A journey through fashion’s minefield (Part 2)

Part 2: The lethal effect of the fast fashion industry on people and our planet.

From time to time, a thought surfaces:

What happened to that amazing pair of trousers with the high waist and wide leg shape that I used to love wearing?

Didn’t I have an oversized woollen jacket just like the one this model’s got on?

Surely I didn’t just throw them away?

What does the fashion industry’s unsustainable output mean for our planet?

According to a recent UK Parliament report, we buy more clothes per person in the UK than any other country in Europe.

The clothing industry is the world’s largest industry, after the automotive and technology sectors. 

By 2030, global clothing consumption is predicted to rise by 63%, equivalent to more than 500 billion additional t-shirts.

Much of this consumption is driven by the ‘fast fashion’ model. In essence this business model involves reacting rapidly to produce new garments to meet consumer demand.

The Toxic Spiral of Fast Fashion

The clothing sold by fast fashion outlets like Boohoo and Asos is relatively very cheap (new dress for £3, anyone?) and is aimed at consumers who want to change their wardrobe on a regular, trend driven basis.

As discussed in Part 1 of this blog, these consumers gain pleasure from what they wear and express their identity through their clothing. However the actual value of the fashion items they buy is very low in real terms, in quality terms and in emotional terms to them.

This has implications both for the harmful effects of garment production and the very limited opportunity for this type of clothing to be reused or recycled.

In other words: “I’ve worn it a couple of times, I no longer like it and anyway the shape was ruined when I washed it. The charity shop won’t take it so I’ll throw it away.”

In essence the spiral of fast fashion has three stages, repeating over and over again in succession with toxic consequences: make, use, dispose, make, use, dispose, make, use, dispose…

Let’s examine each stage in turn.

1. Make, or the production of fast fashion items.

The amazing wide legged trousers that I referred to above were made from a cotton and synthetic fibre mix. Cotton production has a well documented and devastating environmental impact. 

1Kg of cotton (equivalent to roughly one t-shirt and one pair of jeans) can take as much as 10,000 to 20,000 litres of water to produce. It’s the cultivation of the plants and production of the cotton fabric that consumes most of this water, but dyeing, finishing and washing the clothes also uses substantial amounts. 

The Aral Sea, formerly one of the four largest lakes in the world, has almost entirely dried up, mainly due to intensive industrial cotton farming in Central Asia. It is now called the Aralkum Desert: an ecological, economic and social disaster. 

Before – and after – large scale cotton production arrived in Central Asia:

Cotton is not an easy crop to grow, being vulnerable to extremes of weather and to pest attacks. Globally, cotton covers 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land but uses 6% of the world’s pesticides, more than any other single major crop.

This has a human cost in addition to the impact on ecology and biodiversity: thousands of cotton farmers and their families suffer from pesticide poisoning each year. The high cost of the pesticides to the small farmer leads to heavy debt, which has driven many to suicide

Synthetic fibre production for clothing is equally bad news for our planet. Synthetic textiles can either be made from plastics – such as nylon, polyester, polyamide and acrylics – or from plant materials which are chemically treated before being spun into fibres like viscose, rayon, lyocell and modal. 

Polyester – made from fossil fuels, namely petroleum – is now used in 60% of our garments. It can be recycled, but low oil prices mean that new, virgin polyester is cheaper to produce than the recycled version. The main appeal of that  £3 dress, apart from its cute design, is the rock bottom price!

Nylon and polyester are both non- biodegradable (when that dress goes to landfill, it’s going to stick around in the ground for aeons). Nylon manufacture creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Polyester needs large amounts of water for cooling.

Rayon along with viscose, modal etc is largely made from wood pulp, which sounds initially more attractive – but forests take up land that could be used for food production and the pulp is treated with caustic soda and sulphuric acid. 

Viscose and rayon will decompose once in landfill, but the chemicals with which they are treated are still present to some extent in the clothing. 

I’m really regretting getting rid of those trousers now. I could still be wearing them. I could have picked them apart and used the pieces as a pattern to make a new pair. I could have given them away to a clothes swap or charity shop. Instead, I am picturing them beneath the surface of our planet, the cotton content perhaps degrading but the polyester fibres sticking around. 

