THE IMPACT OF “DISPOSABLE” CLOTHING ON OUR PLANET
This week is Fashion Revolution Week – an annual campaign bringing together the world’s largest fashion activism movement for seven days of action to collectively reimagine a just and equitable fashion system for people and the planet. Our global addiction to “disposable” clothes – buy, wear, throw away, repeat – is putting pressure on our planet and enabling human rights violations against the workers that make them. Greenpeace sums it up perfectly: “The antidote is simple: ethical, sustainable fashion (and a lot less of it)”. Why is fast fashion such a problem and what do the alternatives look like? Candice Moen did some googling and has been having nightmares ever since.
The amount of clothing bought in the EU per person has increased by 40% in just a few decades, driven by a fall in prices and the increased speed with which fashion is delivered to consumers. Clothing accounts for between 2% and 10% of the environmental impact of EU consumption. This impact is often felt in third world countries, as most production takes place abroad. The production of raw materials, spinning them into fibres, weaving fabrics and dyeing require enormous amounts of water and chemicals, including pesticides for growing raw materials such as cotton. Consumer use also has a large environmental footprint due to the water, energy and chemicals used in washing, tumble drying and ironing, as well as pollution being caused by microplastics shed into the environment. Less than half of used clothes are collected for reuse or recycling when they are no longer needed, and only 1% are recycled into new clothes, since technologies that would enable recycling clothes into virgin fibres are only now starting to emerge. Various ways to address these issues have been proposed, including developing new business models for clothing rental, designing products in a way that would make reuse and recycling easier (circular fashion), convincing consumers to buy fewer clothes of better quality (slow fashion), and generally steering consumer behaviour towards choosing more sustainable options. [Nikolina Šajn, European Parliamentary Research Service]
SOME SCARY STATS
People buy 80 billion garments around the world every year: The clothing industry produces 80 billion pieces annually, according to Dana Thomas’s new book ‘Fashionopolis’.
A rubbish truck of clothes is burned or landfilled every single second: Every single second 2,625kg of clothing becomes waste that needs dealing with in some way. This is enough to fill the Empire State building one and a half times every day, and Sydney harbour every year. The average consumer bought 60 percent more clothes in 2014 than in 2000, but kept each garment for half as long. [Elizabeth Reichart and Deborah Drew, World Resources Institute]
Fashion is now the world’s second-largest polluter after the oil industry: Fabric production is a huge carbon emitter, releasing the equivalent of 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. This is more than international flights and shipping combined. [publications.parliament.uk]
Nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used each year to make the world’s polyester: Polyester is fabric made from plastic fibres and it is now the most commonly used fibre in our clothing. As plastic is made from petroleum, it requires huge amounts of oil to produce. Polyester takes more than 200 years to decompose and is the source of serious plastic pollution. Not only when clothes are dumped but microfibres are released every time polyester clothes are washed. [James Conca, forbes.com]
It takes around 10–20,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of cotton: While cotton is biodegradable and not polluting to wash, it is a water-heavy plant to grow. Producing a kilo of cotton, enough to create a t-shirt and jeans, uses up as much water as one person drinks in 13 years, according to Oxfam.
Fabric production is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution annually: Textile production generally requires chemicals which need to be diluted through washing, and eventually disposed of, making water pollution another huge issue. Look out for standards like “Oeko-Tex” that provide reassurance that health- and environment-harming compounds haven’t been used in the production of certified fabrics. [James Conca, forbes.com] Growing cotton uses 18% of pesticide % 25% of insecticide worldwide: According to 2015’s fast fashion documentary, ‘The True Cost’, over 90% of cotton is genetically modified and, because of this, can be sprayed with chemicals causing the loss of huge amounts of insects just to feed our fashion frenzy. The True Cost also contains shocking statistics of the high numbers of cotton farmer suicides in India, partly from being forced into debt as a result of buying GM cotton seeds. [greenpeace.org.uk]
PRODUCTION & DISTRIBUTION
Spinning raw materials into yarns, weaving them into fabrics and applying finishing techniques such as dyeing or giving the fabrics strength and shine are energy-intensive processes in which large amounts of water and chemicals are used. More than 1900 chemicals are used in the production of clothing and 165 of these have been classified by the EU as hazardous to health or the environment. According to the 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, the dyeing of fabric can require up to 150 litres of water per kilogram and, in developing countries where most of the production takes place and where environmental legislation is not as strict as in the EU, wastewater is often discharged unfiltered into waterways. The production of garments also uses a significant amount of energy for sewing, gluing, welding and seam-taping equipment. The cut-offs that are left over after the patterns for the clothes have been cut out are also responsible for about 20% of the industry’s fabric waste. [publications.parliament.uk]
Some companies, such as Dutch company DyeCoo, are experimenting with different dyeing processes, (using CO2 as the medium instead of water), others are experimenting with different cuts, computer controlled tools for pattern making to use more of the fabric with fewer cut-offs, garments with no or fewer seams, bonding or gluing instead of sewing.
