I’ve always had a strong interest in fashion and design. At the same time, I have always had a strong interest in nature. What didn’t occur to me, is that these two passions of mine are intrinsically linked, and an abuse of one would always end up threatening the existence of the other. This could be interpreted in two ways; by overproducing clothes huge amounts of water are consumed and swathes of land monopolised for natural fibre crops, and on the flip side our phenomenal over production and overconsumption ends up re-depositing what were in many cases once harmless raw materials back into the environment in a far more toxic form. So fast fashion faster destruction…
This incomprehensible amount of waste material was one of two main reasons I decided to all but give up fast fashion or ‘moda rápida’ as it is sometimes referred to in Spanish. Coming from a country where wearing second hand clothes is not just a normal part of life, but actually stylish and very purse-friendly, quitting almost cold turkey wasn’t all that tasking. But there was another motivation behind my decision, the completely unjust fast fashion production line which exploits, mostly women, from poorer eastern economies, forcing them to work in unsafe conditions. When, in 2013 the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed, killing 1,133 workers, people listened up and the Accord of Fire and Building safety was signed in Bangladesh within the year (Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, 2018). In 2021, this branched out into the International accord, where as of October 2022 the number of signatory companies stood at 183, and as of August 2022, 1449 factories (International Accord, 2022). Despite this positive step, many brands, including some of those signed up to the accord, fail to take social responsibility in many other ways. The human impact of fast fashion is an enormously important topic, but today I want to talk about the negative impact of the fast-fashion industry on our wildlife and environment.
Environmental degradation isn’t something that just occurs as a result of the disposal of unwanted or unsold products, but something which is present in every stage of a product’s life cycle; cycle not being an appropriate word in many cases due to the lack of recycling and re-use of many products (Aiama, et al, 2016) due to them being of poor quality. To illustrate the problem, let’s take the example of a simple t-shirt, something which everyone can find in their wardrobe.
Looking chronologically at the life of of our t-shirt, the first decision taken by the designer, as well as you the consumer later when purchasing the item, is the following: natural or synthetic fibres? While natural fibres may seem like the obvious environmentally friendly option, particularly with ‘greenwashing’ from some major brands convincing us they their goods are ‘sustainably’ made from ‘organic’ and ‘recycled’ cotton, it’s important to read the small print. At the very inception of this long and nuanced process, the cultivation of natural fibres leads to habitat loss for a wide range of species, and in some cases the loss of native species themselves, such as native oak species in Spain in order to make way for eucalyptus plantations (Aiama, et al, 2016). Let us next consider water consumption, a key issue when it comes to fast fashion. In the case of cotton, this huge demand begins at the cultivation stage, with water also being consumed in huge proportions during the dying/manufacturing process, culminating in a whopping 2000 litres used for the production of one cotton t-shirt alone (Craswell, et al, 2007). Putting our two popular fibres head to head, polyester wins outright in terms of reduced water requirements (Niniimaki, et al, 2020).
But we must also consider the question: What happens to all that water? Intrinsically, polyester is a pollutant given it is based on compounds extracted from petroleum, however the cultivation of genetically-modified varieties of cotton is on the rise, including those which are glyphosate-tolerant (unlike the surrounding vegetation) (Karthik, et al, 2020). As a result it is also a culprit when it comes to the release of toxic compounds into the environment, leading to eutrophication of water sources and threatening aquatic organisms such as fish by causing damage to DNA and physiological processes (de Brito Rodrigues, et al, 2019).
It’s easy to think ‘closed-loop’ manufacturing and recycling could be a solution to this, however we cannot consider water alone. The carbon footprint is another consequence that cannot be ignored, and in the case of recycled polyester its eco-friendly credentials are put into question when we consider the fact that the carbon emissions for the recycling process exceed those of virgin polyester fibre ten fold (Quian et al, 2021). Adding to this, we must also consider the journey of the finished product, another key contributor especially when this transported by air (Niniimaki, et al, 2020).
