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Consuming Stuff: The Polluting World of Fashion

The interconnected environmental catastrophe is the result of a particular lifestyle; a materialistic way of life relentlessly promoted by mass media and governments throughout the industrialized world and beyond. Consuming stuff, most of which is unnecessary, is the key ingredient; excess is championed, sufficiency scoffed at. Far from addressing need, satisfying desire is the driving impulse; the object of desire changes with every new fad of course, discontent is thereby ensured, unlimited consumerism maintained.

This pattern of insatiable shopping is evident within the polluting world of fashion perhaps more than any other sector; when we should be buying less, more clothes are produced and sold year on year. Worldwide, almost 100 billion items of clothing are made annually (400% more than twenty years ago), a third of which end up in landfill, increasing at a rate of 7% a year.

The global fashion industry is a major source of environmental contamination, as well as human exploitation. Every item of clothing that is produced carries with it an environmental cost in terms of energy, water, chemicals and land use. The choice of fabrics – natural or man-made – production methods, transportation, dyeing and printing, customer care, all are areas that cause pollution.

According to the United Nations Climate Change, “around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GGE’s) are churned out by the fashion industry, due to its long supply chains and energy intensive production.” The industry consumes more energy than aviation and shipping combined. In search of greater profits most manufacturing is now undertaken in China and India, where labor costs are lower, coal-fired power plants predominate, GGEs are highest and, in many cases, employee rights are non-existent. By moving production to developing nations, western companies outsourced, jobs, as well as the pollution and environmental impacts, threatening the health of local people.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) relates that textile factories in China, where “over 50%” of the worlds clothing is now made” spew out around three billion tons of soot every year burning coal, contaminating the air leading to respiratory and heart disease. Textile mills are estimated to generate 20% of the world’s industrial water pollution and use 20,000 chemicals, many of them carcinogenic. Textiles are the largest source of synthetic fibers in the oceans, micro-plastics get into the water system every time garments are washed; the UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on fashion reports that “a single 6kg domestic wash has the potential to release as many as 700,000 fibers.”

As well as textile production, the manufacture of leather goods has also largely been shipped to China – where most items are made – and India. Leather production is an intensely cruel and poisonous process. The animal welfare charity, PetaUK, reports that globally more than 1 billion animals are killed every year – cows, calves, water buffalo, horses, lambs, goats and pigs –and, in China, dogs and cats. Huge amounts of water are used in highly polluting tanneries; most wastewater and solid waste (hides and skins etc.) are dumped into rivers, riverbeds or farmland, causing contamination of the water and land. In Kanpur India e.g., everyday 50 million liters of highly toxic water is produced, 80% released untreated; the River Ganges receives most of it: holy it may be, clean it is not. The impact on human health is often fatal; chronic conditions such as heart disease, tuberculosis, asthma, mental disabilities, skin discolouration are widespread among people living near leather factories, which are shipping almost all their production to industrialized countries.

Polluting and poorly made

Different fabrics have different levels and types of environmental impact; synthetic fibers like polyester are made from crude oil (fossil fuel), producing much higher levels of GGEs compared with natural materials: Nature Magazine state that “A single polyester t-shirt has emissions of 5.5 kg CO2, compared with 2.1 kg CO2 for one made from cotton.” But polyester can be recycled, although not indefinitely, is more stain-resistant, can be washed in cold water and dries quickly. Conventional cotton (non-organic), which is used to make almost half of all clothing, has its own environmental consequences; cotton farming uses 3% of the world’s arable land, causing deforestation and loss of biodiversity, and is responsible for 18% of all pesticides, 25% of insecticides. Some of these are highly toxic and dangerous to human health, e.g. Endosulfan, banned in many countries but widely used in India, is linked to several thousand deaths of cotton farmers and their families. Cotton is also a very thirsty crop: the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that 2,700 liters (715 gallons) of water – on average the amount one person drinks in two and a half years – is used to make a single cotton t-shirt.

