A parcel arrives with a new garment you ordered online for a wedding but never wear and eventually throw away with tags on. You decide it’s cheaper to buy a new pair of boots instead of repairing a small hole. You impulsively buy a trend piece from Instagram that you ultimately decide does not suit you. It’s hard to connect the dots between these regular occurrences and environmental despair. But the fashion industry has created a short lifecycle for clothing and mass consumption has a disastrous environmental impact.
UN Conference on Trade and Development says that the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. Clothing is no longer a functional purchase but rather a compulsion and a source of entertainment.
The environmental impacts of our consumption patterns are vast. But in order to make true sustainable and meaningful change we must first understand the specific consequences that the fashion industry has on the planet.
Here are four direct environmental impacts that the fashion industry has:
1. Carbon emissions
The production, manufacturing and transportation of clothing emits massive quantities of carbon into the environment. It has been widely reported that the fashion industry accounts for an astonishing 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. For perspective, this is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Part of this problem is caused by the sheer quantity of clothing and textiles that we are producing and buying. People now consume 80 billion new pieces of clothing each year. This is 400% more than we consumed two decades ago. Trends move at a frenetic pace and people feel compelled to purchase far more than they need in order to stay relevant and gain status. More clothes inevitably lead to more emissions through usage, in the form of washing, drying and ironing.
Another aspect of rising carbon emissions is the material that clothing and textiles are created from. The increasingly popular use of relatively cheap materials like polyester results in nearly 3 times higher emissions of CO2 than materials like cotton.
The only way to combat the serious environmental impacts of the fashion industry and curb emissions are initiatives towards renewable energy, increased energy efficiency, widespread operational improvements and concerted efforts from the industry and consumers to change and become more sustainable.
2. Pollution footprint
There is no question that the fashion industry is heavily responsible for polluting land and water. In fact, the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide. Garments contain large amounts of hazardous chemicals because of the way that they are produced and manufactured. It is estimated that 1,900 individual microfibers and microplastics are released into the water when we wash our clothes. Marine life are then ingesting tiny fibres in synthetic materials. In fact studies have found that synthetic microfibers are at risk of poisoning the food chain.
The heavy use of chemicals used during the farming of raw materials, fibre production, dying and processing fabric and textiles has a severe environmental impact. Around 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used in the fashion, textile and footwear industry to turn raw materials into final products. This is not only harmful to the natural environment but poses serious health risks to the people involved in manufacturing and producing fashion items.
3. Latent waste and landfill
A massive environmental issue in the fashion industry is latent waste. Fast fashion trends have meant that people buy clothing and only wear it once or twice before putting it into landfill. In fact, on average, consumers wear clothes 36% fewer times than they did 15 years ago, says a McKinsey report. Consumers once had fewer items that they wore more frequently and now it is common for people to have a whole wardrobe that they barely use and regularly purge in order to create more space to buy.
Of the clothing we throw away only 15% is recycled or donated, meaning the large majority goes directly to landfill. According to ABS statistics, here in Australia we send 85% of the textiles we buy to landfill every year. Worryingly, the synthetic fibres often favoured by fast fashion brands can take up to a thousand years to biodegrade.
The only way to mitigate this is by buying less and getting more use from what we do buy. It is also important to educate the public on how to properly recycle or donate clothes. For the industry, it means creating clothing to last and focusing heavily on a circular economy. The way forward is upcycling and repurposing recycled materials.
4. Water consumption
Another serious environmental impact that the fashion industry has is its excessive use of water. The dyeing and finishing process of garments requires huge volumes of water. Vogue reported that on a global scale, the textile industry uses between six to nine trillion litres of water each year, just for fabric dyeing alone.
Another massive cause of water waste is cotton farming. Cotton is a very thirsty crop. It can take 2,700 liters to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt. For perspective, that is enough for water for one person to drink at least eight cups per day for three-and-a-half years. It takes 10,000 litres to make a single pair of jeans. In a world of water scarcity, these are alarming statistics.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation reported that the fashion industry uses enough water to meet the consumption needs of five million people. The industry needs to recognise the dire consequences of excessive water consumption and take decisive action to combat this. Brands need to re-evaluate raw materials used and consider more sustainable methods of dyeing and manufacturing. Another approach is recycling materials. Some studies have shown that recycling cotton saves 20,000 liters of water per kilogram of cotton.
The fashion industry needs to make serious changes to address the environmental impact that clothing has on our planet. Brands and businesses have a responsibility and a duty to understand the impacts that production and manufacturing have on the environment. Beyond creating more sustainable and innovative practices, the industry also must take accountability for business models and stop encouraging people to buy more just for the sake of it. Consumers are a big part of this equation. Together we must rethink fast fashion and begin to buy less.