The Fashion industry today is worth $1.34 trillion. This is the equivalent to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the 126 poorest countries in the world (Source: The Common Objective) China, US, India, Japan, Germany, UK, Russia, France, Italy and Brazil dominate the retail purchasing market. US shoppers buy one item of clothing per week, which is roughly 53 garments a year. UK shoppers buy 33 new items but spend 70% more per item than US shoppers. China buys around 23 items per person per year but has a population of 1.393 billion.
Fast Fashion burst on the scene around 20 years ago and gave rise to retailers such as Mango, Zara, H&M, Missguided, Primark, Forever21, Shein, NewYorker, GAP, boohoo, C&A, Topshop and UNIQLO.
Some retailers have been known to release up to 19 clothing collections in one year, giving rise to a throwaway attitude to clothes as people feel they must keep up with the latest trends. On average, an item of clothing from fast fashion lasts just 5 weeks or has approximately 5 wears. Clothing is then discarded, 57% of which ends up in landfill, 25% is incinerated, 10% is recycled and 8% is reused (Source: The Common Objective). Not only is this wasteful from a money perspective, it is wasteful from a natural resources perspective as many of the materials used are from non-renewable sources.
Synthetic clothing can take up to 200 years to break down in a landfill. It releases Methane, a potent greenhouse gas and chemicals and dyes from clothes can leach into the soil causing surface and groundwater contamination. Landfill also takes up huge volumes of land and with a growing population many countries are literally running out of space. We therefore need to urgently address the issue of waste, with this project focusing specifically on textile waste.
The Fashion Business model is based on a Linear Economy,
TAKE – MAKE – USE – WASTE.
In order to more towards a circular economy which produces zero waste and is sustainable, we need to focus on the issue of waste and ways to reduce it. Recycling alone isn’t enough. Brands such as Eco Alf and the Swedish brand Polarn O. Pyret use recycled plastic in their designs such as trainers made from fishing nets and fleeces made from recycled plastic bottles. Polarn O. Pyret actively encourages a sustainable approach to clothing and states that every piece of clothing should be passed on to at least 3 children. Their cotton is organic and GOTs certified meaning that its also sustainable.
There are many problems associated with recycling textile waste however. The first being it is actually quite difficult to sort clothing via mechanical and chemical recycling. Modern clothing tends to be comprised of a mixture of materials such as 60% polyester, 30% cotton and 10% elastane for example making it difficult to recycle. Even a pure cotton t-shirt tends to have labels made of polyester. In pure forms 95% of all textiles have the potential to be reused or recycled. Advances in technology mean hyperspectral cameras can differentiate between different types of fabrics meaning that more textiles have the potential to be recycled.
Another problem is regarding quantity. Not enough clothing is being recycled to actually be resold in fast fashion. Only a small percentage of clothes are actually sent to recycling centres and often clothing which say they are made from recycled polyester are actually made from recycled plastic bottles. In 2017 China banned the import of textile waste so now the Western World is shipping the problem to Africa or Dubai known as The Rag Trade.
However, many textiles can be ”downcycled” meaning they can be recycled to make thermal insulation, carpets for the building industry and noise insulation.
The best solution to the waste problem is to stop using synthetic materials and to use pure materials only so they can be recycled at the end of their cycle. Companies such as Renewcell have developed technology that dissolve used cotton and natural fibres into a pulp which can be made into a textile fibre.
Swapping clothes provides a means for keeping clothing in circulation longer and diverting them from landfill helping to reduce global textile waste. It promotes an attitude of sustainability and encourages people not to buy fast fashion. Adopting a sustainable attitude to clothing is a step towards moving towards a circular economy and away from a high waste generating linear economy.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF FAST FASHION
The fashion industry is currently responsible for contributing to around 10% of global carbon emissions, which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. It is the equivalent to 1.2 billion tons of CO2. By 2030 it is estimated greenhouse gas emissions will increase by 50% (Source: World Bank). An increase in average global temperature of just 1oC can have devastating consequences such as rising sea levels, putting millions of lives at risk. The magnitude and frequency of flooding will increase, droughts will become more frequent and longer. Managing water resources to an ever-growing population will become even more challenging. A changing climate means a changing ocean which can affect circulation patterns which in turn affect weather patterns. Forest fires will become more frequent, and it will be difficult to grow crops due to changes in rainfall patterns. We are risking the mass extinction where animals fail to survive in their ever-changing environment.
The Ocean is a huge carbon sink where carbon is absorbed. However a warmer ocean reduces and limits the ability of the ocean to absorb as much carbon. In simple terms the ocean is becoming more acidic. A shift in ocean pH has huge implication for both marine species and for the millions of people that rely on fishing. As the fashion industry has a high carbon footprint, we are essentially contributing to this with our shopping habits.
If you are reading this, it means you HAVE A CHOICE. You can choose fast fashion or not. You can choose to fly or not. You can choose to eat meat or not. If you have the chance to make a sustainable choice in your life, DO IT, as you will ultimately help those who are not fortunate enough to choose.
17 billion items are returned every year, which produces a carbon footprint of 4.7 million metric tons of CO2 (Source: Forbes). Only 50% of returned items go back into the store inventory. The remaining 50% are either incinerated, sent to landfill and in rare cases re-cycled into new clothes. Burberry famously destroyed £28million of returned goods.