In regions where water is scarce, cotton production has an intensely damaging effect: in Kazakhstan, the Aral Sea, which was the fourth largest lake in the world, has all but dried up because the rivers which fed the lake, were diverted by irrigation projects to supply cotton farmers. The disappearance of the great lake is a man-made environmental tragedy.

Huge amounts of water are also used in the dyeing process, the World Resources Institute states that globally 5 trillion liters (1.3 trillion gallons) of water are used each year for fabric dyeing, enough they say to “fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.”

The most polluting area of the apparel industry is ‘fast fashion’. Like all businesses, fashion is about profit: more profit is generated when people buy more clothing, more often. In the 1980s, when any remaining constraints on Neo-liberalism were removed, ‘fast fashion’ was introduced as a way of increasing the profits for clothing companies by making people buy more; the practice is now widespread among high street brands and has been picked up by designer labels.

Under the fast fashion umbrella up to 50 ‘cycles’ are produced every year; prices are lower, turnarounds quick, and overproduction common. Items are poorly made and so cheap they are sometimes not even worn before being discarded, at best lasting a matter of weeks before being dumped in landfill. The fast fashion fad has increased consumerism, contributed to a ‘throw away’ mentality, leading to huge amounts of waste; it has done enormous environmental damage and should be stopped as a matter of urgency. If companies will not voluntarily halt fast fashion practices governments should force them to do so. The global need is not for the corporate profit, the behavior to be cultivated is not more consumerism, it is saving the planet and encouraging drastic reductions in consumerism.

The Fashion Industry Charter

Aware of the widespread and varied environmental destruction that fashion is causing voices within the industry and beyond have been calling for action to change destructive practices for some time. Last year a group of organizations came together, and under the umbrella of the United Nations Climate Change, created the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action (FICCA), launched at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, in December.

The FICCA commits signatories to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030 and achieving zero emissions by 2050, to phasing out coal-fired boilers, using ‘climate friendly’, sustainable materials and low carbon transport among other measures. The list of 43 founding companies includes Adidas, Burberry, Esprit, Guess, Gap, H&M, Kering, Levis, Puma, PVH and Target; associated NGOs have also pledged to support the initiative and encourage sustainable practices.

Creating sustainable fashion is a core theme of those working to reduce the catastrophic impact on the environment. This entails looking at production methods and water use, curtailing demand, moving from conventional to organic cotton and from virgin polyester to recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET), collecting and recycling unwanted garments. ‘Sustainable fashion’ needs to be seen as part of sustainable lifestyles, this requires the promotion and adoption of what we might call Sustainable Values, principles that encourage expressions of social/environmental responsibility and cooperation, ideals that promote simpler lifestyles – we must consume less, shop based on need only and, when we do shop or buy services, ensure we do so in an environmentally responsible manner; repair clothes, buy good quality items that last longer and recycle.

Governments need to introduce public information policies aimed at making people aware of the environmental impact of living a certain way and introduce maintenance classes in schools; all product-based companies should be required to make easily accessible the full environmental impact of their products and methods, as well as the human cost, so people can make well-informed choices. Advertising has an important role to play in this, it needs to be closely regulated and reformed so that it gives out facts about products not propaganda.

All aspects of life are interconnected; the environmental catastrophe cannot be faced without the socio-economic mayhem being addressed, social justice created and ways of living inculcated that tend towards unity in all areas of life. Competition and conformity need to be expunged from society, particularly within institutionalized education, the focus on image challenged and rejected, the tendency to imitation curtailed.

If we are to collectively overcome the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, environmental considerations need to be at the forefront of our daily lives. A shift in living is required, a movement away from lives based on desire and the pursuit of pleasure to simpler lives based on meeting need, cultivating right relationships with others and the natural world and living harmlessly. The responsibility rests with all of us to live well and to pressurize our governments to act to halt the environmental catastrophe before it’s too late.

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Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India. 

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