How The Fashion Industry Is Destroying The Planet

By Steph Baker


The world is now producing and buying more clothes than ever.

In the last 15 years, the global clothing industry has approximately doubled in size. And because of the temporary nature of fashion, we are throwing away more clothes than ever. North America sends 9.5 million tonnes of clothing into landfill every year, of which 95% could be reused or recycled into new clothing. Less than 1% of it is.

What’s happened?

According to a study by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, clothing utilization (the amount of times an item of clothing is worn before being thrown away) has decreased by 36% compared to 15 years ago. Instead of repairing and preserving our clothes, we can too easily purchase cheap and quick replacements at the click of a button when a tear or bad stain appears. This consumer behaviour is driving the phenomenon of ‘fast fashion’. 


Quick to produce, quick to buy, quick to throw away.

Fast Fashion is a result of the high street fashion industry adapting the ‘more and cheaper’ business model. Collections are no longer released based on two seasons (summer, winter), they are released all year round, with some even reaching 52 ‘micro-seasons’. Because of this increasing demand on clothing, textiles suppliers are pressured to deliver to ever-tighter deadlines, encouraging irresponsible practices and side stepping environmental and human labour standards.

Fast fashion clothing is often produced by machines with synthetic or unsustainable raw materials. This enables them to be produced quickly and cheaply in bulk quantities. And with a speedy production system, they’re also quick to buy. Websites make it mindlessly easy for consumers to fill their baskets with just a few clicks, often offering the perks of next day delivery, so you can fill your wardrobe from the comfort of your own bed.

And naturally, the low price tag is the main driver of fast fashion. Cheap materials, high volume production and low labour costs in poorer countries means you can buy a pair of jeans for $13. Of course, their very nature predicts poor quality, and will likely fall apart within a matter of months -  destined for landfill or incineration.

This rash consumer behaviour is leading to an excessive amount of unwanted, unused clothes after only being worn a handful of times. It is estimated that more than half of fast fashion clothing is disposed of in under a year.

How does the fashion industry affect the environment?

The list of fashion-related environmental issues is extensive - but here are a few of the main areas to focus on. Remember, these issues are only being accelerated with fast fashion.

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1. Energy and Resources

“In 2015, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from textiles production totalled 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent, more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.” Ellen Macarthur Study

Within every stage of a piece of clothings lifetime, energy is used and emissions are generated. It is predicted that around 98 million tonnes of non-renewable resources are used per year in the textiles industry. This includes crude oil to produce synthetic fibres such as polyester, fertilizers to grow cotton, and chemicals to treat and preserve the materials. 

The main sources of greenhouse gas emissions from the textiles industry are electricity consumption and thermal energy consumption, as well as gases such as methane and nitrous oxide resulting from chemical processes.

If the industry continues on its current path, by 2050, it could use more than 26% of the carbon budget associated with a 2°C global warming limit.

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2. Cotton Growth

Cotton accounts for 90% of all natural fibres used in the textiles industry. And for many good reasons - we don’t have to worry about cotton clogging up landfills because it biodegrades, it is a breathable and versatile fabric, and as a natural resource, it requires less chemical manufacturing than synthetic materials. 

But cotton’s benefits do not outweigh its drawbacks. Cotton farming is the single largest consumer of water in the textiles industry. The Water Footprint Network states that it takes over 30,000 litres of water to create 1kg of cotton, with one cotton shirt using approximately 2,700 litres of water - almost 3 years worth of drinking water. Cotton farming also uses harmful pesticides, fertilizers and insecticides causing tremendous damage to the air, water, soil, and the health of people in cotton-growing areas. 


3. Plastic Microfibres

Fast Fashion brands predominantly use petrochemical-based materials such as polyester and nylon due to their cheap costs and durability. When it comes to plastic pollution, most of us picture seaweed tangled bottles, fishing nets and grocery bags. What we don’t imagine are the billions of plastic microfibre particles shed from synthetic materials during washing. Fibres that shed from plastic-based materials such as polyester, nylon and acrylic are shedding microscopic pieces of plastic, which will never breakdown or disappear. One microfibre is roughly the size of half of a red blood cell - their microscopic size enables them to bypass wastewater treatment facilities and flow freely into rivers, lakes and oceans. It has been estimated that around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres shed every year, with 1,900 fibres shedding off just one synthetic garment. Microfibres are now expected to be the most abundant form of plastic pollution in the ocean.


