2021 Ethical Manufacturing Trends to be Familiar With

Everybody has a duty to acquaint themselves with current ethical manufacturing trends, regardless of whether it’s as an invested professional or simply an aware consumer. 

The key to making sustainability conversations more everyday is to start the dialogue and propel it with open and clear education, which is why we are breaking them down now. There’s no need for science, or complex manufacturing jargon to be a stumbling block to opening your mind and awareness to better modes of production. 

It’s only as a whole that we will be able to make real change, so let’s find out what we can expect from the brands we respect in 2021.

No more single-use plastic

Plastic that can’t be recycled and takes hundreds of years to break down is a major problem, despite the issue having been in the spotlight since the 1960s, when debris was observed as littering the oceans. It’s taken a long time, but slowly, more and more industries have begun turning their backs on traditionally cost-effective single-use plastics, in favour of environmentally-friendly alternatives.

A totem for the anti-plastic movement, the humble drinking straw is still often cited as being the perfect example of how cheap and disposable can be switched out for reusable, while adding value of a different nature. Today, we have recycled paper, bamboo, stainless steel, glass and biodegradable straws and as more industries and companies make the switch, the manufacturing process becomes more cost-effective, less specialist and eventually, hopefully, the norm. Mainstream begets affordable, which will in turn convince more consumers to swap over too, which creates the snowball of change.

Sustainable material substitutions

Aside from single-use plastic, there are many materials that leave an indelible mark on the environment. Complacency has allowed them to become the go-to options, but with innovative substitutions being developed all the time, there is no longer any excuse for simply plumping for what has always been the status quo. Let’s take leather and polyester as two prime examples. 

Animal leather is notoriously unsustainable, especially when livestock has been reared specifically for the purpose. Though leather as a by-product of the meat industry hardly comes without an eco cost either, as it has to jointly bear the responsibility of the consequences of meat production. From deforestation, land and water use and greenhouse emissions to toxic chemical processes, leather has a lot to answer for, which is why alternatives are being developed. Using all manner of organic materials including, but not limited to, apple waste, cacti and even mushrooms, the sustainable leather industry is growing and infiltrating every strata of the commercial sector, from high street brands to luxe fashion houses.

Regular polyester is an environmental disaster. Commonly used across a huge number of industries, including clothing and food packaging, it is mostly non-biodegradable and can take anywhere up to 200 years to fully break down. Oil-based and requiring a vast amount of water and energy to produce, polyester became popular because it offered mass manufacture for low fiscal investment but the environmental cost is staggeringly high, especially when you learn that polyester releases microplastics into water supplies with every clothing wash. Recycled polyester is stepping up and offering to replace traditional varieties, while also tackling plastic waste, though it still raises questions. Created from plastic bottles that would have once languished in landfill, the fabric reduces the need for virgin fibres, thus lowering oil, water and energy demand and best of all, it can be reused and recycled as many times as possible. This presents a seriously saleable alternative to fast fashion and inspires consumer mindset change too, which begins to move us towards the ultimate goal of a circular fashion economy.

Conscious supply chain set-ups

At some point, companies striving to do better realised that their best efforts were being undone by the simple fact that they did business with companies that weren’t following suit. Sustainability is an all-encompassing undertaking and simply adding in some environmentally aware policies at the end of the manufacturing process rings a bit like corporate greenwashing. Keen to avoid this derogatory label, truly conscious operations are now seeking to inspire change at every level, with all supply chain networks being asked to demonstrate a commitment to sustainable practices. 

In some cases, this pressure for compliance is enough to warrant dramatic shake ups, with new partnerships being formed when immovable long standing ones are deemed outmoded or short sighted. This presents conscious entrepreneurs with an opportunity to swoop into markets that they may have previously seen as out of reach, such as luxury automotive manufacture or designer fashion. If a factory cannot demonstrate eco credentials, these big brands that have a responsibility to be seen as doing as much as possible, will look elsewhere for the sustainable fabrics and green initiatives that they want to align with.

Valuing all lives

You’d be forgiven for assuming that this last point was a given already, but sadly not. With sustainable and inclusive alternatives to animal-based materials being explored, non-human value is already being given more focus, but what about people? Automated processes still require the human touch when they go wrong and the fashion industry has an abysmal track record when it comes to worker rights, which is why human value is being dramatically reassessed. 

That £4 t-shirt doesn’t seem like such a bargain to consumers when they are presented with a clear breakdown of how much it really costs to make, including worker wages. Then we get to factory conditions. In 2020, the UK news was awash with stories of sweatshops paying workers far below minimum wage, in the north of England, to fulfil contracts for popular online fast fashion brands. Shockingly, the companies in question barely registered any drop in sales or profits following the revelations, but perhaps that’s because the information wasn’t presented in a transparent enough or relateable way. Or maybe there is still a lot to be done to overturn consumer disassociation. Campaigns such as Who Made My Clothes seek to shine a light on the marginalised individuals being exploited by unethical manufacturing methods.

Businesses can no longer risk making small steps toward doing better, especially when ethical production is more than just a trend. It is now an expectation.