The fashion industry produces unfathomable amounts of pollution. So unfathomable, nobody can provide an accurate guess as to how big the issue is. The most popular ‘facts’ - like “fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world” and “fashion produces 20% of the world’s wastewater” - have been shown to have no scientific basis. While misinformation is itself a huge problem, today we’ll be focusing on what we do know about the fashion industry’s toxic relationship with pollution. Not ones to dwell on the dark side, we’ll also be offering top tips to help combat fashion’s pollution problem!
Note - for the purpose of this article, pollution is considered any contaminant released into the natural environment. This definition extends to CO₂ and other greenhouse gases.
Fashion doesn’t last
The fashion industry has turned into a producer of cheap clothing that is quickly disposed of. Not only are cheaper materials more polluting, they also encourage a throwaway culture that places more emphasis on trends. A recent study, however, found that 35% of Brits buy clothing less frequently than they used to over concerns for the environment. This is a sign that the demand for fast fashion could be dropping off.
A resource-draining industry
As the Danish Fashion Institute confirmed to Racked: “fashion is one of the most resource-intensive industries in the world, both in terms of natural resources and human resources.” Energy. Pesticides. Chemicals. Dyes. Water. Shipping. Garment production. The list of resources relied upon by the fashion industry is seemingly endless. This, combined with poor legal regulation and brands failing to keep up with their own supply chains, results in high rates of pollution. We can take the dye-ridden rivers in China and Bangladesh as an example of chemical contamination from the fashion factories, or the Aral sea in Uzbekistan, as an example of land degradation from cotton cultivation. In the latter case we can’t conclusively say that fashion consumption caused the sea to dry up, but we can say it is closely linked to the unsustainable production of so-called “dirty cotton”.
Because garments require a lot of resources to be made, many of which are not renewable, the result is high carbon footprints paired with low environmental standards.
Overproduction leads to landfill and incineration
The fast fashion industry has a quantity problem. It’s based on a pre-made system that creates goods before the demand has been assessed. That means 10-30% of all clothing goes unsold, which is an enormous waste of resources. What happens to the unsold clothing? Much of it ends up in landfills or is even burnt. Just 1% of post-consumer clothing is currently recycled. The rest is binned, another reason the fashion industry is so polluting.
“The single biggest concern in the fashion industry is that there is too much clothing,” Sheng Lu, a University of Delaware professor told Bloomberg.
Fashion loves fossil fuels
The leading cause of both climate change and atmospheric pollution is the burning of fossil fuels. The most popular fashion industry fibre, overtaking cotton production in 2020, is polyester, which cannot be made without the use of fossil fuels. According to the World Economic Forum (be advised: they haven’t provided a source), polyester produces 2-3 times more carbon emissions than cotton. Global synthetic fibre production is said to burn more oil than what is used by the entirety of Spain. Oil emits carbon dioxide and methane, which have a profound global heating effect.
Microfibres pollute the ocean
Another issue with synthetics in the fashion industry is that they shed a lot of microfibres. These tiny plastics rub off in the wash, work their way through the water system and inevitably end up polluting the ocean. Should we care? Absolutely: however small they may be, microfibres are swallowed by marine life, which is subsequently caught and eaten by humans. That’s right - even if the ecological impact doesn’t worry you, the health effects are alarming.
What you can do about it
So now you know why the fashion industry is one of the most polluting. Thankfully, the conversation around sustainable fashion has changed in recent years - even if the speed at which big brands are modifying their production systems has not kept pace.
These are our tips to become a conscious shopper and an ambassador of sustainable fashion.
- Don’t buy fast fashion
Fast fashion is neither ethical nor environmentally sound. One top brand was found to have 85% of all their clothing made from polyester. You may be tempted by the price tag, but there are better alternatives that will last longer and leave you feeling more satisfied with your purchase.
- Buy less clothing
It’s almost too obvious to say. One of the best methods to reduce fashion’s impact on the planet is to not buy it in the first place! When you need to, opt for sustainable and, especially, recycled clothing, always checking the website of your chosen brand to make sure their production system aligns with their image.
- Call-out brands who are not doing enough
The louder we make our voices heard, the more incentive fast fashion brands will have to clean-up their act. Let’s make the fashion industry wake up to its own polluting practices.
Pre-ordering reduces overproduction (by enabling brands to estimate the amount of fabric and units they need to meet demand) and increases the value placed on the garments you’re going to own. That’s because the slower you treat the process of owning fashion, the more mindful you are of wearing and enjoying it.
- Wash your synthetic clothing in a dedicated bag
There are ways to prevent microfibres from shedding - namely by putting them into a microfibre catching bag to reduce laundry pollution! Failing that, you can make a conscious choice to own natural clothing instead.
What the fashion industry must do about it
Change has to come from the top down. We know that our customers are good people who make choices based on the impact they have on the natural world. But that can only get us so far - the global fashion industry must decarbonise (by boycotting fossil fuels) and clean up its act when it comes to dyes. This is best summed up by Greenpeace’s famous DETOX campaign. The fashion industry also needs to flip the script on the way it produces clothing. By switching to a pre-order model, the rate at which fashion is consumed and ordered will fall, as will the quantity of waste that’s left at the end. As the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries, radical change is needed.
Like many industries, fashion brands also need to become Climate Neutral by achieving Net Zero Greenhouse Gas emissions. Net zero occurs when a company or person reduces the amount of atmospheric pollution they create, and then offsets whatever remains by investing in effective wildlife conservation projects. Their balance sheet of GHG emissions will then read 0, because the outputs will be equal to the inputs.
Looking for a brand that does all of that and more? You’ve found TWOTHIRDS.