May 22, 2018

13 Reasons why the fashion industry is destroying our planet

I think you’ll agree with me when I say...

We are all looking for ways help save our planet.

It always seems like everything we consume comes at a cost, if not to the planet then to our wallet.

And the fashion industry is no exception... Research shows that the fashion industry is one of the most polluting on our planet.  

But it doesn’t have to be that way...

It turns out you can dramatically reduce your carbon footprint and help improve the lives of manufacturers simply by buying from ethical and sustainable fashion brands...

In this post, I am going to give you 13 reasons why ditching fast fashion and switching to ethical and sustainable brands will actually make a difference and help improve the planet which we all share.

After all, who doesn’t want to do their bit?

Fast Fashion Clothing Pile

Why is this important for you now?

Things clearly need to change...

Clothing consumption is predicted to increase by 60% by 2030.

Sure, you may be thinking...

I love fashion, this is amazing news! More clothes, more styles!!!

But unfortunately most manufacturers are not doing their bit.

Our hunger for newness convinces them to cut corners just to further fill our swollen wardrobes.

This has led to what is known as fast fashion.

But what is fast fashion and how does it affect our planet?

Fast fashion lifecycle results in massive pollution

13 ways that changing your spending habits will help our planet

1. Greenhouse gases

Let’s start with an easy one.

Did you know that the textile industry is an incredibly dirty business?  

In fact, the clothing industry is the second largest polluter, second only to oil.

It is an incredibly inefficient process which requires huge volumes of power and resources.

One material which presents a particular problem is polyester.

Polyester is relatively cheap and is now used in 60% of garments. A full 28.2 million tonnes of it was used in 2016, an increase of 157% from 2000.

To make this polymer requires a heavy reliance on fossil fuels, resulting in the production of nearly 3 times as much emissions as cotton.

Nylon is another harmful material, producing nitrous oxide as a bi-product which is 300 times more warming than CO2.

If left to continue on its current path, by 2050 the clothing industry could contribute more than 26% of the carbon budget associated with a 2C rise in global temperatures.

Polyester Production is Carbon Intensive2. Water Intensity

Cotton has a clean image amongst many of us, but it is an incredibly thirsty plant and drinks more than its fair share of water. Cotton requires a huge amount of water to grow, which can cause major draughts in developing countries.

Add to this more than a half a trillion gallons of fresh water used in the dyeing of textiles each year and you start to get an idea of just how resource intensive this crop is.

1 pair of jeans and a t-shirt can take up to 20,000 litres of water. Around 70% of this is in the growing of cotton alone.

By 2030, McKinsey believe that water consumption needs could outstrip supply by 40% and cause the displacement of potentially millions of already vulnerable people.

Water Intensity in Clothing Production3. Water Pollution

Vibrant colours may look nice and seem harmless, but they are often achieved using an intense chemical process.

After agriculture, chemical dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally. According to World Bank, 20 percent of water pollution is caused by textile processing.

Up to 8000 chemicals can be required to turn some raw materials into finished products, with untreated dyewater often discharged into nearby rivers. According to Yale Environment 360, China discharges roughly 40% of these chemicals.

This not only arises in the manufacturing process. Cotton is one of the most chemically dependent crops in the world. While only 2.4% of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton, it consumes 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of insecticides.

These chemicals can be seen to have a serious impact on human health.

Water Pollution from Clothing Dyes

4. Plastics

As mentioned, polyester is becoming an increasingly popular fabric in clothing.

But when washed the material sheds microfibers that cannot be filtered out by wastewater treatment plants, resulting in thousands of tonnes reaching our oceans each year. It does not biodegrade and can easily end up in the food chain.

You may be thinking that this is just a problem for countries which manufacturer these materials, but unfortunately it isn’t. Even in the UK, hundreds of kilograms are washed in the waterways and it is very hard to prevent this.

5. Landfill waste

It is no secret that our willingness to throw away clothes is increasing in parallel with our demand for new clothes.

Between 2002 and 2015, the sale of clothes increased from $1 trillion to $1.8 trillion and is predicted to reach $2.1 trillion by 2025.

The result is that the volume of clothing sold has more than doubled over this period.

This contrasts to the average number of times a garment is worn before it is thrown away, which has decreased by 36% over the last 15 years.

It may not come as a huge surprise then that the amount being tossed has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tonnes over the past 20 years, averaging an astounding 35kg per person.

Some estimate that more than half of fast fashion is disposed of in under a year, and that one garbage truck full of textiles is landfilled or burnt every second.

6. Current inability to Recycle

The majority of us now throw away our clothes, with less than 1% of material being recycled. But even that material which is sent to be recycled, under 16% actually is.

To make matters worse, petrochemicals, polyester and nylon are non-biodegradable and can often bleed dangerous chemicals into the earth when buried.

Unfortunately, recycling our clothes is incredibly hard and energy intensive process. Much of our clothing is blended from a variety of fabrics and synthetic materials, and the technology does not currently exist to efficiently recycle them on a mass scale.

As well as producing the majority of clothing, China was also accepting over half of the world’s recycled textiles. However, it recently announced a ban on  the import of these materials as it attempts to shift its economy towards more high tech industries. This causes major problems for many countries around the world who were wholly reliant on China for their waste recycling programmes, including the UK and most of the Western nations.

