The fashion sector is massive, with 6% of all UK consumer expenditure being on clothing and shoes in 2015 and 555,000 people employed in fashion related industries in the UK alone. This means that as an industry its impact is far reaching economically – but how about environmentally?
Have you heard of ‘fast-fashion’? What it refers to is the rapid pace at which consumers cycle through garments. In recent decades the fashion industry has evolved to have very rapidly changing trends. This has led to a decrease in the demand for more one-off, expensive garments for higher prices, and an increase in the demand for the mass-manufacture and provision of a constant stream of lower priced, lower quality items which keep up with the changing trends. This has led to a huge amount of waste and pollution. This waste is produced at every stage of the product life-cycle…
Producing the fibres required to make clothing on mass scale is wasteful in itself. Take cotton for example: it takes 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to produce one pair of jeans. In some cases, this has led to major irreversible depletion of water sources. For example, the Aral Sea in central Asia used to be the main water source in the area. It was also relied on as the main source of livelihood, providing a fishing trade for the local towns. As shown in the image below, its volume has drastically dropped since 1960.
This can be attributed to the diversion of the rivers which fed it, for use in irrigation systems for cotton plantations.
Cotton is the thirstiest fibre to produce, but the mass agriculture of any plant is problematic. This is because it creates a monoculture which is bad for bee and other insect populations. Also, toxic pesticides and herbicides are commonly used which then run off into surrounding area. The places they grow were often once lush, biodiverse habitats such as rainforests which are destroyed to make room for them to grow.
Man-made fibres used in clothing are basically a type of plastic. This is problematic because they are made from oil which is a finite resource, and its extraction requires a lot of energy. Once the oil has been extracted it still needs to be processed in order to become a fibre, which requires a further expenditure of energy. Another problem with the production of fabrics for clothing is that, often, in order to ensure cheap production, labour is sourced unethically. Many large retailers outsource their labour to less economically developed countries where workers are willing to work for less. These countries often have less well-regulated working conditions in their factories and therefore, unfortunately, working conditions are often very poor. There are many instances of child labour, very long hours and dangerous working conditions.
Furthermore, the production process of clothing commonly uses chemicals and dyes to treat the fabric. These chemicals can end up being washed into water systems and causing harm to the surrounding environment and eventually the oceans.
The mass production of the fibre, the fabric and then the garment requires vast amounts of energy to power the factories. This energy generally comes from ‘dirty’ sources using fossil fuel which contributes to climate change.
Distributing the finished products to the country of sale takes up a very large amount of fuel, especially when the products are manufactured in eastern countries such as China and sold in western countries such as the USA (which is often the case). This is what is meant when a product is said to have high air-miles. This is before the products are even distributed within the country of sale which involves cross-country transport in fuel-guzzling trucks.
The sale of fashion items is also very wasteful, with lots of single use packaging and plastic clothing tags on every item. The fast-paced nature of changing fashion trends also means that a very large proportion of items are not sold before they are out of fashion and therefore are wasted. These are usually sent straight to landfill sites without even being used once.
The short-lived nature of fashion trends also means that fashion items are often worn only a handful of times before they are discarded. Another issue is that fabrics made from man-made fibres release microfibres when they are washed. These particles of plastic are so small that they cannot be filtered out by water processing plants and subsequently end up littering the water ways and oceans.
When a product is recycled the materials within it must be processed before they can be turned into something new. This requires a large amount of energy and resources, therefore it is always best to reuse things as much as possible before they are recycled.
Landfills sites are overwhelmed by discarded clothing. These landfills produce harmful chemical runoffs, degrading the surrounding environment. Greenhouse gases such as methane are released into the atmosphere from the anaerobic breakdown of the fibres which then contributes to climate change.
In Part 2 I will explain how we, as consumers, we can help this situation.
by Cecilia Neave, Environment and Business Undergraduate, University of Leeds