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Environmental Impacts Of Fashion Industry

Environmental Impacts Of Fashion Industry

The fashion industry is one of the most expensive and influential industries on our planet.

According to a report by The Guardian, fast fashion has grown more than three times as quickly as any other sector in recent years, making it a major driver of climate change.

It’s been estimated that it accounts for up to 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than what all cars and trucks contribute to climate change.

Its environmental impact goes beyond this, as textile production has a long list of other impacts on the environment.

This blog post will explore these effects and provide some ways you can reduce your individual contribution to them!

Unsustainable Fabrics

The fashion industry relies heavily on fabric, with over 30 billion meters of textile produced annually.

Most of our clothes are made of cheap materials – The majority of this is a synthetic material made from petroleum and plastics that are not biodegradable or recyclable.

Such materials are equally harmful to our planets – as much as plastic bottles or bags. Yet, to have affordable clothes – we have to use cheap materials.

About 60 percent of the world’s clothing is made of materials of artificial origin, which are largely non-biodegradable. 

The top 6 toxic clothing materials are:

  • Polyester fibre 
  • Acrylic fibre
  • Artificial silk
  • Polyamide fibre or nylon
  • Acetate (and triacetate) fibres – a type of fibre that belongs to the group of regenerated fibres.

When it comes to smart clothing, the choice is always between:

  • natural plant fibres such as cotton, hemp, silk, wool, and flax (less often you can find jute, cashmere)
  • man-made materials of cellulose fibres, wood or bamboo
  • synthetic fibres such as polyester, acrylic, elastin, microfiber, etc.

Avoid clothes that have the following indicated on the labels:

  • anti-static
  • waterproof
  • antiperspirant (perspiration-proof)
  • moth-proof and mildew resistant
  • chlorine resistant

All these labels indicate that the material has been treated with high levels of formaldehyde which is very harmful to our health and environment. 

Fast Fashion Water Consumption

In the production process, the fashion industry uses 7,000 liters of water to make one pair of jeans, which is the amount that the average person drinks within 6-7 years. Levi calculated that it took about 3781 L of water to produce one pair of farmers.

Fast fashion is the term for when companies produce cheap, low-quality clothing and sell it at a high price.

These clothes are often made in countries with lower labour costs, such as Bangladesh or China.

The environmental impact of fast fashion includes water consumption. It takes an average of 1 litre per item to make one t-shirt.

That means that if you buy three shirts each month from a fast-fashion company like H&M, you have consumed 9 litres of water so far this year!

This number does not take into account how much water it takes to process the cotton before making the shirt nor how much wastewater is created by using chemical dyes and other chemicals in production.”

As such, cotton is a plant that requires a lot of water during cultivation, and to make one cotton T-shirt, you need about 2,500 litres of water, the amount that one person would drink in 3 and a half years, if he drinks eight glasses of water a day, according to the World Economic Forum.

On the other hand, growing hemp requires 3 times less soil and water than growing the same amount of cotton or flax.

It doesn’t require pesticides or any other chemical agents to protect or promote its growth. 

However, even those of natural origin aren’t more beneficial to our environment. Most of the cotton is grown in cultivated conditions, treated with a large number of pesticides during the process of growth and maturation, and other chemicals during the processing.

How can we minimize the impact? 

  • Use of fibres that takes less water to produce
  • Use of recycled fabrics
  • Buying used clothing from thrift shopping store or from upcycled fashion item

Water Pollution 

It’s not only about growing raw cotton but also about the huge consumption in yarn production, bleaching, dyeing, and printing patterns, which leaves behind significant amounts of heavily polluted and toxic wastewater – 600 liters per kilogram of textiles. 

One study found that the fashion industry is responsible for 20 percent of wastewater! 

It is estimated that Chinese textile workers recycle only 10 percent of water contaminated with toxic chemicals, and since recycling raises the prices of the products, they simply dump contaminated water into rivers.

In their country, 70 percent of lakes and rivers and a frightening 90 percent of groundwater are polluted.

The World Health Organization estimates that polluted water in China causes 75 percent of all diseases and 100,000 deaths a year. More than 320 million Chinese, almost the entire U.S., don’t have access to clean drinking water.

