Sustainable Workwear for Frontline Heroes: A Step Toward Green Healthcare

Jeshua Cardenas
Sustainable Workwear, Workwear healthcare

Consumer demand for sustainable, ethically manufactured products is growing worldwide and across most industries. Insights from leading consultancy firms like McKinsey & Co. show that forward-looking businesses no longer rely on growth and profits alone in setting their business objectives. Instead, these leaders have added sustainability as a priority. 

Research into the financial sector highlighted that consumers are specifically looking for sustainable financial products, creating a demand that remains largely unmet. But what about the clothing industry? Fast fashion has recently made negative headlines for its tendency to end up in landfill after being worn only a few times. Professional workwear is another part of the clothing industry that is contributing substantial amounts of barely-used clothing to landfills around the globe. 

Medical professionals, for example, are used to changing traditional scrubs daily. In many cases, the scrubs are supplied by their employer, and nurses, doctors, and other medical personnel may not even realize that they are thrown out at the end of the shift. 

Single-use scrubs may be convenient, but they are not a great use of resources. Recently, sustainable options are starting to take over and offer viable alternatives. Here is a closer look at what that means for the profession and our environment. 

Economic and Environmental Impacts of Sustainable Workwear in Healthcare Settings

Mention the apparel industry in the United States and medical scrubs may not be the first item of clothing that comes to mind. However, the industry is sizable. In 2021, market research showed that the medical scrubs sector was worth over $180 million. 

That figure pales in comparison with the $1.53 trillion value of the overall global market. However, both are expected to grow over the coming years, with the surgical scrubs market likely to expand by more than 5% between now and 2029. While it is not easy to break these figures down into individual scrub suits sold, it is safe to say that the amount potentially destined for landfill after just one use is significant. 

The costs of replacing single-use scrubs after every shift are equally significant. At a time when healthcare providers are constantly looking for more cost-effective solutions, many are actively searching for alternatives. 

The Environmental Impact of Traditional Workwear in Healthcare

The volume of scrubs potentially destined for landfill is huge. But the environmental impact doesn’t end there. Having to produce large amounts of new scrubs requires equally large amounts of raw materials that could otherwise be used elsewhere. 

The production itself has an impact on the environment and adds to the carbon footprint of traditional scrubs. If that all sounds a little depressing, take a look at the alternative: sustainable scrubs are making their mark on the medical profession. These scrubs offer medical professionals and healthcare providers the choice to clean, disinfect, and reuse their scrubs multiple times. They are made from eco-friendly, renewable, and sometimes recycled materials that will biodegrade over time. By choosing sustainable over single-use scrubs, healthcare professionals and their employers save money while also supporting the environment. 

How Sustainable Fabrics Choices Are Revolutionizing Frontline Attire for Healthcare Professionals

Some of the most commonly used materials in eco-friendly scrubs include cotton, bamboo, Tencel, and recycled polyester. While cotton is perhaps the most widely used of those materials, it does not come without its issues. Cotton production requires thousands of liters of water to make just one t-shirt. Plus, traditional cotton is also sprayed with pesticides. Opting for organic cotton takes the pesticides out of the equation, but bamboo is often a better alternative. 

Bamboo grows faster than cotton, and clothes made from it are more durable and hard-wearing. However, this material has disadvantages, too. Transforming raw bamboo into a material that can be spun into scrubs and other clothes requires several toxic chemicals. If those enter the environment, they can damage local wildlife. 

Innovative Technologies in Sustainable Workwear Manufacturing

So, how can sustainable scrubs become truly sustainable? Recent developments in clothing technology hold some of the answers.

Semi-synthetic fibers like Tencel, also known as Lyocell, make a great base for hard-wearing scrubs. Tencel is effectively a form of regenerated wood pulp that does not require toxic chemicals when it is produced and still delivers comfortable, sustainable, and long-lasting clothing for frontline workers. 

Recycled polyester is another option for sustainable scrubs. Imagine a plastic bottle crushed into tiny plastic chips and then spun into a fiber that eventually becomes a set of scrubs. Granted, plastic bottles are not renewable. However, producing clothing from recycled polyester keeps single-use plastic out of landfill and reduces the number of single-use scrubs that are sent to landfill every day. 

The Future of Sustainable Workwear: Embracing Change in Healthcare

Research has shown that reusable scrub suits can reduce the environmental impact of textiles used in the medical sector by over 60%. This is the result of a life cycle assessment (LCA) in France that compared the use of disposable scrubs with their reusable alternative over the course of four years. 

The scientists noted that the use of water in cotton production is the main drawback of reusable scrubs. Alternatives like bamboo or innovative materials like Tencel and recycled polyester are starting to gain more ground in the medical sector. These materials combine the lower environmental impact of reusable materials with the benefit of needing less water to create garments. 

Transitioning to Greener Scrubs

How can hospitals and healthcare providers transition to greener alternatives for scrubs? One of the simplest ways is teaming up with a reputable supplier of sustainable workwear. Sustainability reaches further than the environment. Suppliers offering sustainable, ethically sourced scrubs also pay attention to the working conditions and overall treatment of the workers at their supplying companies. By choosing sustainable workwear for medical professionals, healthcare providers lower their organization’s environmental impact, decrease their own operational costs, and support ethical manufacturing. In short, switching to sustainable workwear now produces a win-win situation for everyone involved. 

Steven John Cumper, B.App.Sc. (Osteo.), M.Ost., is a businessman with a strong background in biomedical science and osteopathic medicine. He founded Medshop & ScrubsIQ while studying at RMIT University in Australia, expanding its reach to markets in Papua New Guinea, Singapore, and Malaysia. In September 2021, the Bunzl Group acquired a majority stake in Medshop, but Cumper remains involved as the Managing Director (Medshop Group). His journey from Zimbabwe to the UK and Australia reflects his dedication to academia and entrepreneurship, combining diverse knowledge and experience.

Jeshua Cardenas

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