What about other natural fibres, like wool?

Wool production is a source of methane, a gas which is released by sheep as they eat and is a major contributor to global heating. The UK has a huge sheep population of around thirty million.

Excrement from sheep is damaging our land and water systems, where runoff (the waste is washed into rivers) causes excessive plant growth which depletes the water of oxygen and leads to dead zones where aquatic life has been killed off.

Wool production leads to deforestation, and less land for other plants and animals. In the UK, upland areas have largely been stripped of their natural flora and fauna, such as eagles and mountain hares, due to sheep farming.

If we stopped exploiting sheep, this land could be returned to a range of habitats such as forest and wetland. 
Both agricultural and craft workers suffer from exposure to organophosphates used in sheep dip.

So thinking back to my lovely wool jacket that I got rid of so carelessly – sure, it will have biodegraded relatively quickly in landfill, but that is a sad end for a fabric with such a high  production price  and which could have been enjoyed by another wearer. 

Let’s look now at how we use our garments – a part of the process which includes the supply chain through to purchasing and wear.

2. Use – or misuse – of precious natural resources by the fashion industry.

We have already seen how the production of natural and man made fibres damages our environment globally. Let’s think about what happens once the fabric arrives at the factory where the clothing is to be made.

According to the recent UK Government report on the fashion industry, textile waste and offcuts produced during the manufacturing process aren’t currently recyclable in any UK facilities, so they are sent to landfill in huge quantities every day.

Unlike food packaging, there are limited options for durable recyclable packaging products for the fashion sector, so single use plastics tend to be the norm.

The factory places each newly made garment on individual plastic hangers in individual plastic bags, to deliver to the designer. There the packaging is opened and the garments are checked, then often repackaged on new branded hangers inside new plastic bags.

If the clothing is to be sold in a shop, once there it is unpacked and displayed on new hangers and sold to the customer in a new, often plastic, bag.

Many garments will not be sold because they are produced according to prospective sales, rather than being made to order. Some fashion houses resort to burning this unsold stock rather than allowing it to be sold on by a third party and thus ‘tarnishing’ their brand.

Over the last five years, Burberry has destroyed over £90 million worth of unsold clothes and accessories by burning them.

The fashion industry has begun to wake up ….although sometimes in a less than helpful way.

The latest fashion show by the Alexander McQueen group featured models walking around piles of mulch – said to be made from trees that had already died – wearing clothes inspired by the colours of nature seen in fungi.

Perhaps if they had made the clothes from fabrics derived from fungi and mycelium (a developing technology soon to come onstream) they might be taken more seriously in their endeavours.

Altogether about 80% of the energy costs of fast fashion are incurred during the production of the textiles, with the remaining 20% occurring during the manufacture and supply chain.

The majority of garments are produced in China and Asia where coal is the main source of energy. Transportation again releases vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere.  

Feeling overwhelmed? Here is a short video to sum up some facts and figures:

Perhaps in the future we will look back on these insane practices with the same incredulous horror with which we consider Victorian workhouses.

The shortest part of the process is the actual wearing of the clothes that have cost so much to produce. A study by the Daily Mail involving 2000 women in the UK found that a new fashion garment is worn on average just SEVEN TIMES.

3. “I don’t want this any more” – disposal of fashion clothing.

UK citizens discard about one million tonnes of clothing every year. Charity shop donation rates are high, but around three hundred thousand tonnes of clothing still ends up in household bins. 20% of this goes to landfill and the remaining 80% is incinerated.

Sadly, I don’t even remember what I did with my unwanted trousers and jacket. I hope they went into a charity bag…

We have already seen that many synthetic fibres tend to be non-biodegradable, and that big name companies would rather burn excess stock than see it fall into the hands of consumers who they do not regard as their target audience. 

While there remain consumers who want to buy fast fashion, there will be companies who will produce it for them. 

However, there are many evolving alternatives to throwing fashion items in the bin.

Coming Up: In Part 3 we will look at how we can opt out of the toxic spiral of fast fashion and develop a more sustainable approach to our clothes.

If you want to take part in sustainable fashion, visit our events! We host a swap to reduce waste and reuse items too good for the bin. Find your local group.

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