How The Fashion Industry Is Destroying The Planet

By Steph Baker

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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’. 


F A S T F A S H I O N

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. 

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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.

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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.