4. Chemical Dyes and Treatments

It is estimated that 17-20% of industrial water pollution globally is attributable to the dyeing and treatment of textiles. Worldwide, there are around 8,000 synthetic chemicals used to bleach, treat and colour our clothes, with most of the chemical run-off being released into waterways. Dye houses in India, China and Indonesia are notorious for dumping untreated wastewater into local streams and rivers. For every pound of textiles produced, a pound of chemicals are broken-down and illegally bled into rivers - colouring them unnatural shades of blood red, yellow and green. Toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury and arsenic have been found in some river run-off water samples in Indonesia. These chemicals pose a huge health risk for locals who depend on the rivers to survive, and an existential risk to marine life.

According to the World Bank, an estimated 90% of the local groundwater is polluted in China, with 72 toxic chemicals in the water supply from textile dyeing ( Ellen Macarthur Foundation )

According to the World Bank, an estimated 90% of the local groundwater is polluted in China, with 72 toxic chemicals in the water supply from textile dyeing (Ellen Macarthur Foundation)

The Solutions

“Buy Less. Choose Well. Make It Last” Vivienne Westwood

Consumer choice will be the driving force for change in the fashion industry.

By buying less and keeping more, the demands on the textiles industry will naturally decline. Stepping away from fast fashion and only investing in well made, sustainably sourced items built to last will not only relax fast textiles production, but benefit consumers wallets and the local community. 

Good Clothes Buying Mindfulness 

Buy Second Hand

Photo by  Duy Hoang  on  Unsplash

Photo by Duy Hoang on Unsplash

Buying second hand clothing is the equivalent of using recycled plastic bottles - buying recycled materials takes the demand off creating new materials. And beyond benefitting the environment, there are endless good reasons to buy recycled clothes:

  • Low Price Tags: Second hand clothes are generally a fraction of the cost of their original price tag. And let’s face it - there’s nothing like the satisfaction of finding a great piece by a top-notch brand that costs less than your dinner bill

  • Hidden Gems: Instead of buying from a brand who manufactures thousands of the same garment, buying used clothes means you’re browsing from the unique wardrobes of people all ages and cultures. Whether it’s an authentic leather jacket from the 80s or a yellow retro ski suit, wearing a one of a kind piece means you will also be, one of a kind…

  • Online Marketplace: As well as thrift stores and charity shops, second hand clothes are now being flogged online on platforms such as facebook marketplace, asos marketplace and craigslist. Just directly search what you’re after and visually rummage through all the goodies!

Buying new clothes

(Only if they spark joy, of course…)

1. Materials

If you are buying new clothes, always check the label. Avoid synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon, which are made from petrochemicals and can shed plastic microfibres. If you are going to buy cotton, make sure it’s organic. Organic cotton is grown with eco-friendly alternatives to pesticides and maintains proper soil maintenance so less water is needed for crop growth.

2. Sustainable Brands

Not all clothing labels are bad - in fact, there are an increasing amount of sustainable brands popping up each year in response to the exposure of fashion’s dirty secrets. Certifications such as Certified B Corporation, Fair Trade Certified or GOTS (Global Organic Textiles Standard) are good indicators of a truly sustainable brand.

Check out some suggestions for sustainable brands online - you might be surprised to see that your favourite shop is already doing their part! Here are a few of our favourite brands with the planet in mind:

Take care of your clothes

Home sewing and repairing was once the norm for faulty clothing garments. Rewind 100 years ago and having multiple outfits (though still not a touch on today’s standard wardrobe) reflected wealth and a high social status. Clothing was a luxury,  something people wanted to keep and preserve for as long as possible. Ensuring the longevity of our clothes is key to buying less. If you’re not a keen needle-threader, there are now brands who offer free in-store repairs, including Patagonia and Barbour.

Another important player in good clothes care is how we wash them. Most of us will already know the do’s and don’ts of laundry after a few too many tees unintentionally shrunk down small enough to fit a Borrower. Try not to overload your washing machine with clothes - the machine will work extra hard to move the clothes around and vigorously wear the materials down.

There are also ways to capture plastic microfibres shedding off your clothes in the laundry. The Cora Ball is designed to capture tiny fibres the same way that coral filters the ocean, and you can easily remove and discard the captured fuzz. Capture bags such as the Guppyfriend work to reduce the amount of fibres shedding whilst also protecting your clothes.

And finally…

When your clothes are completely unrepairable, unsellable and as good as rags - don’t throw them into landfill. Some clothes can be recycled into new clothes (but not all - this is material dependent), and some are used for other means, such as industrial rags and housing insulation. Check out this handy list of places you can recycle your clothes, including stores such as H&M and Value Village.

The Dirt on Cigarette Butt Litter

A blog post by Rachel McGovern

The eight cigarette butts featured in my tale, indicated by yellow arrows. 

The eight cigarette butts featured in my tale, indicated by yellow arrows. 

