When you think about pollution you probably envision tall and smoking factories, coal power plants and traffic jams. But what if I’d tell you the second largest polluter in the world is actually linked to the shirt you are wearing right now?
The global apparel and footwear industries account for 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, nearly as much as that of the total carbon impact of whole European Union, according to industry report, Measuring Fashion. This is linked to the four main phases of our clothes’ life cycle: manufacture, purchase, washing and disposal: “for clothing, the processes from raw material to garment supply contribute around one-third of the waste footprint, three-quarters of the carbon impact and most of the water footprint” according to WRAP.
The good news: the science-based study Measuring Fashion also evaluated the environmental impacts of the apparel and footwear industry, identifying three pedals of change for a sustainable future: Rethinking Energy, Disruptive Reduction, and Design for the Future.
So let’s have a closer look at four ways the fashion industry is affecting the environment, but also at what we can do about it.
It came as a shock to me to learn that fabric dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean waters This is because the lively colours, patterns and prints but also the softness and waterproofing of many of our clothes are achieved by using toxic chemical. These substances, such as nonylphenol (NP) a hormone-disruptor known to accumulate in fish and other aquatic organisms, are toxic for aquatic life. River Citarum is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world and it’s not a coincidence that hundreds of textile factories line its shores.
What you can do about it – choose sustainable fabrics. Ever heard of Tencel?
Tencel is a sustainable fabric regenerated from wood cellulose. It is 50% more water absorbent than cotton, making it ideal for sportswear.
The logic is pretty simple: cheap fabrics and materials are used to save money, this in turn means clothes are designed to fall apart, you will need new ones soon, you will buy more. It’s a never-ending circle based around volume rather than quality and consciousness.
It must have happened to you at least once in your life: going through vintage items with your grandma in front of her wardrobe, with her telling you about all the special occasions when she wore that skirt (still looking pretty new), and maybe that time she had to mend it after it was trapped in the spokes of the bike-wheel. I have some sad news for you: this might not be you in a few years. Why? Because your clothes will be most likely rubbish by that time. And aside from the romantic aspect of it, the environmental impact this clothing cycle brings with it is immense.
The brutal truth is: fabrics are difficult to recycle. At the time being, only polyester and certain nylons can be reprocessed. This is due to the challenge to separate blended fibre materials, and today, this is the way most of our clothes are composed.
“A T-shirt that’s 99% cotton and 1% spandex can’t be saved from landfill today” says sustainability writer Hannah Gould.
The good news is science is moving fast with new models often referred to as “closed loop” or “circular textiles” technologies and studies. A good example is the ‘circular denim’ research at Deakin University which conceived a ground-breaking process that can grind old denim into particles that can then be turned into new denim. Or Swedish company re:newcell , that created a pioneering material using a technology that allows to recycle all materials that contain cellulose. Good news also with regards to polyester, now able to be polymerised by a technology developed by Japanese company Teijin.
The growing concept of the sharing economy (think about Airbnb or Depop just to name a few) certainly helps the concept of circular fashion, as we can see a number of apps, websites and initiatives aimed at giving old clothes a new life.
What you can do about it: be conscious (and aware), shop less, choose clothing designed to last longer; cherish what you have, donate to your local charity shop rather than throwing it in the bin. Get creative and learn how to repair and alter your clothes – there is a wealth of inspiration to be found on Pinterest and great tutorials on YouTube.
Every time we wash our clothes, millions of microplastics travel through the tubes of our washing machines reaching our oceans, resulting in water pollution and marine life feeding itself with what in essence is plastic. Not to mention the harm of soaps reaching not only our waters but soil as well.
According to the Guardian, an astounding 85% of the human-made material found in the ocean comes from materials used in clothing (mainly nylon and acrylic) – that is a lot!
What you can do about it: use lint filters that can increase the lifespan of your clothes but also prevent non-biodegradable materials from travelling through your washing machine pipes and reaching our waters. Choose biodegradable soaps over standard ones.
Is moving towards a circular model of textile production which reuses materials good? Certainly.
Is it good enough? No.
Innovation needs to start from design and production. What this means is that products needs to be created in a way which make it easier to recycle them.
You will hear more and more about the cradle to cradle model, a design process inspired by nature, aimed at eliminating the concept of waste. How? By considering recyclability, reusability and environmental impact during the design stage of the process.
Once again, nature shows us the way.
For more ethical fashion tips, follow Vilda on Twitter