João Peres Guimarães
ow will the Portuguese textile and clothing industry (TCI) look like one generation from now? What strategy must be drawn now in order to outlive the future’s challenges? In a globalized world, it will be the industry’s evolution – not only at a national or even European level – setting the pace for the commerce and production development.
Nowadays, speed is the reason of our survival, both in the delivery and in adapting to the trends. And fashion is not merely the aesthetics or the label on a product. It’s the use of “recycled” materials, the circular economy, the so-called “organic” products, the electronics integrated into the textiles, and so forth.
However, what has to happen will happen. And it will completely shift our industry’s paradigm. Sustainability will no longer be a selling image, but a basic necessity.
In just a single generation, the world population is expected to skyrocket 30% (from 7.3 to 9.5 billion humans). To our industry, this will not imply many more customers since this hike will take place in developing countries and our products don’t aim those markets. However, those people will need to eat, requiring more soil and greater water consumption, resources that will be scarce by then. That means saying goodbye to “organic” clothing (that spend, at least, three times more water than the so-called regular fabrics) and maybe even to natural fabrics (1 kilo of cotton requires, at least, five thousand litres of water). The media are already running propaganda on the unsustainability of the fashion sector, condemning its excessive water consumption and the waste associated with a high rotation of clothing items.
Currently, for example, fabrics made from recycled polyester from PET bottles are selling well. Even better if those bottles are collected at sea. Well, enjoy, because when somebody sits down and punches the numbers, soon will realize that, in recycling these materials, the energy consumption of its collection, washing, melting and production is far superior than that of making new thread.
And the circular economy, with all the consumption involved in collecting, sorting, separating and reprocessing, is going down the same path. Remember biofuels? They came to the rescue, but now the whole world is avoiding the subject since its disadvantages have already outweighed the benefits.
The problem is becoming serious and the future will force us to rethink these measures that, however well-intentioned, are not efficient.
For the textile industry, this means replacing natural fibres with synthetic and artificial ones, so similar to the natural fibres that will become, eventually, the pillar of high-range textiles, our target market in fashion and home textiles.
The Portuguese territory isn’t well suited for agriculture, but provides good conditions for forestry, in specific pine trees and eucalyptuses, precisely the kind of tree whose pulp is the basis of the production of viscose and other derivative fibres.
This industry, once extremely polluting, today presents almost no ecological footprint: spends far less water than cotton crops and enables the use of soil otherwise unfit for agriculture.
Portugal is lacking, in the sense that it doesn’t produce raw material for one of its main areas of activity. The time has come to reverse this situation and to be able to face the future’s challenges more peacefully.
I know that the investment needed is tremendous, and partnerships with other industries (paper, for example) and with the government (owner of most of the forest) will be hard. However, I believe this is an important step to keep the Portuguese TCI sustainable and prosperous.