The fashion industry is one of the most polluting in the world, with cheap, readily available clothing, and ever changing trends contributing heavily to the problem. How can the industry become more conscious of its impact, and how can we as consumers use our power to make environmentally sound buying decisions?
When we think about polluting industries, there are a few main offenders that come to mind. Petrochemicals, industrial mining, road transportation etcetera – all of these have rightly come under flak for their contributions to greenhouse gas.
What is perhaps more surprising is that fashion can be numbered among their ranks. According to one oft-repeated statistic, fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world. Whether or not that statement stands up to scrutiny (other sources place it between 4th and 10th), the industry’s green credentials could certainly stand to be improved.
In 2015, the fashion industry was responsible for around 1.7bn tonnes of CO2, or around 4.3% of total global emissions. It also consumed 79bn cubic metres of water (0.87% of the global total) and produced 92 million tons of solid waste (4% of the total). This is not to mention the garments piling up in landfill sites, and the microplastic pollution that occurs when you wash synthetic clothes.
As Patsy Perry, a senior lecturer in fashion marketing at the University of Manchester, explains, fashion has many environmental costs, some more obvious than others.
“All the materials we use have quite significant negative environmental impacts,” she says. “With natural materials like cotton, we use a lot of water, chemicals, pesticides and insecticides at the agricultural stage, and then we use water and chemicals when we dye or put finishes on the fabrics. Then in recent years we’ve seen a great increase in the use of polyester, which gives us the whole issue of microplastic pollution from consumer laundering.”
On top of that, there are various different issues relating to water consumption and the leaching of toxic chemicals into waterways. Even without factoring in fabric dyeing, it takes 715 gallons of water to produce the cotton needed for one T-shirt – almost three years’ worth of drinking water – and 1,800 gallons for a pair of jeans.
“I guess the environmental consequences of fashion have been overlooked because in developed countries we’ve outsourced all the production, so we haven’t really seen the effects on our home soil,” says Perry. “It’s taken a while for the evidence to come back from far flung parts of the supply chain, to see the impacts from the production and the agricultural sides of things.”
In late 2017, Perry wrote a widely shared article about the environmental costs of fashion. She argued that ‘fast fashion’ is particularly bad for the environment, not just because it entails overproduction of clothes, but because the speed of production can sometimes mean cutting corners environmentally.
To put it simply, fast fashion refers to cheap clothes with a rapid turnover – low-cost brands churning out new lines as often as possible. Rather than waiting around for new seasonal collections, as was common in the past, you only need wait a couple of weeks for a catwalk trend to filter into your local high street.
This is good news from a consumer perspective. If you’re a young person on a limited budget, it means you can keep up with trends without breaking the bank. Over the last few years, sales have surged at online retailers like like ASOS and Boohoo, which offer £6 dresses and £10 pairs of jeans.
The downside is that clothes are no longer being made to last. In the UK, 235m items of clothing were landfilled in 2017, and each person bought 26.7kg of new clothing. We are buying more, throwing away more, and in an image-dominated culture many people are loath to wear the same outfit twice. Each second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is sent to landfill or burned.
“It’s quite hard to live with our principles, with the intense amount of variety and competition and trends being pushed at us all the time via social media,” says Perry. “But younger people are concerned about this and they’re looking to make a change.”
Already, we’re seeing these issues being debated at a governmental level. Last October, UK MPs wrote a letter to top fashion retailers, asking what they were doing to reduce their footprint. The resulting report, released in January, found distinct variability among brands. This implies that voluntary efforts aren’t working well enough and that some kind of legislative change is required.
Suggests include a 1p garment tax, VAT reductions on repair services, a ‘net zero’ emissions blueprint, and a ban on incinerating or landfilling unsold stock that can be reused.
“It may be that that’s what’s needed as a wakeup call, otherwise you’re just relying on the pioneers to do the work and all of that good work can be undone by others that aren’t playing ball,” says Perry.
What we do know is that there isn’t much time to waste. According to the United Nations, if nothing changes, the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.
“Forget about the fashion industry – think about our global history. We’re at an enormous turning point,” says Daniel Hatton, founder and CEO of the Commonwealth Fashion Council. “I think the fashion industry has been quite slow to adapt to what has been a fast-changing view on how we should treat this planet. We’re at a point where change has to be backed up by some type of policy or enforcement.”
The Commonwealth Fashion Council, launched last year, is a not-for-profit international council for the fashion industry. It works with governments, fashion weeks and fashion councils, to help develop the fashion industries across the 53 Commonwealth member states. Through bringing together different stakeholders, it aims to spark important conversations, creating a more connected and conscious global fashion sector.
“One of my major visions is to create a forum for government and industry to come together to discuss commonwealth fashion policies, potentially leading the way for positive change,” says Hatton. “It’s about, how do you increase the pressures on particular subsectors of the fashion industry in order for them to become greener and more aware, without affecting regional economies?”
He feels that while consumer action certainly plays a role, discussions around fast fashion can too easily devolve into snobbery.
“Vivienne Westwood once said we need to buy less but pay more for our products – I tend to agree with that but obviously that would work quite nicely for me as I’ve only got myself to look after,” he says. “When it comes to families making ends meet, their number one priority isn’t making sure Edward and Sarah have sustainable shoes on.”
He would like to see more of a focus on sustainability education in schools. Ideally, children would be taught how to mend their own clothes, which would mean less incentive to buy new ones.
“The ‘buy less and mend’ culture is spot on emotionally and economically at this moment in time when people have less money,” he says. “You’re shifting into sort of pre-war mentality where everything was done locally, and local economies prospered. This is a beautiful thing I feel.”
Perry agrees that the best thing to do from the consumer side is to keep your own clothing in use for longer. While it’s a good idea to take your old clothes to a charity shop, there’s no guarantee that what happens next will be good for the environment.
“Livia Firth said you need to ask yourself, am I going to wear this 30 times, and if you don’t think you are then you shouldn’t buy it,” she says. “So is it necessary to own every piece in your wardrobe, or are there things that can be rented? It’s good to look at laundering as well – trying to reduce temperature, trying to reduce the amount of washing that goes on, and using a Guppyfriend washing bag to prevent the plastic microfibres leaching out into the effluent of the washing machine.”
Despite the scale of the challenge ahead, both Perry and Hatton are optimistic about the future.
“I think the situation will change for the better because we’re armed with information, and we’re replacing processes with more environmentally friendly ones,” says Perry. “Even though brands may be competing in the marketplace, on the big issues like this they will work together because nobody can solve this on their own.”
As to whether fast fashion will survive into the distant future, she suspects otherwise – it may come to be seen as a negative for society as a whole.
Hatton points out that, in today’s Commonwealth, 60% of the population is under 30. Having talked to many young people about these issues, he has identified a real appetite for change.
“This idea of compromise and sacrifice is there with the youth population, because they’re the ones who will have to deal with the real issues,” he says. “If we don’t change as humans full stop – the way we consume, the way we act, the way we treat others – then when today’s 18 year-old hits 50 or 60, God knows what this planet will look like and feel like. But when you educate a person the right way, that’s much more powerful than any weapon.”
This article appears in the Jun-Aug 2019 edition of Overseas magazine