By Ivanhoe K.H. Leung, Cameron C. Weber & L. James Wright

What is the cost of Kiwis’ love for fashion? According to Stats NZ Tatauranga Aotearoa, in 2019 alone, New Zealanders spent over $3.9 billion on clothing, footwear and accessories. To satisfy our desire to follow the latest trends in fashion at an affordable price, Kiwi fashion retailers import a significant amount of goods manufactured in developing nations. The top three countries that supply our demand for fashion are China, India and Bangladesh, and we import over $2 billion worth of textiles and clothing annually from just these three countries. However, for many developing nations, the textile and clothing manufacturing industry comes with a heavy price including environmental pollution and the well-publicised issues around the income and working conditions for workers, even though it often provides the heartbeat of their economies.

There are many problems associated with the fast fashion industry. But there are also many things that Kiwis can do as consumers to help improve the sustainability of this industry. For example, according to the UN International Labour Organization, raising awareness about the fast fashion industry has led to improvements in the working conditions and wages for workers in the textile and clothing industry in developing nations in recent years. Apart from the well documented problems about working conditions and low wages, what are the other hidden costs of the fast fashion industry? And what can we do to help improve the long-term sustainability of this industry?

One of the less well-documented problems associated with the fast fashion industry is water pollution. Millions of tonnes of wastewater, most of it untreated, is expelled from textile factories. The wastewater is often heavily contaminated with chemicals such as textile dyes. Annually, 700,000 tonnes of synthetic textile dyes are produced worldwide, and it is estimated that up to 200,000 tonnes of these dyes are lost as waste. These cause significant environmental and public health problems in developing nations. For example, last year, Bangladesh announced that three of its rivers in the capital Dhaka are now biologically dead due to textile dye pollution. Textile dye pollution lowers the oxygen concentration in rivers and disrupts the delicate equilibrium that sustains healthy ecosystems in rivers. In many developing nations, rivers are also an important source of fresh water for drinking, for laundry and for bathing. Textile dyes, as well as the chemicals that they break down into, are often harmful and some are carcinogenic, and can persist in the environment for a long time. Hence, the real effect of textile dye pollution may not be seen until years after the pollution has occurred, and the impact could last for generations.

Here at the Centre for Green Chemical Science, our mission is to provide the foundations for a more sustainable future by promoting and facilitating interdisciplinary research, education and public engagement. Since the inception of the Centre, one of our goals has been to try to tackle the textile dye pollution problem through education and interdisciplinary research. In research, we focus on the development of efficient solutions to degrade textile dyes into harmless materials, with an aim that these methods could potentially be applied in contaminated land and river remediation, as well as in textile wastewater treatment. We also recognise the importance of education to provide the next generation with the tools to assess and understand the impact of processes such as those in the fast fashion industry, and to allow them to make more informed choices.

One of the solutions we have been exploring is the utilisation of laccases, a class of versatile enzymes that are commonly found in plants, fungi and bacteria. Laccases can degrade textile dyes into relatively harmless solids that can be easily filtered from wastewater. A further advantage of using laccases is that they can be produced in large quantity by fermentation at relatively low cost and they are ultimately biodegradable themselves. We are particularly interested in the characterisation and optimisation of laccases that are found in thermophilic bacteria (such as those that live in hot springs) as they can work under extreme pH and temperature conditions that are similar to those found in industrial wastewater. Although the reusability of laccases and the tuning of them selectively against all the different types of textile dyes that we use in industry remain challenges to be tackled through research, we believe laccases have the potential to be used in the near future for bioremediation.

In another, related approach we are looking at using specially designed, simple iron compounds that act as artificial enzymes. These will enable textile dyes in wastewater to be degraded to harmless, colourless compounds on addition of small amounts of hydrogen peroxide. This work is being carried out in collaboration with scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in the USA.

Sustainability issues are complex and simply inventing a technological solution will usually not solve a problem by itself. There also needs to be drivers for change coming from consumers, industry, the government or others. To encourage our students to think about sustainability issues from a more holistic perspective, in conjunction with the School of Psychology, we developed a project involving second year undergraduate Green Chemistry students and first year Psychology students featuring fast fashion as a sustainability case study. The chemistry students give a presentation as ‘technical experts’ on technological solutions to issues associated with fast fashion such as less harmful insecticides, new dyeing processes and alternative fibres. The psychology students discuss issues relating to the psychology behind fast fashion and reasons behind the lack of consumer concern including concepts such as psychological distance, where the impact of the environmental damage is removed from the act of purchasing clothes. By encouraging students to think about these issues from multiple perspectives, we hope to inspire the next generation to not only develop technical solutions sorely needed to address environmental pollution from the textile industry but to do so with an awareness of factors that will make these solutions successful.

So what can you do as a consumer? When buying clothes, look for accreditation by independent authorities such as OEKO-TEX® and bluesign® which signify that the products have met sustainability standards. Most importantly, reuse and repair clothes where possible and for as long as possible and only buy what you need and will actually use. This will avoid the generation of unnecessary waste. Ask retailers about the sustainability of the products they stock and use that to help decide what to buy and where to buy from. Collective action is required for significant change so the more that the environmental impact of clothing production is factored into consumer decisions, the more incentive companies have to create change for the better.

There is no one single silver bullet to solve the problems that are associated with textile manufacturing, the clothing industry and fast fashion. As researchers and scientists, we want to utilise our knowledge and expertise to find solutions to lower the environmental impact and to make the industry more sustainable. As educators, we want to raise awareness and start the conversation about our habits and the impact that they have. In a world that is highly interconnected and with limited resources, our actions will inevitably affect each other, and future generations. Here in New Zealand, we are privileged to be in a position to influence change. It is therefore important that, through science and education, we work together to solve difficult problems and help create the foundation for a more sustainable future.

Ivanhoe K. H. Leung and Cameron C. Weber are Senior Lecturers in the School of Chemical Sciences and co-Deputy Directors of the Centre for Green Chemical Science, and James Wright is a Professor in the School of Chemical Sciences and the Director of the Centre for Green Chemical Science at the University of Auckland.