When we hear the word “sustainability”, there are many things that come to mind: single use plastics, pollution, water usage, maybe diets like vegetarian or vegan. However there’s one rather large aspect that isn’t often considered; fashion.
We’re all used to seeing the “new-year-new-you” tropes; clear out your wardrobe, we have X amount of clothes that have never been worn, win a complete new wardrobe, etc etc. But what we’re talking about today is the lifecycle of the clothes we wear (or not, apparently).
The fashion industry has a vast number of factors that can have a detrimental impact on the environment. Let’s start at the very beginning.
Many of the clothes we wear are now made from synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon, and this is still an increasing trend. Although these are supposedly cheaper and more durable, they also take hundreds of years to break down.
Then there’s the process of colouring the fabric. This requires the use of dyes that often contain high levels of toxic chemicals, and the repeat washing cycle (to remove excess dye) takes on average 2000 gallons of water for one pair of jeans.
In fact, 2 trillion gallons of water is used globally for textile production every year, and studies show that up to 20% of global industrial water pollution (non-domestic) comes from treating and dyeing textiles. Many factories also discharge their wastewater straight into the watercourse via nearby rivers and “wetlands” – and this unfortunately includes “well developed” countries like the UK and USA. In fact, even in this country, manufacturers only need a permit to discharge to the drainage system; the harmful stuff is – hopefully – completely filtered out through our world-class water treatment system.
Emission and pollution studies also indicate that the fashion industry is directly accountable for 10% of global carbon emissions – that’s more that all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Of course, this will also include the emissions from the disposal of unwanted clothes; the equivalent of 1 truck load of textiles is dumped into landfill or burned every second.
In fact, if nothing changes the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.
But that’s enough with the gloomy facts; let’s look at some positive developments being made in the fashion industry.
Cotton naturally grows in an off-white shade, and is dyed as part of the process to prepare it for use. But an Australian organisation has found a method of growing naturally coloured cotton without the use of dyes.
CSIRO – a company in Canberra, Australia – has cracked the genetic code of cotton plants, and have been able to introduce naturally occurring “genes” into cotton plants to produce coloured cotton. The cotton produced is expected to be naturally wrinkle resistant, stretchy, and stronger than synthetic fabrics.
Don’t worry, this is not like the “crushed-beetles-make -blue-smarties” incident of the early 2000’s – the scientists are using microbes found in nature to alter the genetic code of the cotton plants and allow them to “grow” the colours. No creatures are being harmed!
Obviously, this process produces ready-to-use cotton with no need for dyes and with much less water waste; 90% less, in fact. Colours currently created include purple, blue, pink, and yellow.
Pioneering solutions to address these environmental challenges were at the heart of the UN Environment Assembly in March 2019, where the UN Alliance on Sustainable Fashion was also launched to encourage an industry wide push for action.
The market for “fashion rental” is also gaining speed – particularly in China where you can rent an outfit for a night out, or a pair of jeans until you get bored of them (then you return them and rent a different pair). Many fashion labels are also launching sustainability drives, including some in which they will repair the clothes you have purchased from them, or offer discounts on new items when you return your old items to them.
There are also organisations working to create biodegradable and compostable clothing; although it could be some time before these are widely available.
In the meantime, sustainable fashion brands are emerging across the globe for a range of budgets, such as Thought Clothing, Boden, and Patagonia.
Many big brands are also starting to change their policies, and bring out “sustainable collections” in the face of the growing understanding that being unsustainable, unethical and wasteful is no longer socially acceptable.
But what about the clothes you have right now? Here are some ways you can make a small change to help bring fashion onto a more responsible pathway:
- keep your clothes longer – repair and “upcycle” where possible.
- donate to charity shops or “cash-for-clothes” schemes (who send the clothing to less fortunate communities and countries),
- buy less. Decide exactly where and how you’re going to wear that item of clothing before you buy it, and if you aren’t sure how much you’ll really wear it, perhaps save your money for something else instead.
Have questions regarding sustainability? Or perhaps your organisation is looking to make some environmentally focused improvements? Whatever your needs, please do not hesitate to get in touch and see how we can help.