The average garment travels between 5 countries before ending up in a retailer. For example, a piece of Lyocell clothing which says ‘Made in Morrocco’ really means the trees used to make the fibres were from Europe, the fibres were then shipped to Egypt to produce yarn, the yarn produced was then shipped to China to produce fabric, the fabric made was sent to Spain to be dyed and then shipped to Morrocco to be sewn together (Source BBC: Has your Dress been to more countries than you?)
Water Scarcity is defined as: The lack of fresh water resources to meet the standard water supply (Wikipedia)
Water Stress is defined as: The demand for water exceeds the available amount or when poor water quality restricts its use (European Environment Agency)
Water scarcity already affects every continent. Water usage has been growing at twice the rate of population increase, which means an increasing number of regions are reaching the limit at which water services can be sustainably delivered. The United Nations predicts 700 million people will be at risk from water stress by 2030. The UN estimates that a single pair of jeans uses between 7,500-10,000 litres of water, which is the equivalent to 10 years drinking water for one person. Think how many pairs of jeans are being manufactured each year!! A non-organic cotton t-shirt uses around 2,700 litres of water, and uses a high amount of pesticides and chemicals. The population is currently at 7.8 billion people and the demand for clothing is set to increase by 60% by 2030, which puts an even more added strain on water resources, including supply, demand and quality (Source: UN)
The textile and leather tanning industry use a quarter of the world’s chemicals which means water being discharged into watercourses is toxic and can contain heavy metals such as Lead. This has a huge impact on aquatic life, often resulting in large fish kills. These chemicals can also contaminate drinking water and groundwater, thus resulting in many cancers, birth defects and miscarriages. For more information click here.
Non-Organic Cotton which is favoured by fast fashion brands is classed as the world’s dirtiest crop and accounts for 40% of global textile production. However, it is associated with a high amount of chemicals, so high that many cotton farmers are poisoned every year. 90% of non-organic cotton is genetically modified, and is responsible for a decrease in biodiversity. It is also linked to soil fertility depletion, denitrification, nitrogen leaching, soil contamination and soil erosion. To read the full article, click here. Soil is also a huge carbon sink, so unhealthy soil means bad news.
According to Forbes, 70 million barrels of crude oil are used every year to make polyester. 46.1 million tonnes of polyester were made in 2014 producing 655million tonnes of CO2 which is roughly 40% of total fashion industry emissions. (Source: The Common Objective) When comparing it to cotton, polyester produces 262% more CO2.
60% of clothing contains polyester which is contributing towards microplastic pollution in oceans. 1 fleece can release up to 1 million fibres just from one wash cycle! Microplastics from synthetic clothing currently make up 35% of all plastics in the ocean. The full impact on human health is currently unknown but negative effects have been seen on plankton and other marine wildlife.
To understand the full scale of the enormity of the problem of Microplastics both from single use plastics and from synthetic clothing we recommend that you watch A Plastic Ocean via Netflix.
WAYS TO REDUCE YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT ON THE PLANET STARTING WITH YOUR WARDROBE
One of the most sustainable things you can do is to look after what you already own. Vivienne Westwood famously said: ‘Buy less, choose well, make it last.’
Learn how to take good care of your clothes and how to do basic repairs. If a button comes off, sew it back on again, and if you accidently put a hole in your jumper learn how to make it look like new again.
When you buy new clothing aim for timeless pieces that will transition from season to season and from trend to trend. Clothing should last for at least 30 wears.
The second most sustainable thing you can do is to swap clothes. Swapping clothes is defined as:
The focus is on sustainability and not on profits. It helps keeps clothes in circulation longer and promotes a sustainable attitude towards clothes. If clothes are being circulated more, they are less likely to end up in landfill. Swapping instead of shopping has the potential to help reduce global textile waste and reduce CO2 emissions.
The third most sustainable change you can make is buying second-hand instead of fast fashion. Buying second-hand/thrifted/pre-loved clothes can save 16.3 million tons of CO2 per year.
If you already own synthetic clothing, swap or buy it second-hand, invest in a guppy friend laundry bag. Their unique design helps capture up to 80% of microplastic fibres. Don’t send all of your synthetic clothing to landfill as that defeats what being sustainable is about. Look after what you have and for future purchases choose natural fibres over synthetic. For instance, jeans containing 2% elastane release 7 kg more carbon than raw denim products, so choose your fabrics well as they can have a huge impact on the environment (Source: BBC: Can fashion ever be sustainable?)
If you feel you really need a new item and can’t find it using the methods above, turn to sustainable brands. These brands either use recycled materials (addressing the waste issue) or organic, natural and chemical materials. Sustainable brands are ethical, they support fair trade, they pay a living wage to their employees and they don’t use greenwashing tactics. They are transparent in their supply chain and are fully traceable.
Some good examples are:
Finally, just to further appreciate why it is important not to give your support to fast fashion, please watch the video from the collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013, which killed 1,134 people and injured 2,500 people. Out of the 29 fast fashion brands who sourced products from the Rana Plaza, only 9 attended meetings concerning compensation to victims.
There are many people making a stance against fast fashion, but it is not enough. We need everyone’s help to stand together and make changes.