What’s your fashion footprint?

What is the real cost of the clothes that we buy?

It’s a new term, new season, and for many a new wardrobe. Moving from the sunny south to the chilly heights of Durham as many of us do it’s an opportunity to stock up on student staples of jeans, jumpers, scarves and boots. But when broken heating sends us, shivering, into the knitwear section of Topshop, how many of us actually give a thought to the environmental impact of what we’re about to buy?

The estimated carbon footprint of a pair of jeans is 0.79 kg CO2e. Over half of that figure is emitted during the cotton production process, which often also includes the use of fertilisers and pesticides which can be damaging to the local environment as well as to the health of the farmers who grow them. Indeed, growing cotton accounts for 22.5% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of the world’s pesticides.

One solution, then, might be to buy organic. H&M’s recent “Go Green, wear blue” campaign includes organic cotton, organic linen, and recycled wool, and aims to reduce water usage by 56% and energy consumption by 58%, in comparison to their other denim collections.

Another option is to simply apply the principles of “reduce, reuse, recycle” to our clothing choices. Reducing the amount of raw materials used in production might in practice mean reducing what we buy, only buying what we need, as well as shopping second-hand, for instance in charity shops to reduce the amount of clothes bought new. In Durham, North Road hosts an array of shops whilst the Oxfam boutique on Elvet Bridge often stocks high-end labels at low prices.

Once bought, clothes can be made to last. And when eventually outgrown, tired of, or worn out, they can be disposed of properly. According to Waste Online, the UK throws away over 1 million tonnes of clothing every year, 50% of which would be recyclable. This occurs at both a factory and a household level, however at each stage there are steps that can be taken to reduce waste and unnecessary production: clothing banks, run by charities such as Oxfam, Scope, and the Salvation Army, often collect used clothing in shops or door-to-door collections.

However even charity shops carry their own carbon footprint. With the increasing globalisation of the clothing industry, transportation is also a consideration in the environmental impact that our clothes have. One only has to look at the labels to read countries like Bangladesh, China, Cambodia and Vietnam to know how far many of our clothes travel before they end up in our shops. Once bought, worn, and donated to a charity shop, many clothes will then travel as far as Ghana in West Africa as part of programmes like Oxfam’s Frip Ethique, which sells our unwanted clothes on to market traders, providing an economic trade and employment opportunity, reducing waste, but also raising questions about the distance travelled by these items as well as the sustainability of this industry in a context of declining traditional garment production in Ghana, as explored by a recent BBC documentary, The Secret Life of Your Clothes.

With recent media attention focussed on events such as the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh, consumers are becoming much more aware of where their clothes come from. Many have started to wonder whether the high human and environmental cost is worth the low price tag and ease of purchase. There does seem to be a growing demand for better information and for higher standards of raw materials, production, and working conditions.

What is more, retailers do seem to be responding to this. As well as H&M’s “conscious” line, Topshop’s “Reclaim to wear” range uses offcuts of fabric to create new pieces. Meanwhile websites like Vinted (www.vinted.co.uk) and the rise in events such as clothes swaps or M&S’s “swishing” indulge the “retail therapy” aspect of disposable fashion while reducing actual waste. This rising awareness can also be seen as part of a wider movement and interest in owning individual pieces, reflected in an interest in vintage shopping or upcycling, perhaps as part of a revival of austerity-influenced slogans such as “Make do and Mend’.

However, there’s still a way to go. Despite the work of platforms such as “The Ethical Fashion Forum” (http://source.ethicalfashionforum.com), many companies still do not publicise much about their production process, whilst doubts about working conditions and sustainable production raise issues for environmentally and ethically-aware shoppers.

Yet uncertainty cannot be taken as an excuse for apathy. Imagine yourself back to the shelves of Topshop where we started. Gaze at the abundant array of attire, the colours, the fabrics. But then look closer – examine the labels; ask questions about the production process. Challenge yourself to acquiring an outfit, a term or a year’s worth of clothing by shopping second hand. Organise a clothes swap with friends from other colleges or even other universities for that winter ball dress that you know you paid a fortune for and only ever wore once. Think about ways that you can get into a habit that will serve you and the environment well for life.

Leave a Reply