The global textile sector has a hefty environmental and humanitarian footprint. “Take our industry’s collective waste output: of the 100 billion items the world produces every year, 73% ends up in landfills!”

So says Vanessa Govender, product development head at Sweet-Orr. “What really worries me is that the average garment is worn only seven times before it is thrown away or incinerated. The water, carbon, and overall environmental footprint of this is incomprehensible!”

Last year alone, extreme weather events cost the global insurance industry US$76 billion (more than R1 077 billion), reports insurance firm Swiss Re – 40% more than in 2019 (more than R746 billion).

“Sustainable operations pay off in other ways too: a report by S&P 500 Companies suggests that corporations with proper social and environmental sustainability strategies in place enjoy 18% higher returns on investment than those that don’t,” notes Govender.

But sustainability is about more than just the bottom line. “There are the millions of textile workers worldwide who are structurally underpaid and face various health and safety issues at work, from exposure to toxins and dye to inadequate working conditions and exploitation,” she says.

“This is why we at Sweet-Orr are on a mission to move from being a responsible venture to a sustainable one, which goes beyond obvious interventions such as recycling, water-saving and energy efficiency drives. These measures are important but not enough to make a tangible and lasting difference. To claim the title ‘responsible and sustainable company’, we feel sustainability must resonate in everything we do.

“This starts with the non-negotiable that our employees work in safety and earn a decent wage. We don’t use child labour in any shape or form, and our business is audited every year to hold us accountable.”

The company is also exploring the use of raw materials that have a lower environmental footprint, including fabrics made from ocean waste. “The thing is that by 2050, we will have more plastic than fish in the sea. This waste, however, can be turned into wealth: 3 000 Thai fishermen are already fishing plastic from the oceans, which is turned into quality fabric,” she says.

“Besides using other people’s waste, we are working hard to reduce our internal waste output, for instance, by using machinery and equipment that increases our garment per square metre ratio, minimising cut-offs.

“Mapping our carbon footprint is also on the cards. Besides giving us an insight into our environmental performance, such evaluation serves as a benchmark to measure any future sustainability progress, making it easier to set and meet targets.”


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