Last week I decided to walk down to the beach to eat my lunch.  I found a nice log to sit on from which to admire birds harvesting the tidal zone, layers of majestic mountains, the smell of saltwater, and to think about how fortunate I am to have such opportunity.  Then I looked down.  At my feet, literally, were eight cigarette butts.  With a sigh I decided to count how many cigarette butts I could see without leaving my log perch.  Stigmatism aside, I was able to count 63 cigarette butts within an approximately 8’x8’ patch of beach, 64 sq ft.  That may not seem like much but, think of it this way, Vancouver beaches stretch a total of 18km, or 59 055 ft.  IF 63 butts were counted for every 64 sq ft on average, and we assume the beaches are 50 ft deep (this is a conservative number), we could estimate that there are nearly 30 million cigarette butts scattered all over Vancouver beaches at any given time!  Now THAT is a big number. 


Cigarette butts are the most prevalent form of garbage collected, not only locally at Surfrider Vancouver beach cleanups but, in many countries around the world.  

In 2015, 58% of the garbage collected by the Surfrider Vancouver research team volunteers was cigarette butts, and it is estimated that 1 million butts are littered in Vancouver every day!  

In 2011 the Ocean Conservancy, a not-for-profit organization, released a report summarizing the garbage collected by volunteers at beaches, lakes, rivers and streams located around the world, one day a year for the past 25 years. Of all garbage collected, 32% was cigarette butts.  Such a report is unique in its magnitude with data taken from 145 million pounds of garbage collected from 152 different countries.   


Over the span of 25 years (25 scheduled days) Ocean Conservancy volunteers around the world had collected 52, 907, 756 cigarette butts.

 To check out the full 2011 report click here: Ocean Conservancy 2011 Marine Debris Report.

But, why do we care?  Cigarette butts are biodegradable, right?  Wrong!  It is commonly assumed that cigarette butts are biodegradable, and I can see the logic as tobacco is from a plant and the cigarette itself is rolled in paper.  However, cigarettes butts are NOT biodegradable simply because the composition of a modern cigarette is far more complicated than leaves rolled in paper.  Let’s start with the tobacco. 

Only a fraction of the tobacco rolled in a cigarette is actually direct from the leaf of the tobacco plant.  The majority is composed of “reconstituted tobacco” and “puffed tobacco.”  As the name may suggest to some, reconstituted tobacco is a product made from the pulp of tobacco plant “waste,” namely stems.  They essentially make a stew of tobacco plant bits, dry it and treat it with up to 600 different chemicals, including the addictive nicotine.  Puffed tobacco is made by freeze-drying the tobacco with ammonium and Freon (the gas previously used in refrigeration) gases, which is quite the chemical reaction.  This process changes the structure of the tobacco making it fluffy, or “puffy”, and therefore filling more space within the cigarette.  Yikes!

Second, the rolling paper.  The paper itself has been carefully designed to optimize burn time, and like the tobacco, has been chemically altered.  To ensure a long, even burn, the rolling paper is treated with a number of chemicals.  In terms of cigarette butt litter, the tobacco leaf and paper components are biodegradable but, and this is a big BUT, the chemicals used in growing and processing the tobacco, the chemicals used to prepare the rolling paper, as well as the chemicals created as the cigarette burns are certainly not. 

Some of the notable chemicals found in cigarettes, and thus in cigarette butt litter, include up to 50 known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents), heavy metals and even cyanide and arsenic!  This leads me to the last component of the cigarette, the pièce de résistance, the filter.  The filter is designed to reputedly remove and trap these harmful chemicals from the inhaled smoke, thus protecting the smoker. 

The filter became mainstream in the 1950s when doctors started to associate smoking cigarettes with major health conditions like lung cancer.  The tobacco industry’s response was to design a filter to trap the chemicals that are released as the cigarette burns and the smoker inhales, thus preventing these chemicals from reaching the lung.  However, there is no evidence that filtered cigarettes are any safer than unfiltered cigarettes, and are now considered a marketing gimmick.  Now, 97% (in the US) of cigarettes are produced with a filter despite having no effect in preventing disease.  But wait, it gets worse.

Cigarette filters are composed of thousands of strands of fine plastic fibers, not cotton as is often assumed.  These plastic fibers are composed of cellulose acetate, a fancy name for rayon, and can persist in the environment for generations.  This material is not biodegradable, and only when the perfect combination of environmental conditions is met can the sun begin to breakdown these fibres a little by what is known as photodegradation.  But! Even if the perfect conditions are met, photodegradation will only break the fibers into smaller fragments, leaving the source material to persist in the environment.  

It is estimated that 6.3 trillion cigarettes were consumed globally in 2012, the majority of which were filtered.  Of that 6.3 trillion cigarettes, it is approximated that 65% were disposed of improperly, that is, 4 trillion cigarette butts were tossed recklessly into the environment.  In addition, it was estimated that Australia, a nation surrounded by ocean, alone contributed 24-32 billion cigarette butts to this number in 2006.  

