The Amazon is burning. Drought, floods and extreme temperatures have become a part of our everyday conversation. Fast foods and the level of agriculture needed to keep up with demand is often in the spotlight, but just what impact does fast fashion have on the environment?
While meat-free Mondays are a great start to living more sustainably, the truth is that our need to keep up with the latest fashion trends has us running in circles. We, as consumers, are in constant pursuit of newness. And while fast fashion may be great for our pockets, there is little thought to what we are doing to the planet.
Luxury fashion brands produce up to six collections a year, while large online retailers stock up to 60,000 styles at any one time, regularly updating their inventory according to what’s trending.
In 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from global textile production totalled 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 – more than the emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The water used to produce these garments is astronomical.
Just one outfit can take up to 20,000 litres of water to produce.
Rivers across the world are boiling with some of the 8,000 synthetic chemicals used to turn raw materials into final products. And of the 150 billion pieces of clothing produced each year, most are kept for less than three years, with less than 1% of the material used to create them being recycled.
In the past 15 years, global textile production has doubled to meet demand, and the industry is set to expand by 63% by 2030.
Charity organisation Oxfam recently published a report on the fast fashion environmental crisis. The report shows how brands and stores like Zara, Forever21, and Topshop produce tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year.
According to them, the fast fashion trend produces the same amount of carbon emissions every two minutes as would be produced by a car driving around the world six times.
Everything from sourcing materials to creating collections to selling to washing and throwing away clothes produces emissions and impacts the environment.
Another survey of 1,000 Britons, commissioned by Oxfam and conducted by OnePoll, revealed that more than 50% of the population are unaware that fast fashion has a negative effect on the environment.
Three in 10 of those surveyed said that while they are shocked at the extent to which fast fashion damages the planet, they wouldn’t change their shopping habits. Meanwhile, one in 10 said they were “not bothered” by the impact their shopping habits may have on the world.
Over a million tons of clothes are disposed of every year in the UK, and 20% of that ends up as landfill. According to Fashion Revolution, Americans throw away approximately 14 million tons of garments each year or around 36kg per person of which 84% either went into a landfill or an incinerator while The Carbon Trust says that approximately 3% of global production of CO2.
These alarming statistics aside, one of the most significant factors contributing to the environmental impact of fashion is the many fast fashion companies who take advantage of cheap materials and fabrics. Not only do these materials shed microplastics when washed, but they also don’t have a very long shelf-life.
Textile production contributes more to climate change than aviation and shipping combined. And there are consequences at every stage of a clothing item’s life cycle, sourcing, production, transport, retail, use and disposal.
A polyester shirt made out of virgin plastics has a far larger carbon footprint than cotton. Transporting items increases that further and dying fabrics can introduce more pollutants. Microplastic fibres shedding into waterways is also a problem, and a single washing machine load can release hundreds of thousands of fibres.
UK government has considered several different solutions to tackle the carbon footprint of the textile and fashion industry, from taxing a penny on the price of an item to fund recycling centres, to reducing the rate of VAT on clothing repair services and introducing more sewing lessons in schools.
While some argue that the objective of policy should be to persuade us to buy less, the sometimes-fragile state of retail, and the importance of consumer spending to the economy, makes it hard for any politician to consider this option without significant backlash from the industry realistically.
Zara has recently pledged to switch to 100% sustainable fabrics by 2025, and other retailers are looking to improve how they source materials and their manufacturing processes.
The war on denim The history of denim starts back in the mid-nineteenth century when Levi Strauss and the tailor Jacob W Davis started making trousers out this now staple fabric. Intended as sturdy workwear favoured by miners and cowboys, denim was made from cotton, and the distinctive indigo dye came from the Indigofera tinctoria plant.
At the turn of the century, a synthetic indigo dye was developed, and by 1920, its use had far surpassed the use of the original plant, raising the production of denim to a new high. Soon, jeans came in all shapes and forms, and with further technological developments, reached a far broader clientele than those merely interested in workwear.
Today, denim is everywhere. It is used in jeans, jackets, skirts, tops, bags and even shoes. According to a recent study, the global denim market is worth over $56 billion, and it’s expected to hit $79 billion by 2023.
It takes roughly 700g of cotton to make a pair of jeans. It’s also mixed with spandex and other polyesters, and these materials are non-biodegradable.
Big brands like H&M, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Lee, and Reformation, have all recently signed on to a new project called The Jeans Redesign, intended to reduce the carbon footprint of denim production.
The latest initiative from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it promotes recycling and reusing denim, rather than it being tossed in a landfill, and companies that opt into this project promise to abide by standards that will ensure recycling is made more accessible.
Some brands have already started accepting old jeans. These are sent through a mechanical recycling factory which shreds them, and they can then be used for other purposes, like insulation in homes.
