Fast fashion costs the earth
I could write a several thousand word post on all the evils of fast fashion, preaching how there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism and we the people should just revolt now and guillotine the bourgeoisie. A much easier task, though, would be to focus on just one of the snakes on the head of the fast fashion gorgon. When the issue arises of how ethical that Zara top may be, the conversation usually turns to sweatshops. (And rightfully so, it’s a horror the majority of us have built up an immunity to.) But another destructive problem which didn’t seem so obvious to me (maybe I’m just ignorant) is the fashion industry’s detrimental effect on the environment. It is a titan of pollution and waste. So much so that it’s the second largest polluter of our planet after the oil industry.
Fast fashion’s defining features are speed and low costs. This is achieved by cutting many corners, from the quality of the material to the wages of the labourers. More environmentally friendly options are substituted for cost-effective ones. There is pollution almost every step of the way: in growing crops for the material, in treating and dyeing it, in the tons of waste resulting from fashion having become disposable.
Some bleak statistics for you about how fashion is killing us
The prevalence of chemicals in cotton farming has caused cases of disease and premature death amongst cotton farmers, along with the environmental impact of water pollution and soil degradation. Besides farming, chemicals are one of the main components in our clothes as they are used in fibre production, dyeing, bleaching and wet processing. 1kg of chemicals is needed to produce 1kg of textiles. In most countries where garments are produced, untreated toxic wastewater from textiles factories are dumped directly into rivers. This wastewater contains substances such as lead, mercury and arsenic which are harmful for aquatic life and the millions of people living by river banks. The contamination makes its way from rivers to the sea and then all over the globe.
- Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally, after agriculture.
- 90% of wastewater in developing countries is discharged into rivers without treatment.
Up to 20,000 litres of water are used in producing just 1kg of cotton. And considering that it needs a lot of heat in order to grow, you can imagine the pressure on this precious resource in the warm, dry areas that cotton is cultivated. A visual representation of the consequence this has on the environment can be seen in the desertification of the Aral Sea (below). Stephen Leahy from the Guardian also puts it quite aptly: “85% of the daily needs in water of the entire population of India would be covered by the water used to grow cotton in the country. 100 million people in India do not have access to drinking water.”
Not to mention the dyeing and finishing process of our clothes: it can take up to 200 tons of fresh water per ton of dyed fabric. I’m not trying to drag the human race too much, but we have truly skewed priorities if 1.5 trillion litres of water are used by the fashion industry each year when 750 million people in the world don’t have access to drinking water.
- The fast fashion industry is the second biggest consumer of water, producing 20% of wastewater.
The Aral Sea in 2000 vs. in 2014.
Synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon are widely used in our clothes. They contribute to the increasing levels of plastic in the ocean because every time we put one of these garments in the washing machine they shed about 1,900 microfibres. These tiny fibres can then pass through sewage and wastewater treatment plants and into our oceans. The fact that they don’t biodegrade poses a serious problem for aquatic life. When small creatures, such as plankton, eat those fibres, they make their way up the food chain to the fish we may eat.
- 85% of human-made debris on the world’s shorelines are microfibres.
- 190,000 tons of textile microplastic fibres end up in the oceans every year.
- Around 100,000 marine animals are killed each year by plastic waste, including microfibres.
You can’t really talk about the destruction of our planet without mentioning greenhouse gases at least once. And, oh, do they feature in fashion’s production process. The fashion industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions. They generate this much because energy is used at every step: production, manufacturing, transportation. What’s more, most of our clothes come from China, Bangladesh or India. These countries are essentially powered by coal, the dirtiest type of energy in terms of carbon emissions. 23kg of greenhouses gases are generated for each kilo of fabric produced.
Fossil fuels are also used to make synthetic fibres (polyester, acrylic, nylon). This means that the production of these materials is much more energy-intensive than with natural fibres. 70 million oil barrels are used each year to produce polyester.
- The industry generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Soil degradation & rainforest destruction
The fashion industry is a leading culprit in the degradation of soil due to: the overgrazing of pastures by cashmere goats and sheep raised for wool; the massive use of chemicals in growing cotton, and the deforestation caused by wood-based fibres like rayon. Why should we care that our soil is going to shit? We need healthy soil for food production and also to absorb CO2. If nothing changes, degraded soil will lead to a 30% decrease in food production over the next 20-50 years. Soil degradation presents a major threat to global food security and contributes to global warming, and it’s happening on a massive scale throughout the world.
More on rainforest destruction: every year thousands of hectares of endangered and ancient forests are cut down to be replaced by trees used for wood-based fabrics such as rayon, viscose or modal. This, of course, is a threat to the ecosystem but also to indigenous communities.
