THE BIG PICTURE
Clothes of different shapes, sizes and colours are everywhere. From fashionistas to farmers, clothes play a significant part in our lives;, with fashion, food and fuel being our three main daily needs. But clothes are about more than just a need - Fashion is also about creativity and expression. For many of us, clothes form an important part of how we communicate who we are and where we fit into the world.
That is the reason why the fashion and textile industry is immense. It’s the second largest global economic activity in terms of trade with a global annual revenue of USD1.44 trillion . Some experts suggest that as many as one in six people globally work in areas related to the fashion industry. Others report that as many as 115.6 million people work in apparel and textile manufacturing alone - more than the entire population of the Philippines.
And the fashion industry is anticipated to get even bigger! Our population continues to increase and the global middle class is anticipated to double in size to nearly five billion by 2030 . The fashion industry is expected to increase by X% by Y. This growth is significant for Asia, which is home to around 60% of global clothing and 60% of global textile production. It is also one of the fastest growing populations, which fuels about 10% of the fashion industry’s’ growth every year.
Whilst hemlines and hues may rise and fall out of fashion, our love and need for fashion is here to stay. So with the environmental stakes so high, there is an urgent need for change from both consumers and in the fashion system.
The problem with the fashion industry is that it relies heavily on earths’ fast-depleting natural resources, like fresh water, land, soil, oil and minerals and animal life. Just think of the fresh water that is poured into making and dyeing our clothes, or the forests which are cleared to make way for more cotton and cows, all contributing to a sharp decline in our biodiversity. But the industry is also pollutes. Shockingly, the fashion and textile industry is the world’s most polluting industry, second only to oil . It leaves its filthy footsteps over earth’s natural resources and is a contributor to climate change, one of the biggest and most urgent challenges of our time. Collectively, the industries’ global impacts are damaging our planet’s future ability to supply the needs - like water, land, energy and even a safe place to live - of our growing population and for future generations. What will our great grandchildren have to say of our generation’s love of fashion?
Our addiction to clothes is responsible for devastating environmental degradation and pollution. Just consider the journey your clothes make along the supply chain before they land in your hands.. It starts with fibre and fabric production, both polluting processes which will leave you reeling at the volume of negative environmental and social impacts.Then the tremendous human capital - factories full of workers - involved to cut, sew and transform the fabric into garments, before they are packaged, shipped and trucked to the bright lights of the retailers’ shop floors. But that’s not the end of the story. After purchase, we continue this story in our homes, often unwittingly stamping our own negative footprints as we wash, dry, iron and finally dispose of our clothes. What a journey!
Then perhaps the most dumbfounding thing happens! Too often, clothes get chucked out well before their time is up, often treated like disposable items. Every year, millions of tonnes of clothes and textiles are unceremoniously dumped into landfills, incinerated or even buried. This wasteful scenario not only clogs up landfills, but it also wastes all the valuable resources embedded in our clothes too. This which means that we continue putting huge and unnecessary pressure on earth’s diminishing natural resources as we continue to make more new clothes in this senseless, linear, make-and-dump mindset.
Read further to uncover the shocking environmental damage our fashion addiction has on the earth’s resources - Climate Change and Pollution, Water, Chemicals, Oil, Land and Waste. (ADD hyperlinks to each section – can we do this Kevin? Jump down the page to the relevant content??). You can personally make a difference, too - Read about our work and the new opportunities to clean up fashion’s dirty act here. (ADD LINK)
Climate Change and Pollution
Our clothes contribute to climate change and damage our air, land and water supplies. Greenhouse gases and other pollutants emerge from, textile and clothing factories that make them,,the boats, trains and planes that transport them all the way through to the consumers who often overwash with toxic chemicals and then toss them out into the trash, where they emit more greenhouse gases as they decompose. The global textile industry’s energy consumption alone is estimated at 10% of total global carbon emissions .China’s textile industry, which makes around 65% of the world's textiles , generates about three billion tons of soot every year . Carbon emissions, greenhouse gases and pollution have been identified as contributors to climate change, rising sea levels and extreme weather. That’s a very big footprint, and all in the name of fashion.