Chemical plants also have ways to break down jeans and recreate the polymers to make new materials. It is also possible to unravel yarns in such a way that the threads stay intact, though it’s hard to do, and mills to turn them back into fabrics. But while this technology exists, it has not yet been widely adopted.
The Jeans Redesign project is now trying to eliminate many of the hurdles that make the recycling process harder for recycling companies.
Earlier this year, the foundation brought together a group of 40 industry experts, including textile recyclers, apparel manufacturers, and fashion designers, to discuss why jeans aren’t’ being recycled. As a result, guidelines have now been drafted to show brands how to redesign jeans and make them more recyclable.
In line with these guidelines, 98% of the entire pair of jeans, by weight, must be made from cellulose-based fibres, like cotton, hemp, lyocell, or viscose. Brands must not more than 2% of plastic-based fibres, like elastane, and brands must reduce their use of metal rivets and other hard-to-remove decorations.
Hazardous chemicals also present problems for recyclers. Many jeans are distressed using various chemical processes, and the substances can become toxic or otherwise interfere with the chemical recycling process.
Any brand can choose to sign on to this project, and they only need to report back about how much progress they have made by May 2021. These guidelines also hope to make industrial recyclers more eager to gather old jeans as it will be a lot easier to put old jeans through the machines.
The foundation calculates that if all the clothes that were thrown away were instead recycled, they would generate more than $100 billion worth of materials each year.
The WWF has also been working towards a more sustainable textile industry, and they first launched the Better Cotton Initiative in 2009. Six principles were agreed upon for sustainable cotton farming, including crop protection through limited use of pesticide and herbicide, efficient use of water, soil management, conservation of natural habitats to enhance biodiversity, the preservation of fibre quality, and decent work and fair wages, which means no child labour, no forced labour, no discrimination, plus minimum health and safety requirements for workers.
In 2016, local retailer Woolworths joined the Better Cotton Initiative. Since then, Woolworths has radically transformed its fashion business, and over 80% of the cotton sourced is from sustainable sources.
When it comes to production, more eco-friendly methods are being used. Washed-out looks are now the result of ozone-washing, a much less chemically intensive process that transforms air from the atmosphere into ozone. This ozone can then be used to wash down denim, resulting in a zero-discharge process without water or chemicals and with a considerable reduction in the steps required to produce conventional denim.
The distressed look is also no longer the result of a chemically intensive process. Instead, laser technology is used to create abrasions, tears and breakages on denim.
Out-of-the-box and Eco-Friendly Burberry has recently launched a new sustainable clothing range - the capsule collection - which is made from recycled waste. This includes a reinvention of the British luxury brand’s lightweight classic car coat and uses econyl regenerated nylon which is made from fishing nets, fabric scraps and industrial nylon waste to create the collection.
As part of its goal towards sustainability, Burberry has said it aims to become carbon neutral by 2022.
Meanwhile, Nordstrom has become the first U.S.-based multi-line fashion retailer to offer an online shopping microsite dedicated to sustainable fashion. The Sustainable Style site features brands created from sustainably sourced materials, manufactured in factories that meet high social or environmental standards or that give back.
Nordstrom recently launched the section when the company joined the G7 Fashion Pact, a coalition of 32 global fashion retailers and suppliers representing 150 brands that have pledged to minimise the environmental impacts that the fashion industry has across oceans, climate and biodiversity.
The section features over 2,000 products from 90 brands, including Patagonia, Reformation, Eileen Fisher, Toms, Veja and Nordstrom’s own Treasure & Bond. Brands are sorted based on whether they are sustainably sourced, responsibly manufactured or give back through charities.
The site aims to make sustainable shopping more accessible. The retailer noted that it is also taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint and conserve resources across its supply chain to minimise its eco-impact.
Not an obvious choice when it comes to an ally for sustainable fashion, Prince Charles has also partnered with fashion designers Vin & Omi to create a collection made out of nettles from the royal grounds at his home.
Prince Charles’ donated nettles will form part of the sustainable fashion line of dresses by Vin + Omi, aptly entitled ‘Sting’.
The pair have experimented with eco-fabrics like cow parsley and horseradish in previous collections, and to date all their unique textiles have been borne out of a social or environmental project.
Well versed with nettles as raw material, Vin & Omi have already worked with textile yarn formed from the Himalayan Stinging Nettle, sourced from India. They also taught nearby villagers how to weave the nettle fabric naturally, helping them to become more self-sufficient. According to them, Nettle fabric is already common in Asia, but the UK nettle has been poorly utilised in fashion. Prince Charles offered up the nettles that were destined to be trimmed from his private gardens, and over 3,000 plants were harvested from Highgrove Estate.
The designers have described the resulting fabric as a type of alpaca, or even a very fine fleece with a wispy, airy texture.