We finally arrive at the consumption stage of our t-shirt, but the environmental implications are far from at their end. The aftercare process not only leads to yet more water usage, but furthers the release of the compounds used in the fibre and product manufacturing process into the environment. This occurs in the form of microfibres which, in the case of Finland for example add up to 154,000kg and 411,000kg for polyester and cotton respectively, making it a major offender in terms of waterway pollution (Sillanpäa and Sainio, 2017).
So, what happens when the product is no longer wanted or serves its original purpose? This is another key stage in determining the overall impact of our t-shirt. Ideally, this would be used until the end of its wearable life, then recycled at home into another product such as cloths for cleaning, or up cycled into another garment. Sadly, this is not the case as often as would be hoped, with over two thirds of clothes reaching landfill (Shirvanimoghaddam, et al, 2020) and the industrial recycling process not being as eco-friendly as first meets the eye, as mentioned previously. Other unwanted garments are sent in huge quantities (yet again racking up carbon emissions) back to third world countries, in which they are sold once again or end up in landfill. One key example of this is the Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana, which in 2019 received over 63 million kilos of used clothing from the UK (Choi 2020, as cited in Maniesen and Ferrero-Regis, 2021). This once again means reducing environmental implications in the global north and placing the strain on the south, while the north projects a veil of social responsibility though the ‘recycling’ of these products over a realistically a not so clean practice.
Despite being such a huge component of peoples lives, even more so due to a social media boom over the last decade, the environmental constraints of fashion don’t seem to be at the forefront of peoples minds unlike another topic which has been steadily gaining traction over the past few years: the rise of vegetarianism, plant-based diets and flexitarianism (reducing your animal-product consumption). This begs the question: Why not? Alongside health and environmental factors, one of the three major reasons for peoples propensity towards eradicating meat and other animal products from their diet is animal welfare (Hopwood, et al, 2020). When it comes to food production, the suffering of animals is something observed very much from a human viewpoint, is species related, and with an immediate consequence (e.g. death of an individual lamb for food). This is not often the case with fast fashion, which has a slower impact on species by dismantling entire ecosystems, and is more often lumped in with all other pollutants. This means its effects on flora and fauna are somewhat out of sight, out of mind for much of the population, (the consumers), hence reducing social responsibility. But these effects do occur and in parts of the world where the garments and raw materials are produced, and in which regulations are few, legislation is poor, and resources are lacking, this can be devastating.
In summary, though different fibres may bring environmental benefits over others, much more can be said for their negative impact and it is important to always be aware of both sides of the argument in order not to fall victim to the consistent greenwashing which plagues social media and the high street. It seems there is only one clear way to be truly sustainable and care for our ecosystems when it comes to fashion:
Reduce, reuse, recycle. This means reducing our consumption of new textiles products to as close to zero as possible, reusing the clothes we have for as long as possible, and repurposing them in our own homes.
Aiama, D., Carbone, G., Cator, D., Challender, D., (2016). Biodiversity Risks and Opportunities in the Apparel Sector. IUCN. (Online). Available at: https://portals.iucn.org/library/efiles/documents/Rep-2016-001.pdf
Bangladesh Accord, (2018). Annual Report 2018. Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. (Online). Available at: https://bangladesh.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Accord-2018-Annual-Report.pdf
Craswell, E., Bonell, M., Bossio, D., Demuth, S., van de Giesen, N., (2007). Integrated Assessment of Water Resources and Global Change: A North-South Analysis. Dordrecht: Springer.
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Maniesen, L.A., Ferrero-Regis, T., (2021). Castoff from London, Pearls in Kantamanto? A Critique of Second-hand Clothing. PLATE: Product Lifetimes and the Environment, virtual conference.
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Sillanpäa, M., Sainio, P., (2017). Release of polyester and cotton fibres from textiles in machine washings. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, (online), 24(19313-19321). Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11356-017-9621-1
Jessica A. Stokes, Biodiversidad