Updated: Apr 11, 2021
The environment and its destruction has been a hot topic of late, rising in prominence with the courageous activism seen from Greta Thunberg and Gen Z, and recently sparking discussion in the new Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy. Whilst the fishing industry certainly has a negative environmental impact, its contribution is almost overshadowed by the shocking effects of the fashion industry, and our individual habits with clothing.
Clothing is the Second Largest Water Polluter
According to Insider, the fashion industry is the second largest consumer of the world’s water supply, and its textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water. This is due to residue water from the dyeing process being dumped into fresh water sources. Dr Patsy Perry from the University of Manchester notes in her research that “the waste water is going out into freshwater streams and polluting the rivers that people are fishing [and] living from.”
This isn’t the only concerning part of clothing production. The BBC reported that a whopping ten years’ worth of one person’s drinking water is used to make a single pair of jeans.
This is due to its predominant fabric, cotton, requiring very dry climates to grow in, and a lot of water to sustain it. Even more water wastage and pollution are caused after the jeans are made and have been purchased – clothes washing releases 500,000 tonnes of microfibers a year, an equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles being thrown into the ocean.
This problem persists even with sustainable rental services, due to the requirement of a large scale, thorough washing of garments in between customers.
The Fashion Industry uses More Energy Than Aviation and Shipping Combined
You heard that right – the clothes we wear can cause more chemical pollution than the flights we take. Around 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are down to the fashion industry. As most already know, there is transportation of goods to several countries during manufacture, and “regulations around pollution are often less strict in the countries of manufacture” (The Guardian).
In addition to cotton, man-made polyester is another popular textile that you have probably seen on your clothing labels. Polymer based material actually makes up “65% of the clothing we wear”, says Lynn Wilson, who led the Circular Economy textiles work at Zero Waste Scotland.
Unfortunately, approximately 70 million barrels of oil are used a year to make these polymer fibres, and once the garments are made, they will take hundreds of years to decompose.
Clothing Demand Set to Rise Even Further – No Hope?
Despite these harrowing facts, the fast fashion industry continues to expand, with more and more collections being released by both high street brands and luxury designers every year. Although nearly half of the clothes in our wardrobes across the UK are unworn and only 20% of clothes we own are worn on a regular basis (The Economist), we continue to actively buy clothes on a regular basis in order to stay up to date with the latest trends.
The Ellen McArthur Foundation found that during the years 2000 and 2015, the average number of times a garment was worn decreased by 36%, whilst clothing production doubled.
This doesn’t seem to be getting any better, as The Economist predicts that clothing sales will further triple by 2050. Libby Peake of the Green Alliance discusses how “we buy more clothing per head than any other country in Europe, including nearly twice as much as Italians, who are better known for their fashion sense.”
Where do these unwanted clothes end up?
The minimal number of times a piece of clothing is worn – which roughly has a life span of two years – results in textile mountains across developing countries like Ghana, where locals try to find gems amongst the rubbish to sell at their market stalls. It has got to the point though where there is not much they can find, as the quality and longevity of clothes have suffered as a result of their lightning speed production and use.
85% of textiles go to a dump each year, which could be visualised as a rubbish truck of clothing being burned or dumped at a landfill every second (Insider). The BBC reported on this and found the following:
“The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 2017 10.2 tonnes of textiles ended up in landfills while another 2.9 tonnes were incinerated. In the UK an estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothes end up in a landfill every year”.
This shocking number is looking like it will increase. So what can we do to stop that?
What are our solutions?
Measures proposed by MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in 2019 were rejected by the government. But there are some things we can do on an individual level to make small changes that will spark the big.
· Upcycling your old clothes – this is a fun activity you can do on the weekend that could even become your new hobby. Combine garments together or sew on cool patches or textiles to breathe a new lease of life into that old denim jacket.
· Continuing to actively wear a garment for just nine months longer could diminish its environmental impacts by 20-36% (BBC).
· Cut down on washing to save on water wastage and reduce the number of microfibers being released into our waters.
· Use charity shops – giving your unwanted and unused clothes to charity shops instead of throwing them away to end up in landfills gives rise to so many benefits. Participating in the second-hand cycle allows you to shop local and decrease the need for more manufacturing or transportation, as well as the need for fast fashion. It also encourages others to visit charity shops and buy their clothes from there too. Increasing the demand for second-hand clothes will allow charity shops to cycle stock with less stress or pressure to throw away old, unwanted stock and also contributes to a great cause by raising money. You can use our Dos and Don'ts of Clothing Donations guide.
Here at Clothing Collective, we work with charity shops to provide clothing for those in need, by raising money to produce vouchers which they can then use to buy second-hand garments. If you would like to help us in our endeavour, please donate your clothes instead of throwing them away, and if you are able to, you can pledge some money to our cause here.