The Cost of Natural Resources in Sustainable Fashion


In order to understand the cost of fashion, we should try to imagine the economic cost of fashion in terms of the natural impact of industrial production. This sobering perspective allows us to consider why we need to develop a different understanding of the cost of fashion and realize that the cost of fashion relies so heavily on the natural resources which are extracted from the environment.

An environmentally-sensitive approach to fashion should inspire us to go at the heart of the problem by seeking to optimize the way natural resources are extracted. Despite being ‘Made In Italy’ the materials that make up our clothes come from very far parts of the world, for instance, leather comes Europe, silk from China, Cashmere from Mongolia and Wool from New Zeland. In this sense, we should look with an inquiring eye to the Made In label as its purpose has usually little to do with the actual provenience of the garment.

The attention to the material extraction phase is heightened by the fact that the raw material production and the raw material processing of the supply chain are accountable for as much as 75% of the total environmental cost of a garment.

As a result, 90 million tons of waste materials are produced every year. We don’t have to forget, however, that waste material is still material, and as such, by developing circular economies, recyclable materials could escape the landfills and allow for extended product life.

For more information on this topic, we advise you to look into the following articles:

In this post, we are going to see how 4 essential fashion elements, that are at the basis of the luxury industry impact the environment: cotton, gold, leather, and cashmere. In this post we are going to address how the lifecycle of these elements determines the nature-paid cost of fashion:

  1. The environmental cost of cotton.
  2. The environmental cost of gold.
  3. The environmental cost of cashmere.
  4. The environmental cost of leather.
  5. Conclusions.

1. The Environmental Cost of Cotton

Cotton is one of the most commonly used materials in fashion. As a material, however, is not to be considered particularly sustainable, as the processes of using cotton, from its cultivation to its dying, tanning and manufacturing are very taxing on nature.

The reason for this because cotton is a typology of plant that requires a low of water, and also, to make sure it does not get parasites, it requires intensive use of pesticides. This is for what cotton requires in terms of natural resources. In terms of human resources, cotton provides much debate for the use of child workers.

The issue with this, however, is that unfortunately in terms of the use of this material, the communities that are affected by cotton cultivation are very large, as most cotton farmers are smaller family-owned establishments. In order to support these communities, brands are trying to develop an approach to cotton cultivation that relies on fair-trade certified partners, capable of providing more transparency in terms of the provenience of the raw material, as much as in terms of fair wages and treatment of the workers in the fields.

2. The Environmental Cost of Gold

If on the one hand, cotton is very common and produced in large quantities, gold is a very scarce resource. In its natural state, all of the gold extracted from the earth could potentially only fill 3 Olympic-size pools. The extraction of gold is very demanding in nature, for a variety of reasons, first and foremost the extraction of the precious metal requires the use of mercury and cyanide which are toxic compounds, hazardous to both humans and nature. Just like with cotton, it’s hard to pursue completely transformative change. The communities, which are part of the gold production line, are so large that change can only happen without major disruption, through additive, incremental change. Just like with cotton cultivation, now brands are trying to make their production lines more transparent, by pursuing partnerships with fair-mining-certified companies.

3. The Environmental Cost of Cashmere

Cashmere is a particular typology of wool, which has been developed by goats in Mongolia and central Asia. In this case, it could be argued that in fact, the practices of hoarding cashmere goats are hundreds of years old and this has always happened in very natural ways. At the same time, however, this raw material has become almost a commodity and as a result, it has induced in overgrazing practices in order to meet the rising demands of customers.

4.The Environmental Cost of Leather

Leather, as much as cashmere has been used for millennia. Leather refers to the skin of farm animals, such as cows, sheep, and goats. In terms of its environmental impact, the cost of leather needs to be accounted for within the cost of the food and meat industry.  Aside from the environmental cost of the food industry, the process of leather tanning is highly polluting, and this is the segment where most of the current research is focused upon, so as to reduce the use of chemicals, energy, and water in the processes. Again, as customers, we should always consider the provenience of leather in order to support change in fashion sustainability.

5. Conclusions

As we’ve seen, each of the materials, which are considered essential parts of luxury clothing, require fashion brands to be fully aware of the natural cost of their products. Given the natural impact of raw material extraction, fashion firms in any segment of the market should start developing more circular approaches to their production economies in order to avoid the landfill and make the best use possible of the materials obtained from nature. As customers, what we can do is use our shopping votes to make sure that companies which are pushing for higher-quality fair-trade and environmentally-conscious practices get rewarded winning us as customers.

If you’re looking for an opportunity to deepen your understanding and knowledge of the practices of sustainable fashion, don’t hesitate to take a look at our course “The Sustainable Fashion Industry“. Our short and to-the-point, online class covers a wide range of topics spanning from sustainable business models to strategies to lower your carbon footprint. Here’s a link to the course, if you use the discount code BLOG20 at checkout you can access a 20% discount. Enjoy!

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