The unfashionable truth: How fast fashion is costing the earth
The unfashionable truth: How fast fashion is costing the earth
We know that fast fashion can be one hell of a hard habit to kick – it’s cheap and on every corner – and we’re not here to chastise you for your choices.
But if you’re ready to take responsibility for the planet and join us in the slow-fashion lane, let us help by providing a selection of what we think are the most compelling environmental reasons to give up the greed for good.
It’s easy to feel powerless when faced with the facts. Our ice caps are melting, our freshwater is slowly being poisoned, the fish are eating plastic, and now we’re eating plastic too… great.
But what can we actually do about it?
Well let’s start in your wardrobe. The clothing industry is broken, it is the second most polluting industry in the world producing 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions.
If we don’t take action it will continue to drag us all down with it.
So when you ask yourself the question ‘what should I wear today?’, know that it now holds more significance than ever.
Ok, so how did we get in this mess?
In the 1960s the ‘fast fashion’ trend-treadmill really started to get going, 20 years after the invention of polyester.
The demand for regularly updated and affordable clothes was driven by the generation of rock and roll fashionistas who wanted the latest bright-colored flares and rejected the humdrum ways of the older generation.
Throughout the 1990s the majority of clothing brands in the western world moved their production overseas to developing countries to capitalize on cheap labour and materials.
This escalated in the 2000s as fast fashion dominated popular culture and the number of polyester clothes overtook cotton fourfold – beginning what is one of the largest problems we face, plastic clothing pollution.
Today polyester, which is a non-biodegradable polluting plastic created from fossil fuels, is in over half of all our clothing. This figure is expected to double by 2030, Greenpeace predicts.
The clothing industry is broken, it is the second most polluting industry in the world producing 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions.
Polyester is a big problem. Every piece of polyester (polyethylene terephthalate) that has ever been created still exists today, whether in a recycled form or not – and it is not going anywhere.
Yet despite this, 150billion pieces of clothing are created every year, around half of which will contain the plastic fiber.
The process of creating polyester accounts for 40% of the fashion industry’s total emissions and is is incredibly energy intensive, using more than double the energy of cotton, wool, or viscose.
To make matters worse, every time an item of polyester clothing is put in the washing machine it releases between 700 thousand to 6 million tiny fibers called ‘microplastics’ which are so small (less than 5 millimeters in size) that they often pass through any filtration systems in place.
Today’s ocean pollution is made up of 30% microplastics that have travelled through the water systems to the sea, where they are eaten by fish, and then eventually us.
Between 10% to 30% of all the fish in the sea now contain these microplastics no matter where in the world you take the sample, researchers at the UK’s Natural History Museum believe.
Research has found that humans are consuming over 100,000 microplastics particles each per year.
So what can we do? Firstly, avoid buying virgin polyester if you can. Instead stick to natural fibers or recycled polyester (rPET).
Secondly, keep your polyester clothes from ending up in landfill by reselling, recycling, or reusing them where possible.
Recycled Polyester, known as rPET, is one of the best (and very few) uses for discarded polyester items and requires 59 percent less energy than producing it new.
However, there is a catch as recycling polyester into rPET using the standard mechanical method can only be done a few times before the fibers degrade and become low quality.
Each time the plastic is heated to be recycled it degenerates, meaning it has to be ‘down-cycled’ into lesser quality products, before eventually becoming useless.
It is also not possible to recycle PET fabric that is mixed with other materials. For example, stretchy clothes with elastic running through them.
Despite these hurdles, the recycling process is still worthwhile. The lifetime of a single item of polyester clothing could span several human lives when recycled, preventing new plastics from being created.
But let’s not kid ourselves, after that old polyester fleece has been recycled several times it will inevitably end up in landfill.
Cotton is the world’s most used fiber, followed by polyester. If grown organically, cotton can be far more sustainable than its man-made alternatives, which create plastic pollution.
However, conventional cotton crops cover 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land but use a shockingly disproportionate 16% of the world’s insecticides and 6% of its pesticides.
These extremely toxic pesticides cause a whole host of health issues for the cotton farmers and those living in the surrounding regions, including cancer, leukemia, miscarriages, neurological diseases and infertility.
The chemicals are also having catastrophic ecological effects on wildlife as they travel up the food chain and bioaccumulate in the bodies of larger animals, including humans.
In addition to this, non-organic cotton crops require 91% more water than organic cotton crops. This has led to farmers divert crucial water supplies onto their water guzzling cotton plants.
This is seen at the Indus River in Pakistan where 90% of the river’s water is irrigated away to be used on conventional cotton plants, depriving the communities that rely on it to survive.
If you’d like to know more about why you shouldn’t settle for anything less than 100% organic cotton read more here: Pick your cotton carefully, lives depend on it: Organic Cotton Vs. Conventional cotton(LINK)
The fashion industry accounts for 10% of all carbon emissions. That is five times the carbon output for all of the world’s airline travel.