Fashion and textiles is a thirsty business. From cotton fields, fabric-dying factories to our own washing machines, clothes are so dependent on water that fashion has been reported as the second largest consumer of water . Globally, the industry uses between six to nine trillion litres of water a year, which is enough water to fill up around 3.6 million Olympic swimming pools. That’s staggering. But it’s not just thirsty, it’s also dirty. The textile industry is the second biggest polluter of clean water . It’s estimated that 17 to 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment alone . To many, this may feel quite far from home, so consider that one in ten people sharing our planet right now lacks access to clean, safe water . That’s disgraceful. Collectively, as a global community, if we don’t change our current water consumption patterns, the global demand for water is expected to exceed supply by 40% in 2030 . With this water crisis raging, it puts our clothes to shame.
Our clothes are coated with chemicals, from dyes to detergents and pesticides. Consider these staggering findings: 25% of the chemicals produced worldwide are used for textiles ; the global production of all textile fibers uses 20 billion pounds of chemicals every year ; the global textile industry discharges 40,000 to 50,000 tons of chemical dyes into the water system every year ; and up to 8,000 different chemicals are needed to turn raw materials into clothes . Frightening.. Conventionally grown cotton, which is one of the most common fibers found in fashion, uses 10% of the total pesticides and nearly 25% of insecticide use worldwide . These chemicals - take your pick from a very, very long list that includes azo dyes, phthalates, and nonylphenol ethoxylates - cause a cocktail of issues, including their build up in soil sediments and aquatic life and entering our food chain .
Like the buzz of fashion weeks, clothing production and consumption thrives off energy. From factory floors to flagship stores and from irons to steamers, our clothes are hooked to the energy grid, most of which is dependent on burning finite fuels that contribute to climate change. Every year, the global textile industry uses one trillion kilowatt hours of electricity, which is equivalent to 10% of the world’s total carbon impact.
They may not look or smell like it, but clothes that contain man-made fibres, like polyester, nylon and acrylic, are made from oil, the finite resource that is drilled and fracked from the earth at huge environmental and social impact. Try to imagine this; 52% of all fibres made today are polyester, and virgin polyester production for all types of fabrics uses approximately 70 million barrels of oil every year .
Our closets may sometimes feel small, but their footprint is enormous. So much of earth’s precious arable land is redirected and devoted to grow the fibers for fashion. Cotton, which makes up over 40% of our clothes, uses 2.4% of the world’s highly sought after cropland . But growing fibres for fashion, and the intensive farming and chemical use that’s employed, also damages our soil quality. Around 40% of the world’s agricultural land has become seriously degraded, leaving vast areas now unsuitable for growing crops . This declining soil quality is a significant environmental issue today. But the human tragedy behind damaged soil, or lack of arable land, is that people are left hungry. One in nine people alive today do not have enough food to lead a healthy and active life and these numbers become more worrying when you consider that our 7.2 billion population will grow to 9 billion by 2050 . This is a killer price to pay for our clothes.
Clothing and Textile Waste
From textile scraps on the factory cutting room floor, unsold clothing stock, to the unworn clothes pushed to the back of our closets, clothing and textile waste is evident everywhere. Globally, the amount of textile waste is unknown. But if measured, it would be staggering. In China, the total annual production of textile waste from consumers and industry is estimated to be 26 million tonnes . But when we chuck away clothes and textiles, or let them sit unused, we are also wasting all of the resources that went into making them in the first place.
In the UK, an estimated GBP140 million worth of clothing enters landfill every year . Once in landfills, clothes can release toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases and take hundreds of years to decompose-- a polyester dress can take 200 years . Yet, textiles are 95% recyclable -- What a crazy waste of fashion.