dennison is collaborating with Texaid to explore using digital identification technologies to improve the sorting and recycling of textiles.

Organic cotton

Using organic cotton can make quite an impact with sustainable apparel. Image courtesy of International Coatings

Alternative Apparel offers clothing it claims is more sustainable using organic cotton and “eco-fabrics” (recycled plastics), and a shift to gentler dyes and water-conserving processes. It also relies on organic packaging, which according to the company, saves 2,100 trees, 860,000 gallons of water, 120 tons of CO2 and 400 cubic yards of landfill every year.

Can sustainable practices completely address the economic demands of the apparel industry? Perhaps not yet, but progress is being made, albeit slowly. Fashion-shaming is helping create new market spaces and companies misrepresenting their products’ eco-friendliness are increasingly being called out for greenwashing. Demand for digital stores offering “gently-used” clothing appears to be increasing, and “upcycling” is becoming a new industry buzzword. Poshmark and thredUP, digital consignment and thrift stores, are fighting fashion waste by reselling and extending the life of everyday clothes. The RealReal, another digital commerce site, resells authenticated luxury clothing and other goods.

Ideally, the apparel industry (and all industries) should strive for circular product lives. Garments should be manufactured in a resource-efficient manner and designed to have an extended life; and then have an after-life through reuse and recycling.

The road ahead is long and challenging, but our industry is beginning to take the steps necessary to build a more sustainable future. Recognizing the scale of the challenge is the necessary first step; and fortunately, one that is now receiving attention.

Steve Kahane is International Coatings’ President and CEO.  Prior to joining International Coatings, he held senior executive positions in the environmental and engineering fields, and served on the faculty of the UCLA School of Public Health where he taught a core course on environmental health.