The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Fast fashion has dominated and reshaped the fashion industry since the 1990’s and been a major driver of the industry’s enormous greenhouse gas emissions and devastating environmental impact. How are the clothes that we buy leading to such detrimental environmental consequences?
Fast fashion is a business model that promotes rapid production of cheap clothing to meet . First used in the early 1990s to describe Zara’s business model, fast fashion now dominates the industry. Many major retailers like TopShop, Primark, Forever21 are able to turn an idea in a designers mind, to the high street shelves in a matter of weeks. The rapid rise and success of these brands in bringing cheap, trendy clothes to the masses, has lead to a major shift in consumer behavior.
In order to provide such rapid turnovers of cheap clothing, companies have gone to extreme lengths to minimize cost margins. The most famous and well documented consequence is that companies have outsourced their labour to economically developing countries, where it is much cheaper and labour laws are often far more lax. Repeated scandals over labour conditions including a total disregard for basic safety measures, low wages and violence in the workplace alongside the industry’s seeming addiction for child labour has created much conversation but little change.
Fast fashion also encourages the production of lower quality clothing. Quality and durability have been pushed aside in favour of cheap clothing that meets the current trend in fashion but will be out of vogue the following season. The biggest problem with this is that it has lead to enormous quantities of clothing ending up in landfills. 10.46 million tonnes of clothing ended up in US landfills in 2014.
That brings us back to the question of production. How is all this largely unworn clothing produced and what are the environmental costs of its production? Clothing is made up of various types of materials, often blends of different fabrics, which all have their benefits and drawbacks in terms of comfort, durability and production cost. However, cotton is found in 40% of all clothing whilst synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon, in 72% of garments.
Cotton is a highly water intensive plant. Though only 2.4% of the world’s agricultural land is planted with cotton, it consumes almost 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of pesticides. In one of the most destructive environmental catastrophes man has ever created, two rivers that fed the Aral sea were redirected in the 1960s by the Soviet Union to maintain the cotton plantations in what is now Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Synthetic polymers, on the other hand, are not grown but manufactured. Production of nylon produces nitrous oxide which is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Both polyester and nylon also break down in washing machines leading to the build up of microplastics in our water systems. Scientists are now finding microplastics to be working their way into our food chain, an issue which we do not yet know what the full consequences will be. Cheap, low quality clothing breaks down much faster than higher quality clothing so exacerbating this problem.
The incomprehensible scale of the fashion industry and the sheer quantity of fabrics that are produced for clothing each year is what makes the fashion industry so destructive. Factories are major energy consumers and therefore greenhouse gas emitters. An estimated 80% of the energy used in the fashion industry is used in textile manufacturing.
Many textile factories also dump untreated chemicals into rivers and are responsible for some of the most polluted rivers in the world. Dumping of toxic chemicals used mostly for dying fabrics has made large sections of major rivers like the Citarum river in Indonesia and Pearl river in China uninhabitable for fish and other animals. Alongside these environmental costs, many people depend on rivers for drinking water, washing and bathing, irrigating their land or as a direct source of food.
With such a plethora of factors contributing to pollution in the fashion industry, the problem can seem so big that it is difficult to know where to even begin in addressing it. The primary driver for all of this, unfortunately, is demand for low cost and, essentially, disposable clothing.
We suggest companies start with simple steps, such as buying renewable energy to power their outlet stores and shops. Secondly, move to sourcing renewable energy for all buildings, warehouses and factories owned by the company across the supply chain. Third, encourage all factories and third parties from whom the company buys, particularly textile manufacturers, to start using renewable energy too. Greening the supply chain is a huge challenge in the fashion industry. By tackling energy consumption in the industry, we hope to play our part in moving fashion towards a more environmentally sustainable industry.
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