Due to many cheap fashion chains, the need for cotton is growing, and its production in China is one of the main causes of a polluted environment. Chinese manufacturers are well aware of the consequences this has on the environment and human health. 

As well, the Taklamakan desert has dramatically increased due to the excessive use of water for growing cotton. 

There is also a problem with microplastics – when polyester clothes are washed (and today it makes up 60 percent of the produced clothes) they reach the seas, oceans, and rivers, as well. 

Source: IUCN. (2017). Primary Microplastics in the ocean.

How can you make an impact?

  • Buy from sustainable fashion brands that have environment-friendly production
  • Buying products of countries that have strict environmental protection legislation like European factories
  • Buying organic clothing materials and materials that do not need chemical   

Air Pollution For Fashion

According to EPA, the average American throws away 68 pounds of textiles each year. With so many clothes being thrown out, it’s no wonder that the fashion industry is one of the largest contributors to air pollution in the world.

The production and disposal process for fast-fashion clothing produces an estimated 10 billion pounds of carbon dioxide a year, which contributes to climate change.

Fast fashion is considered unsustainable because it leads to wastefulness and harm on our planet while offering little quality or durability.

According to one research, one fashion product should be used for at least five years to reduce its carbon footprint!

Yes – we should wear one cotton T-shirt for more than five years, to balance that carbon footprint, and that usually doesn’t happen. We should be moving towards a more sustainable future by buying less stuff, but better quality things that last longer!

Fast Fashion and Landfills

One of the biggest problems of the textile industry is not only the production of clothes but also textile waste.

Excess production in the garment industry is a threat to the future of our planet. 

Some of the clothes are donated or recycled, but that makes only about 15 to 20 percent worldwide. The rest is waste. So, we buy, we use, and we throw away.

The United States produces more than 15 million tons of textile waste each year.

That amount is twice as much as 20 years ago. In 2015, about 16 million tons of textile waste were produced in Europe.

As well, even natural fibres sometimes take hundreds of years to decompose.

Besides, they can emit methane and CO2 into the atmosphere. Synthetic materials are not designed for decomposition, so they can release toxic substances into landfills and the surrounding. 

Non-biodegradable materials remain in the landfill for 200 years! 

It is predicted that 235 billion tons of clothes will be dumped in landfills around the world every year.

Studies also show that out of the 80 billion garments produced in one year, 80 percent will end up in landfills. How can we fight it?

New produced clothing worldwide

Source: Greenpeace. (2017): “Konsumkollaps durch Fast Fashion”

There are too many unused clothes thrown on a pile that threatens to drown us. We are slowly being overwhelmed by synthetic clothes, dyed with toxic pigments and chemicals that poison water.

Fast Fashion and Harmful Chemical Use

A year after discovering the “dirty laundry” of the biggest sports brands, the environmental organization “Greenpeace” published a report on poisons in the clothes of popular fashion brands such as “Zara”, “Lewis”, “Kevin Klein”, “Benetton”, “Armani” …

A total of 141 samples of clothing purchased in 29 countries around the world were analyzed in a laboratory in London.

Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NFE) were found in 89 pieces in a concentration of 1 to 45,000 milligrams per kilogram.

These amounts are small to directly endanger the health of people wearing it, but the problem is that the chemical spills into the sewer and continues to decompose into toxic nonylphenol, which disrupts the work of hormones.

Phthalates were found in more than 30 samples and in four clothing items (two “Tommy Hilfiger”, and one each “Armani” and “Victoria’s Secret”) a fairly high level of this dangerous substance.

The presence of amines from azo dyes that cause cancer is also worrying.

What we should pay attention to is GOTS – Global Organic Textile Standard, which is the most recognized certificate in the field of organic clothing.

This standard has been developed to standardize and apply the same measures of organic textile quality globally. 

It currently represents the strictest internationally recognized certificate for organic production. GOTS certification is applied in all aspects of production.

This means that cotton is grown in fields without the use of fertilizers and pesticides and that the production adheres to strict criteria for further processing, use of additives, etc.

GOTS also includes several social criteria defined by the SA8000 standard.

Check the label!

Oeko Tex Standard 100 – perhaps the most famous label for textiles tested for the presence of harmful chemicals. If you buy clothes with this sign, you know that every fibre, button, and accessory has been tested for harmful compounds.

