• Manon Raath

The true cost of fashion: part 2

Fashion and its environmental impact.

Image by T. Mitchell of an exhibition called Fast Fashion - The Dark Side Of Fashion.

The fashion industry is the second largest polluter of this world…

Let that sink in for a bit.

Just after the oil industry, the fashion industry causes more destruction than any other industry. That tops the mining industry, plastic waste, household waste, car emission gasses… the list goes on.

But how?

The answer is: Fast Fashion.

The term ‘fast fashion’ refers to cheap garments of low quality that are copied from the latest catwalk styles and then pumped out quickly through fast fashion stores in order to maximise on fleeting current trends. Think H&M, Zara, Forever 21, Boohoo, Tempt…

It is a fairly new phenomenon, but one that is genuinely disturbing. The effect this has on the environment is devastating. Fast fashion retailers have rapidly grown by 9.7% between 2010 and 2015 and are only expanding faster.

· Fashion and water pollution

The fashion industry is the world’s second largest consumer and polluter of water. This includes water used in growing crops like cotton and flax as well as in the processing of fibres and dyes. It takes around 7600 litres of water to produce 1 pair of jeans. Only 1 pair! That is the equivalent of 1 human drinking 8 glasses of water every day for 10 years.

"Did you know that 750 million people in the world do not have access to clean water?" – Sustain Your Style.

I’m definitely not saying you need to stop buying jeans. But you don’t need 10 pairs. And you certainly don’t need a new pair every year or two. If you buy quality garments they should last you around 10 years or more. Imagine how much water we can collectively save by simply being mindful when we shop.

· Fashion and chemicals

Image via Textile Learner

The fashion industry is responsible for 20% of the world’s industrial water pollution. It might not sound like a lot, but that makes it the world’s second largest polluter of water.

Leftover water from dyes is usually discarded in streams, waterways and rivers and has caused major damage to ecosystems and water bodies. Not only is this affecting the water quality, but people that are dependant on these water sources too. These chemicals in the polluted water can cause cancer and other illnesses. This is especially true in 3rd world countries where resources and finances are already scarce to begin with.

“The fashion industry uses 4.9 trillion litres of water per year for fabric dyeing alone. That is enough water to fill 2 million Olympic sized swimming pools!” – World Resources Institute.

Another great threat to water resources is the tanning of leather. It is among the most toxic processes since it includes chemicals such as formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives and other non-biodegradable chemicals and dyes that contaminate water sources.

It is unrealistic to expect people to only wear un-dyed garments. But there are a lot of sustainable brands that dye fabrics and leather with natural dyes. There are companies that get rid of their wastewater in a sustainable manner. It is worth supporting these, although it takes a bit of research on your end.

· Fashion and microfibers

35% of micro-plastics in our oceans come from synthetic textiles like polyester. Polyester is a synthetic fabric that occurs in 60 % of our clothing. It is a much-loved fabric to use by fast fashion brands since it is cheap to produce and can easily mimic natural fabrics such as linen or silk. The problem with polyester is that it is petroleum based in its production and releases thousands of microfibers when washed.

Each year 500 000 tons of microfibers are released into the ocean from washing our clothes. That is the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles! – Business insider Australia

The solution? Buy clothing made from natural fibres produced in a sustainable way. Not only is it better for the environment, but also feels so much better on your skin. Natural fibres are usually more breathable and moisture wicking and less prone to cause skin irritation.

· Fashion and greenhouse gas emissions

Image from NJAL (Not Just A Label)

The fashion industry produces more than 10% of the world’s carbon emissions. That is more than all the emissions from international flights and maritime shipping combined!

Not to mention the amount of emissions caused by shipping millions of garments every day.

People often buy a few items of clothing online for an event, try them all on at home and then return the ones they don’t want to wear. This causes so much more waste. Did you know that when you return an item you ordered online, you are doubling the emissions caused by shipping that garment? Instead of it being shipped once, it is now shipped twice (to and fro). Most companies cannot afford to repair and repackage that returned garment, so they send it to landfill.

Online shopping is becoming more and more popular, and there is nothing wrong with that. But one thing you can do is to check out how your purchase is shipped, what packaging is used and from where it is shipped. It is ALWAYS better to shop and support local, so see if you can find something local before you look elsewhere. And be mindful when you shop. Don’t just buy something because it looks nice, buy it when you have carefully considered if it suits your style, body type, and if you can wear it with at least 3 different items you already have.

· Fashion and landfill

Image from Rolling.Grenades

Australians send the equivalent of one garbage truck filled with cheap, mass-produced, fast fashion items to the dump every second!

A study by the World Resources Institute shows that consumers on average bought 60% more clothes in 2014 than in 2000. The problem is that the clothes were only kept for half as long before being discarded.

Second hand shops cannot sell all the clothing and textiles they receive. The quality of clothing they receive is getting worse each year, thus a lot of it doesn't get sold. After auctioning some textiles off in huge blocks and cutting some up to make rags, Australian thrift stores spend $13 million annually to send unusable donations to landfill.

There are a few things you can do to help fight this problem. Think twice before you buy, stop buying cheaply made, fast fashion items, mend your clothes, swap clothes, and only send clothes to Good Sammies or the Salvo store if they are in good condition and you know someone else will be willing to pay for it.

· Fast fashion and human impact

Image by photographer Claudio Montesano Casillas

The fast fashion model is built on cheap labour, cheap fabrics and extremely fast production. Fast production means that sales and profits surpass human welfare. This causes great societal problems, especially in developing countries where labour is already cheap.

A report by the US Department of Labour in 2018 found evidence of forced labour and child labour where garment and textile workers are concerned in a multitude of countries. Amongst these countries are Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam.

Remake, a non-profit organization that focuses on ethical fashion, found that 80% of apparel is made by young women between the ages of 18 and 24 and from poor rural backgrounds. They are often harassed and abused but don’t report any of it to authorities for fear of losing their jobs.

Although these statistics look very grim and you are probably wondering if you can wear anything by now, there are some positives.

More and more brands are focussing on creating smaller, capsule collections and working with natural fabrics. Plastic free and compostable packaging is becoming more popular and the welfare of factory workers is getting more attention.

It has taken a long time for the world to realise that there is a problem, although a lot of people are still unaware of it, or don’t always know what to do about it. So here is a recap of some things you can do to help the situation.

  1. Educate yourself on environmentally friendly fabrics.

  2. Reuse or recycle old clothing – that doesn’t mean chuck it in a Good Sammies bin – swap with friends and family, participate in clothes swap events or mend your clothes.

  3. Encourage brands to make positive changes and get ECA accredited.

  4. Buy quality over quantity, always.

  5. Stop following 1 month old trends, and start buying timeless pieces.

  6. Some fashion stores like H&M, Uniqlo and Zara have introduced collection boxes at their stores, where you can donate your old clothing. (This is a bit tongue-in-cheek, since these are the brands that are creating the fast fashion problem in the first place.)

If you’ve missed the first part of this mini series, check out the first post here, where we did a cost breakdown of a fast fashion vs ethical fashion garment.

I would love to hear your thoughts and if you have any other tips on how to help the situation. Feel free to contact me so we can have a chat.

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