Do the clothes you wear have an impact on the environment? Does the clothing industry contribute to the international production of carbon emissions? Is “fast fashion” increasing the amount of microplastics in the world’s oceans? Should we be campaigning to make the fashion industry more sustainable? The answer to these questions? Yes.
What is sustainable fashion?
Sustainable fashion, as defined by Green Strategy, is “partly about producing clothes, shoes and accessories in environmentally and socio-economically sustainable manners, but also about more sustainable patterns of consumption and use, which necessitate shifts in individual attitudes and behaviours”. Achieving a more sustainable fashion industry is therefore dependent upon the roles of both the producer and the consumer. It is about the necessity to alter the “fast fashion” psychology of our society and to counter the current emphasis on “making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers” (Marriam-Webster).
What are the consequences of an unsustainable fashion industry?
Increase in global carbon emissions. The fashion industry presently “emits 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 annually” (WWF, Copenhagen Fashion Summit) and is responsible for approximately “10 per cent of the global carbon emissions” (DowntoEarth). The effects of the industry on the environment is predicted to increase further and, as UNFCC reports, “sector emissions are expected to rise by more than 60 percent by 2030”. The costs of fashion are rising beyond financial and economic issues and on to a global and environmental stage.
Excessive use of water resources. The mass production of clothing items on an international scale undeniably has an impact on global water resources. A report titled “Pulse of the Fashion Industry” states that in 2015 the fashion industry “consumed nearly 79 billion cubic meters”. This is “enough to fill nearly 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools” and it is predicted that “this water use will increase by 50% by 2030”. Water usage has become a significant consequence of the fashion industry because it is essential in the “production of raw materials, notably in cotton cultivation and textile processing” (Pulse of the Fashion Industry). Global water consumption is, however, also increased with the role of the consumer. The increase of clothing items per individual has led to an increase in the amount of water used to wash these items.
Raised levels of microfibres in oceans. Every time a synthetic textile is washed “up to 700,000 microscopic fibres can be released into the ocean” (Business Green). These fibres, a type of microplastic, pose potential threat to marine life and can accumulate in food chains with harmful effects. The “Engineering Out Fashion Waste” report states that the “UK Government should invest in initiatives which provide incentives for the development of more environmentally friendly fibres” (imeche.org) and draws attention to the urgent need to reduce the fashion industry’s contribution to the levels of plastic appearing in the world’s oceans.
Sustainable Fashion: The Trend in Vogue
Recent developments in the clothing industry have directed consumers to more sustainable forms of fashion. Fashion needs to focus on not only the sustainability of the resources used to produce clothing, but also on the attitude of those wearing them. It is about longevity of design, the raw materials used, and the psychology of consumers. In the UK alone is it estimated that “£30 billion of clothes hang unworn” (The Guardian) and on a “global average every person buys 5kg of clothes per year” (WWF). This is counterproductive to the global movement towards a more sustainable lifestyle in order to preserve both resources and the environment for future generations.
Quality over quantity. Excessive consumerism is one of the causes for the fashion industry’s increasingly dominant role in climate change. The “fast fashion” industry, which has focused on matching the demand for a higher quantity of lower quality items, has encouraged a trend of excess. That “three-in-five garments end in landfill or incinerators within a year” (BBC News) is indicative of the necessity to reduce the amount of waste we produce. Although buying clothing at a lower cost may seem to be an attractive bargain, we must consider whether the price of a few pounds really covers the costs of an ethical, environmentally-friendly production process. Prof Williams, in response to a discussion about the sustainability of a £5.99 T-shirt, stated “if a business is built on fair wages and living within environmental limits then, no, we cannot sell T-shirts at the price that we currently are” (BBC News).
Wear ethical brands. There are many clothing companies which promote an involvement in developing more ethical and sustainable processes and products. This includes the raw materials used to produce their items, an emphasis on creating more sustainable and natural alternatives to synthetic microfibres, and attempting to make production processes more innovative and conservative in the use of global resources.
Recycled fashion. Second-hand clothing is an excellent way to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry through reusing items which already exist and reducing the need to produce more. Charity shops and second-markets are both means to avoid mass consumerism and excessive consumption. In Sweden, second-hand shopping centres exist which sell only second-hand items. It is a movement, as described by Anna Bergstrom in a BBC News report, which aims to “bring second-hand shopping into the mainstream” and make it more attractive to the modern consumer. It is about taking responsibility and making the most of the resources which are already available.
Support the circular economy. A movement towards a circular economy could help to significantly reduce the attitude of excessive consumption of the fashion industry. WRAP UK defines circular economy as “an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them”. Consumers can participate in the circular economy by purchasing items of higher quality which will last longer, mending clothing items to extend their lifespan, and donating or recycling unwanted items to prevent landfill waste. Some high street stores offer the facility to exchange a worn-out product for a reduced price on a new equivalent. Currently “only 18% of clothing in the EU is currently reused or recycled”, a figure which could be drastically increased with consumer support of a circular economy (Carbon Trust).
In the documentary series “Fashion’s Dirty Secrets”, investigative journalist Stacey Dooley offers a poignant conclusion to this article’s discussion of the unsustainable nature of the “fast fashion” industry:
“The few pounds we spend for an item of clothing isn’t the true cost – the real cost is the millions of gallons of clean water that were used to grow the fabric, or the millions of gallons of fresh water that were polluted with toxic chemicals to dye the clothes. It’s a situation that needs addressing – and fast. There has to be a sense of urgency now because to be totally honest with you, we’re running out of time” (BBC).