An average British person today buys 60% more clothes than someone did 15 years ago – and keeps these clothes for only half the period of time. This is fast fashion; the production of high volume, quick turnaround and low-cost garments which, since the 1990’s, has brought with it a considerable environmental toll. Indeed, fast fashion garments, typically worn less than 5 times, produce 400% more carbon emissions than clothes worn 50 times. And the Christmas period is one of the worst offenders; last year £3.5 billion was spent on Christmas party clothes in the UK alone, resulting in 8 million items being sent to landfill.
Globally, the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry after the oil and gas sector. Responsible for 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually, every UK household, as a result of their clothing consumption, produces the equivalent emissions of driving a modern car for 6,000 miles.
But greenhouse gas emissions are not the only issue; water usage and pollution are major environmental contenders in the fast fashion industry. A 2017 Global Fashion Agenda Report highlighted the fact that the industry uses 80 billion cubic meters of water annually, the same amount used to fill 32 million Olympic swimming pools. This number is set to rise to 120 billion cubic metres and 48 million Olympic swimming pools, by 2030. It takes 2,700 litres of water to produce just one t-shirt, enough to provide one person with drinking water for 2.5 years, and 10,000 litres to produce one pair of jeans. Furthermore, 20% of all global industrial water pollution is caused by garment production - the dying and cultivating processes alone use over 800 chemicals. Although cotton is only grown on 3% of the world’s farmland, it is responsible for 16% of global insecticide and 25% of global herbicide use. These chemicals are absorbed into soils and washed into waterways, creating widespread negative effects due to the fact that most are toxic, bio-accumulative, disruptive to hormones or carcinogenic. The True Cost is a documentary which highlights these issues, drawing attention to the case of a US cotton farmer who died prematurely as a result of a brain tumour, or serious birth defects which are common place amongst Indian cotton farmer’s children.
It’s not only chemicals that are polluting water streams; every piece of clothing made from synthetic fibres emits microfibres, or small pieces of plastic, when washed. Indeed, a single garment produces 1,900 of these fibres with every wash. These small pieces of plastic, too small to be separated out during sewage and wastewater treatment, are ingested by small aquatic organisms. They then move up the food chain, eventually being incorporated into the food that we eat.
So what can you as an individual do? Obviously, the single most effective action you can take in the fight against fast fashion is to simply reduce the amount that you buy. Before you purchase that new and cheap Christmas holiday piece, consider the words of Lucy Siegle, a journalist and ethical fashion campaigner, who said that, ‘Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere, is paying.’
When you do buy clothing, give a thought to the companies that you choose to support. What are they doing to lessen their environmental impact? For example, H&M have committed to, in regard to their textiles and fabrics, being 100% sustainable by 2040, and Levi’s is dedicated to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions in their global supply chain by 40%. Know the Origin is a company that champions total transparency in every piece of clothing that they sell, all of which is 100% organic and Fairtrade. And Hurr is one of a number of clothing rental schemes emerging as a way to ensure that individuals have access to a whole new wardrobe of clothing for special events, without any associated environmental impacts.
Purchase a guppy bag, a self-cleaning bag that traps microplastics, to help reduce the amount of these fibres you are releasing into waterways. Find out more here: https://en.guppyfriend.com/. And make sure that, when your clothes are no longer wanted, you recycle them rather than disposing of them into landfill. Optimistically, with only a 15% recycling rate amongst Western households, the amount of CO2 being saved is equivalent to removing 1 million cars off the road. With synthetic fibres taking up to 200 years to decompose, and all the while releasing micro-plastics into the soil, by giving used clothes to vintage shops or charity stores your environmental impact can be vastly reduced.