B corp – the only one that measures the overall impact of the company on social and environmental consequences. It assesses how the firm itself and the business model affect workers, customers, and the environment.

Fair Trade International – one of the most famous labels. Buying clothes with this sign supports workers who are building their lives and community.

Ecolabel by the European Union – helps companies willing to reduce their carbon footprint. They promote a circular economy and clothes that can be worn longer and recycled.

Deforestation for Fashion

As consumers have shifted to cellulose fabrics, they have contributed to the massive deforestation, especially in the ancient rainforests, where about 150 million trees are cut down annually – in the name of fashion.

The question is why do we destroy what protects us? 

Fashion’s impact on forests comes mainly from the production of textiles. The forest campaign group Canopy revealed that dissolving pulp (the base material for rayon/viscose) wastes approximately 70% of the tree and involves a chemically intensive manufacturing process.

Deforestation causes ecological changes with harmful consequences, among which are changes in soil and climate, as well as the extinction of many plant and animal species. In addition, in areas where forests are disappearing, which are regulators of temperature and humidity, climate change and soil erosion are inevitable.

According to UN data, about 13 million hectares of forest are destroyed annually. About 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are caused by climate change, which is caused by deforestation.

Natural Fiber Solutions

Cotton is one of the most popular natural materials because it has exceptional knitting characteristics and is especially long-lasting. There are more than 300 species of this shrubby plant. The largest areas for cotton cultivation are in China (23%) and the USA (20%).

Cashmere is a type of wool of, especially high quality. Natural fibres are sheared once a year from the lower hair of Kashmiri goats. Cashmere is a very expensive and delicate fabric. Therefore, it needs special care when washing.

Since natural leather is an animal product, it also requires special care. Each leather needs to be maintained differently. In principle, the following applies to all leather clothing: don’t use any solvents or nail polish removers.

Fashion Impact on Greenhouse Gas

About 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions are related to the fashion industry, but we’re still not aware of the impact of the fashion industry on climate change.

Most often we see magnificent shop windows, without wondering what is behind them.

If fashion fails to solve this problem, the industry will contribute 26% of greenhouse gases worldwide by 2050, increasing the risk of future global crises.

The story of second-hand clothes spread in the world of fashion in the early ’90s.

The reasons for choosing second-hand clothes are various: uniqueness, good quality, fine materials, handmade details, individual and creative style, economic profitability, or collecting.

The second hand is back in fashion thanks to many environmentalists and celebrities who promoted it.

We are aware that, fortunately, more and more attention is paid to the creative use of old things – recycling.

Fast fashion is…well, it’s fast, and it’s fashion. It is a trend of current society which is sensitive to fashion, rather than the quality and physical life of the product.

Slow fashion is something entirely different – it’s an ideology that aims to restore traditional values in fashion, such as encouraging local and ecological producers and creating fashion from materials that are durable and recyclable. 

The best way we can help the planet is to recycle clothes, and the ideal way to do that is to go to a thrift shop.

Famous Brands Un(awareness)

Being a carbon-neutral company has become a strategic imperative for companies around the world. Even the fastest-growing luxury brand, Gucci, hasn’t resisted.

This means they are committed to eliminating the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that they send into it.

When they were accused of doing nothing about the horrific fires that hit the Amazon two years ago, luxury brands like Gucci, Chanel, Prada, Burberry, and Versace decided to form the Fashion Pact. 

“Cooperation instead of competition” is their motto and they made a promise to reduce the impact on the environment, switching to renewable energy by 2030, and eliminating the use of disposable plastic in product packaging.

They also offered to pay to reduce the costs of the carbon footprint of 2,000 guests at their shows and promised that the scenography used in the shows would be used again in their shops.

Wrap up 

Although changes don’t come overnight, it’s important to think about the ways we can modify our habits to reduce the negative impact on the environment.

As consumers, we can play a key role – by discovering the problems, we show the directions that lead to the solution.

In that sense, education is the first and the basic step, and we hope this article will inspire you to explore this topic more and start your journey towards a more sustainable lifestyle!

There are many ways we can help the environment. From conscious consumerism to reducing your carbon footprint, there is always something you can do!

Let us know what’s been working for you and join our community of like-minded individuals that want to make a difference in their own way. Comment below with any environmental tips or ideas that have worked for you!

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”  – Robert Swan

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