Cheap, quick and disposable; it seems we now have the same relationship with clothes that we have with our workday lunch. But the hidden cost behind our revolving-door wardrobes is something that we need to get to grips with. How our love of ‘fast fashion’ affects the environment is the subject of a parliamentary inquiry, and it’s drawn attention to the scale of the problem.
Here, we have a look at some of the ways that fast fashion harms our planet and what we can do to help make clothing more sustainable.
The textile industry is the world’s second-largest polluter of clean water after agriculture. The 1.7million tonnes of chemicals used to dye clothes leech into water supplies, including some known carcinogens. As the production of much clothing happens in areas of poverty and underdeveloped infrastructure, this could have a direct impact on the health of surrounding communities.
It’s also a very wasteful process. A staggering fact to emerge from researching fast fashion is that it takes 2,700 litres of water to make one t-shirt. That’s a lot of water…
Globally, the fashion industry emitted 1.2bn tonnes of CO2 in 2015. That’s more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. A recent UN report on climate change highlights the drastic action that needs to be taken to avoid catastrophic global warming. The fast-fashion certainly has a lot to answer for in this area.
For something regarded as being disposable, it’s no surprise that the fashion industry is incredibly wasteful. The world consumes 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year. In the production of that clothing, 60 billion square metres of textiles are discarded, unused or wasted.
So even if every item of clothing produced was in continuous use or recycled, waste would still be unavoidable. But, obviously, this isn’t the case. 235 million items of clothing were sent to landfill in the UK last year. In fact, ¾ of Britons throw clothes away rather than donate or recycle.
Every time we wash polyester clothing, 700,000 microfibres are shed. These make their way into the ocean. Once there, they’re eaten by plankton, entering the food chain. This eventually makes its way to humans through fish and other seafood.
As polyester is used in the production of a huge percentage of new clothing, this is a huge problem in and of itself. But even in the production of pure cotton clothing, the presence of toxic chemicals has its own environmental impact. The growth of cotton accounts for 18% of worldwide pesticide use and 25% of insecticide use.
What We Can Do
The obvious response to all this is to simply buy less clothes. It’s tempting to keep adding to your wardrobe when everything is so cheap. But there are more proactive ways of reducing your clothing’s impact on the environment.
Environmental campaigners often argue the need for a ‘circular economy of clothing’. This means turning the lifetime of a garment into a continual cycle of use and recycling. Finished with those jeans? Take them to a clothing bank. These can be found at supermarkets or other large developments. Here in Leeds, there are 30 of them.
Those jeans could be turned into an entirely new item of clothing for someone else to enjoy!
The recent explosion in vintage clothing is another good place to start. If you live in a town or city, it’s likely that there will be a regular kilo sale happening somewhere. As you pay for clothes by weight, you can pick up a lot of great stuff for cheap. Plus, it’s a great place to find a new pair of flares…
If you want to buy a new item, make sure it’s made from natural, organic fibre. Organic cotton is becoming more prevalent on the high street. Buying this material helps offset the damage caused to the environment through the use of insecticide and pesticide.
Repair and Alter
Nobody darns socks anymore. Why would you when it costs next to nothing to buy a new multipack? Despite the decline of darning, learning to repair torn, ripped or worn clothes is still important.
If you’re not a dab hand with a needle, take a spent coat, dress, pair of boots or any other valued item to an alteration and repair shop. Their work can be miraculous.