- 90% of Mongolia’s surface is threatened by desertification, primarily due to the breeding of cashmere goats.
- 70 million trees are cut down each year to make our clothes.
This is part of the pollutive process which we as consumers have a lot of control over, and unfortunately as a whole we haven’t been doing a great job. On average a family in the western world disposes of 30kg of clothing a year, of which only 15% is recycled or donated. This falls into the larger problem of our planet being overrun with endless tons of non-biodegradable waste. The synthetic fibres used in 72% of our clothing are non-biodegradable, meaning they can take up to 200 years to decompose. Despite the UK having a national network of charity shops and in-store recycling points being on the rise on the high street, three-quarters of Britons throw away unwanted clothing.
- 5.2% of the waste in our landfills are textiles.
- The Copenhagen Fashion Summit reported that fashion is responsible for 92 million tons of solid waste being dumped in landfills each year.
More info about how you can help at sustainyourstyle.org
Choosing an eco-friendly fabric is difficult as just because it is natural or organic does not mean that it hasn't gone through similar steps of weaving, dyeing, finishing, sewing and transportation. Therefore the most sustainable option would be to move to a more circular model of textile production, reusing materials wherever possible. This reduces pressure on virgin resources and reduces textile waste too.
There are solutions you’ve heard before which promote a circular consumption of fashion: buying second-hand or from fashion retailers which use recycled textiles. You can buy vintage online at places like Tunnel Vision, The Vintage Scene, or even Depop without breaking the bank, but if you’re looking to spend less than a tenner, you’ll have to give up the comfort of online shopping and go visit your local charity shop/kilo sale. As for sustainable retailers, you can find a list at the website linked above, but the reality is it’ll cost you more than a £15 dress on Pretty Little Thing. I think this reflects why fast fashion has become so ingrained in our culture: it is a convenient mix of easy and affordable. Neither eco-friendly option has both: you either have to go out and search for a gem or stay at home and pay twice or even three times as much. But, if you’re not ready to entirely abandon the comfort of fast fashion or a 50% off Urban Outfitters sale fills your heart with joy, you could still decrease your impact.
Doing this would involve a re-evaluation of how we consume fashion. We should develop a more critical eye and a cynicism for what we are being sold. Subverting the traditional two seasons of fashion (Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter), many fast-fashion brands now release 52 micro-collections a year, inspired by the runway or relevant celebrities. With Topshop adding to their trove of treasures every week, it’s more likely that we’ll part with our cash because, “Oh my god look at all the cute stuff I don’t own!” This accelerated pace of fashion means that we are constantly made to feel “behind” and is the reason we look at our bursting wardrobes and complain that we have nothing to wear. It’s not necessary to completely abstain from following trends, but if you can’t wear the garment for more than a few months, then maybe don’t give in to your impulse this time. Choose something which, even if the Kardashian/Jenner/Hadid/Baldwins haven’t worn it, you genuinely like and feel is a cool piece of clothing regardless. Trends have an expiry date because the whole point is to get you to spend. Our wardrobes are saturated, so in order to sell us more products, retailers will tempt us with constant newness. There always seems to be some sale going on somewhere, leading us to spend unnecessarily because we think we’re saving money.
Another way to diminish our support for this toxic industry would be to shake the idea that clothes are disposable. Although a $5 top from AliExpress seems like a good idea, the quality of the clothes really takes a hit in order to get the price so low. If you’re lucky enough for your package to resemble the photo you saw online, you’ll discover that after a few washes the garment’s become shapeless and discoloured. The stitching and sizing can often be dodgy, and the material scratchy (cough, Fashion Nova). These problems can be ignored if you need a dress for one night and want to spend as little as possible, but in general we should move towards owning fewer clothes, of better quality. Shockingly enough we do own washing machines, and the snobby outrage of gossip sites towards celebrities who outfit repeat only fuels the idea that it’s a crime to be seen in the same attire. Sometimes it might be worth spending a little more for a versatile, stylish garment of better quality that lasts years rather than months.
It’s unrealistic to expect a complete transformation in the way we consume when shopping at fast fashion brands is so normal in our culture. Shit, even I’m a sucker for Urban Outfitters sales. But if you don’t believe that your habits don’t make the smallest difference: 400% more carbon emissions are produced if we wear a garment 5 times instead of 50 times. Although swearing off fast fashion altogether would be the strongest way for the industry to get the message, reducing how much we consume by making smarter choices is a good start.
Written by Anastasia Vartanian