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The fashion industry is having a dramatic effect on the environment, and the scale is growing every year. What can we do to stop this?
A Growing Industry
The environment has a fashion problem. More clothes are being made, bought and thrown away than ever before – clothing production has doubled since 2000, and people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did at the turn of the millennium. Fashion designers and houses are increasing the number of collections that they release every year, and people only keep clothes for half as long as they used to. More and more, clothing is becoming a disposable resource.
This has severe ramifications for the environment, as well as for our wardrobes. The fashion industry now accounts for a full 10% of humanity’s total carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping activities combined. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts that if the industry continues in the same vein, this share of the carbon budget could jump to 26% by 2050! That’s over a quarter of the entire planet’s carbon emissions, just for clothes. And emissions are just the tip of the (melting) iceberg.
Making clothes consumes a tremendous amount of the planet’s very precious resources. To make one cotton shirt it takes around 700 gallons of water, while a pair of jeans requires about 2,000 gallons. One pair-of-jeans-worth of water is enough for a person to drink eight cups of water a day for ten years; 6 billion pairs of jeans are made every year.
Things get even more severe when you move into synthetic fabrics. The majority of clothes made these days contain polyester, a plastic that is perfect for garments due to being lightweight, inexpensive and durable. Perfect, that is, apart from the fact that manufacturing polyester uses a huge amount of oil. Every year, 70 million barrels of oil are used to make the polyester fibres in our clothes, and a polyester shirt has over double the carbon footprint of an equivalent cotton one.
The Devil Wears Microplastic
Even once they’re in your home, clothes are not finished affecting the environment. Washing clothes releases half a million tonnes of microplastic fibres into the ocean every year – the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic – usually defined as being smaller than a millimetre – that no do biodegrade, and are small enough to pass through most filtrations systems. This means that they pass freely from drains and sewers into rivers and oceans, and while the World Health Organisation have found no evidence that they pose a health risk to humans, they could pose untold risks to the natural environment.
Green is the New Black
Dressing well isn’t doomed to be an environmental disaster. People are working to make clothes production more sustainable, and there are ways that you can buy and dispose of your wardrobe without contributing to the problem.
Certification programmes are beginning to emerge, such as the Better Cotton Initiative and Global Organic Textile Standard, which endorse companies who take steps to reduce the environmental impact of their clothes production. If you’re buying new clothes, it’s worth checking the label to see if there is a logo from one of these green certification programmes – they are not all that widespread just yet, but provide an easy way for you to be confident in your purchases.
Some biocouture companies are looking to use surplus materials from other industries, such as wood and fruit, to develop green textiles with a much smaller carbon footprint. Others are investigating ways to dye fabrics without contaminating water supplies, or developing fabrics that biodegrade more easily once they are thrown away.
There are even some new startups that offer clothes rental services, allowing users to wear a different outfit every day without the excessive environmental costs that comes with buying clothes and discarding them after one use
Reduce and Reuse
But by far and away the best way to be more sustainable with your fashion is to buy fewer items of clothing, and throw fewer of them away. One garbage truck’s worth of clothes is burned or sent to landfill every second, so, if possible, keep the clothes you buy, and take care of them if they get damaged instead of throwing them away. Websites like Love Your Clothes (set up by UK recycling charity WRAP) offers tips to dress sustainably, including help repairing garments and information about upcycling. Whether you need to get stains out of leather or cotton, want to wash your clothes sustainably, or need to learn how to tailor old clothes into something new, we recommend checking it out.
Getting comfortable with imperfections and good with a needle and thread will extend the lifecycle of clothes, and lower the relative impact of your wardrobe on the environment. Sometimes, though, you will need to get new clothes, and you may need to throw some away. Charity shops, second-hand stores and vintage outlets are great places to both buy and offload old clothes without the need for any new garments to be produced. Supporting reuse in this way is an extremely effective way to rotate items in and out of your wardrobe while closing the loop on clothes production, and going diving for second-hand fashions can yield some great outfits at a fraction of the cost.
Fashion and Environment Conscious
Fashion weighs heavy on the environment, then, but it doesn’t need to. Many of the changes necessary to halt the harm that clothes cause to the natural world need to be led by manufacturers and companies, but as consumers there are ways for us to make our habits and behaviour count.