The majority of cigarette butts are littered on urban streets.  A 2011 study conducted in Berlin demonstrated that the distribution of littered cigarette butts correlated with locations of cigarette sales and consumption.  Now, that may seem like a no-brainer but, this study was able to prove this assumption, identifying bars & pubs, convenience stores, liquor stores, cafes, gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, traffic lights, as well as entrances to buildings with smoking bans and transit stops, as having the highest rates of cigarette butt waste.  In fact, outside a Berlin transit station the authors of this study counted 102 cigarette butts in a single puddle they estimated to be one square metre.  I’m going to state that again, 102 butts in a single puddle!

Though they are unsightly on city streets and beaches, the issue is actually far more critical as cigarette butt waste is hazardous.  As I stated above, the tobacco and filter of a cigarette are laden with chemicals, including well-known carcinogens and even arsenic.  As rain falls, as feet fall, cigarette butts can leach these harmful chemicals into the environment, contaminating the soil as well as the creatures that are dependant on that soil (microbes, plants, insects, birds, etc.) and their food chain.  In addition, cigarette butts have an uncanny ability to find their way into storm drains, which then channel them to nearby streams, rivers, lakes and or oceans.  Like mosquitos carry dengue fever and malaria, cigarette butts are a vector carrying heavy metals, nicotine and known carcinogens into the environment.

Aquatic environments are at the highest risk, as these environments are inhabited by many vulnerable species, do not have the help of photodegradation, enable continual leaching of toxins from the cigarette filter and the filters sink with no hope of retrieval.  In fact, fibers from cigarette filters are found in deep ocean sediment, and it is estimated that 2 billion of these fibers rest on the seabed for every square kilometre!  It is believed that the chemicals released from any remnant tobacco, the filters, and these fibers can remain in an aquatic environment for up to 10 yrs.  This endangers the species living in these environments and thus the entire ecosystem of which we, humans, are a part.

There are two primary concerns associated with cigarette butts in bodies of water: 1) the chemicals can leach into the water, and can be absorbed through the skin and tissues of the species exposed to them; and 2) dietary exposure, where species like bottom feeders physically eat the cigarette butt, or the microfibers, allowing the chemicals to setup shop in the body tissues.  In both instances, these chemicals greatly effect the ecosystem by endangering the health of exposed species, and can be relayed up the food chain, eventually reaching humans.  Consumption of cigarette butts has actually been a common form of poisoning in pets and children for decades.  Can you imagine what such a dose of chemicals would do to small aquatic species, those supporting the food chain?   

The chemicals released from cigarette butt waste have been proven to have detrimental effects on the health & death rates, DNA, development as well as behaviour of a number of aquatic species, including both freshwater and marine fish (specifically teleosts for those up on their taxonomy).  These toxic effects can start to develop quickly with as little as a single exposure event to one cigarette butt soaked in 1 L of water, a 1:1 ratio, for as few as 48 hours.  As cigarette butts and rain runoff continue to carry tobacco industry chemicals into aquatic environments, the concentration of these toxins increases becoming an ever-growing threat.

Sadly, the cigarette butt filter, the most common form of litter, delivers a triple whammy to the environment.  It is not biodegradable and persists in the environment for an incredibly long time, it is fragmented and easily consumed both actively and passively by aquatic species, and to make matters worse, it is imbibed with harmful chemicals.  A trifecta of environmental nightmares.

So, what can you do?  If you are a smoker, please dispose of your cigarette butts responsibly, or choose filterless cigarettes, or even a pipe.  Everyone can encourage and inform friends and neighbours of available options like disposal canisters provided by the city, or the more convenient pocket ashtray, which now vary greatly in size and design.  Currently it is estimated that disposal canisters are used <10% of the time, and approximately 1 million cigarette butts are littered on the streets of Vancouver everyday, it is time to raise awareness.  Educate your community about the hazards associated with cigarette butt litter, by sharing what you have read here.  Remind them that street drains wash directly into waterways, leading to streams, rivers, lakes and oceans.  Lastly, participate in beach cleanups and other local events targeting litter, thousands of cigarette butts are collected during these events and saved from the storm drain. 



Watch for Surfrider Vancouver events targeting cigarette butt litter on Eventbrite, and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay up-to-date with the Hold On to Your Butt (HOTYB) campaign.

Our next event targeting cigarette butt litter is our Top Secret Trash Mob taking place on Saturday, July 9th in Vancouver.  Head to Eventbrite to register (for free).


In Western countries, cigarette butts are the last socially acceptable form of litter. 

Let’s change that!

#holdontoyourbutt #HOTYB



** I would like to take a moment to acknowledge Pixabay for providing a fantastic free-to-use photo collection!