At least this creates hope that incentives will start to drive businesses to search for profits from recycling.

7. Economic cost

Recycling is a potentially lucrative industry, with estimates reaching up to $500 billion in potential revenue.

Recycling discarded plastic products takes less than half the energy of a regular polyester top to produce and helps to keep plastic out of landfills.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that diverting often toxic textiles into recycling programmes could be the equivalent of removing 7.3 million cars CO2 emissions off the road.

On top of this, it costs governments huge amounts of money to landfill clothing. The UK alone is spending around £82 million each year just to landfill textiles.

Globally, consumers could also be missing out on $460 billion of value each year by throwing away clothes they could continue to wear.

Growing Sales and Decline in Clothing Utilisation since 2000

8. Material Consumption.

As well as consuming huge amounts of water and fuel, the production of clothing also requires huge volumes of other resources.

To make virgin polyester, it is estimated that it takes around 70 million barrels of oil each year.

9. Cotton Resistance

Much of the cotton grown worldwide has been genetically modified to resist pests such as bollworm.

This can lead to problems downstream, such as the emergence of superweeds which require even more toxic pesticides to kill them.

10. Charitable donations

Parts of the world which traditionally relied on charitable donations for their clothing are finding themselves rejecting more of what is being sent due to the poor quality of modern items.

Many charities are no longer accepting items which come from certain high street brands.

If quality continues to fall and international demands drops with it, we could be soon faced with the collapse of the second hand clothing system, creating an even greater need for us to expand our recycling ability.

Ethical Reasons

11. Working conditions

Sadly, it is not uncommon to hear of new reports about clothing-factory workers being underpaid and exposed to unsafe—even deadly—workplace conditions.

As an ongoing race is underway to sell ever cheaper clothes, large companies continue to find ways to cut costs.

The result is that to compete, many companies are relocating in search of countries with ever lower labour costs and often inadequate regulations so they can produce even cheaper fashion.

12. Fair pay

Fast fashion sadly comes at a cost to many involved. High quality brands do not necessarily mean the best working and living standards for workers, but it is almost guaranteed that the cheapest will likely be taking advantage of cheap labour.

13. Labour disruption

Many areas of cheap labour are at high risk of environmental disruption.

As extreme weather is expected to become more common, many may be forced to relocate to more stable conditions.

This will not only add huge pressure to existing resources in countries which do not have the ability to look after distressed populations, it will also mean that the fashion industry will be placed under increasing pressure.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 4 out of the 5 countries most affected by sea level rise are fashion’s biggest manufacturing hubs: China, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh.


And Breath...

If you have read this far, you are no doubt feeling a little overwhelmed and probably a little depressed.

... you are not alone.

So let me try and explain what you can do to help.

So what can you do about this?

You may be wondering...

“What can I do?”

After all, you are only one person.

The truth is this...

We, the consumer, determine the decisions of manufacturers. Our actions and our spending habits can change the way the industry operates.

So what can you do today?

If you have read this much, you don’t need to do anything...

You are already an expert on this topic.

You now have a better understanding of the fashion industry than 99% of people around the world. You are in the minority.

And now you are an influencer.

Even if you don’t change your spending patterns straight away, you will slowly start to tell those closest to you.

If you tell only your friends and your family about how the industry truly works and what it does to our planet, you will be helping to raise awareness and drive change by simply spreading the message.

Want to do more?

If you are left wanting to do more, you can encourage people to ask questions about where the items they see in the shops come from and how they are produced.

Things to look out for

There are also things to look out for when out shopping.

Unfortunately there is no quick fix, no one magic material which has outstanding properties that are more eco-friendly than others. Every item has pros and cons.

Garments labelled as natural fibres are not necessarily better than synthetic, as fibre choice is only one part of a complex picture. Fibres still have to be spun, knitted or woven, dyed, finished, sewn and often transported thousands of miles – all of which have different environmental impacts.

Recycled content is often better than other sources, as it reduces pressure on virgin resources and tackles the growing problem of waste management.

Patagonia is an inspiration which many high street brands would do well to emulate. It was the first outdoor clothing brand to make polyester fleece out of plastic bottles, and puts a huge emphasis on mending and reusing its items.

It now offers only two fabric options, either 100% organic cotton or a blend of recycled cotton and recycled polyester, aware that even organic cotton has negative environmental impacts such as high water usage.

There are also hundreds of small brands appearing all over the world who are trying to get this message out and change the way the industry functions. Collectively they face the power of the large brands who ultimately control the direction that this industry takes.

Sustainable and Ethical Clothing Labels to Look Out For

Still want to do more?

Ultimately, one of the best things we can all do is buy better quality clothing which we can keep and reuse for longer.

Many of us should probably look to our own wardrobes and reuse what we already have, or buy second hand clothes rather than new items.

When you do buy new, look for eco and fair trade labels, the quality of the fabric is usually better and will last longer.

The fact is that the more we reuse items, the better they are for the environment. Using a shirt 50 times across a year rather than 4 times reduces emissions of that item by around 550%.

Let’s try and change Earth Overshoot Day which falls on August 2.

 “In my end is my beginning” -  T.S. Eliot

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