Irresponsible mass manufacturing of clothing in developing countries where the power grid still relies on the dirtiest form of energy, coal, is largely to blame for this.
China (the US’s largest trading partner) is 77% powered by coal. In India the figure is 70%. For comparison the US uses 33% coal to power the grid.
The fashion industry is the second largest consumer of water after fruit and vegetable farming. It is estimated to use a whopping 1.5 trillion liters of water every year.
It takes 2700 liters of water to create just one cotton t-shirt. That is the equivalent of taking 33 baths.
Perhaps more immediately concerning is what happens to all of that water when it becomes waste.
The industry is the second greatest polluter of freshwater globally due to 90% of dye houses in the developing world pouring dyestuffs into local supplies on a daily basis.
Only 1% of the world’s water is drinkable, and the fashion industry is committing ‘hydrocide’ by polluting what little water we have with synthetic chemicals which will never biodegrade.
The fashion industry accounts for 20% of wastewater created, due to its heavy use of ‘wet’ processes which include dyeing, printing and finishing fabric with anti-wrinkle or water-resistant coatings.
Across the world unregulated factories are haphazardly disposing of untreated wastewater mixed with toxic chemicals into their community’s fresh water supplies day and night, in catastrophic amounts.
The stream of toxic byproducts including chemicals such as lead, mercury, and arsenic, that are being dumped into waterways is not only affecting those living in the regions, but is also responsible for the widespread decline of aquatic life and the ecosystems that it supports.
Environmental laws are in place to prevent factories dumping dyes into water supplies in most countries, including China, India, and Bangladesh, however these are not enforced.
In 2011 northern China’s Jian River, which provides drinking water to the city of Luoyang, in Henan province, famously turned into a ‘river of blood’ after a chemical dump from a dye factory saw the water turn bright red.
The fashion industry accounts for 20% of wastewater created, due to its heavy use of ‘wet’ processes which include dyeing, printing and finishing fabric with anti-wrinkle or water-resistant coatings
A problem arises when you no longer want to wear the bright yellow polyester onesie you bought to cosplay as Homer Simpson. So what now?
Due to the poor quality of mass-produced items, which are often not possible to repair and regarded as ‘disposable’, more and more clothes are being thrown in the trash.
The average American produces 37kg (82 pounds) of textile waste every year, about the weight of a cinder block. That’s 11 billion kg (11 million tons) of textile waste each year from the U.S. alone.
Around 85% of all this unwanted clothing then ends up in landfill, where it will linger without ever biodegrading, even if the clothing is made from natural fibers such as cotton. This is due to a lack of oxygen for decomposition in the compactness of the trash pile.
Other plastic waste
When clothing is shipped to stores it is often on a disposable coat hanger and individually wrapped in plastic to keep it in pristine condition.
Around 85 billion single-use coat hangers are thrown out every year. Most of these cannot be recycled due to being a mix of different plastics.
This all adds up to be yet another significantly polluting factor of the fashion industry.
The human cost
How a clothing brand treats the people manufacturing its clothes is probably a good indication of how environmentally responsible the company is.
Human suffering caused by fast fashion comes in many forms, from the farmers who are exposed to extremely toxic cancer-causing pesticides when growing the materials, to the sweatshop workers who are employed for long hours in poor conditions and paid cruelly low wages.
Garment workers across the developing world will never benefit from the billions made from their exploitation, 98% of them are not earning a living wage.
In Bangladesh for example, 3.5million sweatshop workers earn a poverty wage of around $35 a month for working 14 to 16 hours, seven days a week. The living wage for adequate shelter and food is approximately $62.
Child and slave labor is prevalent, along with poor health and safety, discrimination, and abuse. In the last 30 years 50 factory fires in the country have killed 400 workers.
These unregulated factories, that can be found in almost every developing country around the world, are not only poisoning their employees through neglect, but the planet as a whole.
What can I do?
Look for transparency.
Does a brand name the factories it is working with? Or is it too ashamed to reveal it relies on factories where child or forced labor takes place.
(The origins and certifications of Hues’ products can be easily viewed by using your phone to scan the sewn-in chip.)
Is a brand truly conscious about the materials it is using? For example, often a cotton product is labelled ‘organic’ even if it only uses a small percentage of organic material mixed in with some non-environmentally conscious fabric.
Look for brands operating a ‘circular economy’ where they responsibly reuse and recycle their waste.
In conclusion, there’s no need to throw vanity out the window, but overconsumption is something we’d all be far healthier without.
Look at what you have, decide what you need, and then try not to let your ‘impulse’ shopper run wild at the checkout as you make an informed choice.
The origins and certifications of Hues’ products can be easily viewed by using your phone to scan the sewn-in chip