Most textile raw materials and final products are imported into the EU, which means long delivery routes. However, according to the Pulse Report, which is a qualitative and quantitative report of the sustainability performance of the global fashion industry, this distribution stage accounts for only 2% of the environmental impacts of the industry, as most large stakeholders have optimised the flow of goods. However, this phase is also characterised by waste generated through packaging, tags, hangers and shopping bags, as well as by a large proportion of products that never reach consumers, the leftovers that are simply thrown away. [Pulse Report, globalfashionagenda.com]
WEAR AND TEAR
Consumer use is the phase that a Joint Research Centre (JRC) study (2014) estimated as having the largest environmental footprint in the lifecycle of clothes, owing to the water, energy and chemicals (primarily detergents) used in washing, tumble drying and ironing, and the microplastics shedding into water.
The report concluded that one of the most efficient ways to reduce the environmental impact of clothes is to persuade consumers to make small behavioural changes, such as reducing washing temperature and time, washing at full load, switching from detergents to products such as the Ecoegg Laundry Egg, avoiding tumble-drying, purchasing eco-friendly fibres and donating clothes that are no longer used.
Consumers can also lower the environmental impact of their garments by washing their clothes less frequently (and airing them instead) and avoiding unnecessary ironing. Tiny bits of polyester that shed from our clothes account for 85% of all human-made debris found on shorelines around the world. In 2017, Greenpeace even found microplastics in the waters of the Antarctic. A study published in 2020 revealed that microplastic particles had been discovered in the placentas of unborn babies for the first time, which the researchers said was “a matter of great concern”. In 2022, subsequent research has discovered microplastics in human blood (in almost 80% of the people sampled) and deep in our lungs as well.
DISPOSAL OF CLOTHING
Most clothes in the EU still seem to be thrown away and burned in incinerators or end up in landfill where they release methane, although reliable and recent data on what happens to clothes once their owners decide to get rid of them is not readily available. The decomposition of textiles generates methane gas and releases toxic chemicals and dyes into the groundwater and soil. Synthetic fibres like polyester, nylon and spandex, are usually formed through chemical processes and are not biodegradable. These textiles can be compared to plastic and, although they will break down into smaller pieces over time, they are likely to sit in landfills for up to 200 years (polyester!) before they decompose fully. [theslowlabel.com]
The Textile Recycling Association estimated that only 15-20% of textiles disposed of in 2005 were collected for reuse or recycling. Just to note here that it is unclear what proportion of these clothes were actually reusable and what % went on to be dumped. Once unwanted clothes are collected, they can either be reused as second hand clothes, or recycled. Currently, there are issues with both options. Supply outstrips demand for second-hand clothes in the EU and a large % is exported. This has caused concerns that cheap second-hand clothing is causing the decline of local textile industries and that waste is exported to countries that are unable to deal with it. The Chilean port city of Iquique receives 60,000 tonnes of unwanted clothing every year, most of which gets dumped in the Atacama Desert (see pictured below). This clothing comes from all around the globe. When we throw garments away, they journey on to Iquique and other port cities in places including Ghana, India and Eastern Europe.
Recycling also faces a number of issues and, globally, less than 1% of all materials used in clothing are recycled back into clothing. There is a lack of new technologies (or they are still in development) for sorting the collected clothing, separating blended fibres, separating fibres from chemicals and colour dyes, and establishing which chemicals were used in the production in the first place. This is why most clothes are recycled mechanically – they are cut up and shredded leaving shorter fibres of a lower quality that have lost 75% of their value. These fibres are often not used to manufacture new clothes but are down-cycled into insulation material, cloths or mattress stuffing. [publications.parliament.uk]
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Extend longevity of clothes: Estimates show that if the number of times a garment is worn is doubled on average, the GHG emissions would be 44% lower. Some of the ways we could do this are: (1) Slow fashion – buying fewer clothes of better quality and keeping them for longer; (2) Fashion as a service. Some brands already offer clothes as a service – leasing their clothes instead of selling them; taking their example from established services of renting wedding / special occasion wear, protective clothes and newer services of renting maternity and baby clothes. Other businesses operate clothes subscription services, where consumers pay a monthly fee to rent a fixed number of garments at a time, enabling them to change their wardrobe frequently without buying new clothes; (3) Improved collection for re-use, repair and up-cycling.
Improve collection and recycling: Like the circular economy in general, circular fashion looks at ways to reduce waste to a minimum and keep the materials within the consumption and production loop as long as possible. Products should be designed with multiple lifecycles in mind. This trend could be supported by the implementation of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and in-store collection of unwanted clothing. France is the only EU Member State to have an EPR law for clothes, in place since 2006 and from 2022, unsold textiles may no longer be destroyed in France, but must be donated or recycled. [journals.sagepub.com]
Be responsible consumers – this is where individuals come into the equation: Efforts to make clothing more sustainable require acceptance and support by consumers. Through campaigns or by providing information on sustainability in stores or on clothing tags it may be possible to educate consumers to buy only what they need and to choose more sustainable options. Research shows that consumers are generally in favour of environmentally responsible fashion, but that this is not necessarily reflected in their actual behaviour. Choosing a more sustainable option could be made easier through clear and standardised labelling of environmentally friendly products. As washing and drying make a large contribution to the environmental impact of clothes, the industry could also help by providing consumers with better information on how to reduce this impact on care labels.
This article has focused on the environmental impact of fast fashion, which is huge, but environmental impact is not the only concern – there are significant human rights violations that are being perpetrated by producers of cheap clothing and it is essential that we keep this in mind as well. Remember, it takes just four days for a CEO from one of the top five global fashion brands to earn what a Bangladeshi garment worker will earn in her lifetime [Oxfam, 2018].