The fashion industry is a fast paced and competitive industry. One of the highest earning industries in the world, it has much in common with its mining, manufacturing, and agricultural relatives. Due to ever changing demands and confident customers who know what they want, the fashion industry works around the clock to produce massive amounts of clothing. But what kind of impact does this have on our planet? Is it possible to have an incredible collection of regalia and still support sustainability?
Production and manufacturing of textiles has a massive impact on our world. Producing the raw materials for textiles is already very problematic. Even entirely organic materials can create sustainability issues. Producing one kilogram of cotton currently requires 3 kilograms of chemicals – it needs to be sprayed heavily with pesticides to ensure its survival, creating a negative effect on plants and animals nearby.
Three textile fabrics are particularly devastating: rayon, modal, and viscose. These fabrics are wood-based, so every year thousands of hectares of trees are cut down to create space for fibre plantations. Not only is the act of deforestation directly creating greenhouse gasses, but the removal of trees means less carbon stored safely in nature and more in the atmosphere.
So which fibres are the most eco-friendly? Ideally, fibres should be judged based on a few key features. Their water and energy needs, whether they use renewable resources, whether they use chemicals, and whether they are biodegradable. Recycled fibres present a great opportunity for sustainability, as they are produced from resources that would otherwise be entirely wasted. If recycled materials don’t sound like your style, linen, hemp, and silk are all natural fibres that have very little eco impact during their growth. While cotton (a repeat offender), wool, and leather are naturally sourced, they have immense growth requirements that really take a toll on the planet in the long run. Cotton has staggering water requirements – in India, where 100 million people do not have access to drinking water, cotton crops use 85% of the daily water needs of the entire population.
Water contaminated with dyes, originating from textile dying, is considered one of the worst sources of pollution in current times. Textile dyes are designed to be very stable when exposed to light, water, and temperature (to name a few), so they do not break down easily after pollution has occurred. This results in damage to aquatic ecosystems and poor soil quality, which affects tree growth – our best solution to combat greenhouse gas emissions. Manufacturers who responsibly dispose of contaminated water deserve more support from consumers.
The apparel industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions. This is due to the energy needs of producing, manufacturing, and transporting such large quantities of clothing. Many clothes are made in countries like China or Bangladesh, who still use coal power, which is obviously contributing to the issue of emissions. Switching to manufacturing locations that utilise renewable energy could go a long way in curbing the emissions from the fashion industry.
With all these production and manufacturing issues, one would hope that we have a very efficient treatment of clothing at the end of its life span. But despite long-established networks of charity shops and increasing numbers of recycling points, roughly 15% of developed nations throw away unwanted clothing, rather than donating or recycling it. This figure is even higher in areas such as the UK, where the number is closer to 25%. This contributes to the issue of accumulating waste in landfill, as fast changing fashion trends reduce the likelihood that people will recycle clothing. 5.2% of the waste in our landfills is textile based, and synthetic fibres can take up to 200 years to decompose.
But there are plenty of things we can do to help improve the situation. Try to choose organic fibres over synthetic ones – not only are they produced more responsibly than synthetic materials, but they are less of an issue once they are disposed of. Some fibres, such as linen or recycled fibres, have much lower water and resource requirements than others. Try to avoid natural fibres that have high resource demands for healthy growth, like cotton or wood-based fibres.
Shop from areas with strict rules over disposal and production, to avoid supporting producers who actively pollute the environment and cut corners with chemicals. Searching for high quality brands will not only make your clothing last longer, reducing the need to dispose of them as often, but will also reduce the amount of chemicals that can pass from your clothing to your skin. Check the labels on your potential purchases – GOTS and Oeko-Tex certification means the clothing is prohibited from containing certain carcinogenic and allergenic chemicals.
When it comes time to dispose of your old clothing, consider donating or recycling the materials. Not only can you help to support someone less fortunate, but you are returning incredible resources to the world instead of stowing them away like all the other rubbish. When someone notices your choice of brand or material, let them know why you chose it, so they can start to understand how important the decision can be. It is very possible that we can have clothes that are to die for, without killing our planet to get them.