Our current global consumption has reached staggering new levels, thanks in part to needless spending, ease of accessibility and fashion industries happy to oblige our every whim. Whereas only a few years ago there were mainly two seasons of clothing (summer and winter) the current market has 52 micro-seasons per year.
It’s hard to place the blame on one sole factor when in reality we are bombarded with the constant turnover of fashion coupled with the monetization of Instagram posts which sees the photo-sharing platform transforming into a giant mall. Fast fashion companies like Fashion Nova can replicate and distribute new clothing within 24 hours of seeing it on a Kardashian… We are in big trouble (1).
The incredible surge in the quantity of items available is shocking and many companies are in constant competition to see who can release the cheapest item the fastest for spend-happy shoppers. We are constantly encouraged to buy more and buy often, which results in mindless purchases.
Rest assured, I am not on top of my soapbox preaching to the masses; I am guilty of buying a new outfit for every major life event and shopping online out of boredom, however with the current state of the environment (literally everything on fire and entire ecosystems collapsing) the need for responsible consumerism is higher than ever. The environmental impact of fast fashion, from start to finish, is second only to the oil industry in terms of pollution. In order to create large amount of cheap garments, the industry is consuming massive amounts of natural resources such as water, chemicals, land and exploiting cheap labour.
The cultivation of cotton for clothing has undergone drastic changes in recent years. Farmers are using tumor-causing pesticides on their crops, which in turn has been shown to cause the children of Indian cotton farmers to be incapable of a normal life due to the effects of these harmful pollutants. Organically grown cotton crops are few and far between and even after the cotton has been harvested it is subjected to harmful additives from dyes in order to render them “on-trend.” Imagine how many chemicals were used due to the neon trend that gripped us earlier this year?
The sheer concept of 52 micro-seasons would have been unheard of a few decades ago. Due to the low cost and ease of accessibility (to certain economic brackets) it is completely feasible to replenish your wardrobe every few weeks; some items will only last around a month in our closets before they are “off-trend.” There are 80 billion pieces of clothing produced each year and on average, 82 pounds (37 kilos) are thrown out per person per year. In America alone, this means that approximately 11 million pounds (approximately 453,600 kilos) of clothes are thrown out each year.
I used to think that at least by donating my “old” (barely worn and in some cases, with the tag still on) clothing to thrift stores and donation sites I was still doing my part for society, but in reality due to the mass amounts of consumption it is simply not enough anymore. Only about 10% of the clothes are actually re-purposed, the rest are thrown into landfills or shipped to another country, where they can remain in a landfill for 200 years. (2)
The best option in order to reduce your own environmental impact is to buy consciously and from locally produced and organic companies. While the cost can be slightly higher, you will come away with items you are emotionally and ethically invested in, rather than throwaway items you purchased simply because you needed an extra $10 for free shipping (guilty). Remember when you buy locally you are paying for the true price of manufacturing an item; how can fast fashion retailers justify selling dresses for under $5? What is the true worth of the item? What is the environmental cost of indulging in this company’s behaviour?
One of the issues with textile consumption is that we hold it to lower standards than the food we buy. We are less likely to read clothing labels with the same vigor and it is often easier to turn a blind eye when we can spend less money on something we know we will only wear once. The chemicals and pesticides remain in the fabric long after production, sometimes causing rashes and skin reactions. Keep in mind that every time you wash your clothes, microfibers are being released into our water supply, infecting and polluting our own resources. Many fashion retailers are advising people to wash their clothing less often for a multitude of reasons; less microfibers will be released, less needless water consumption and the clothing will last longer. Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi Strauss, has gone on record telling people to simply not wash their jeans. Water consumption from laundry is responsible for using on average 23 gallons per day. (3)
The environmental impacts of the clothing industry are shocking. Take into consideration that in order to make one pair of jeans, the same amount of greenhouse gas is emitted as driving a car more than 80 miles (129 kilometres). In order to make one cotton shirt, it takes 2,700 liters of water; more than enough to cover one person’s drinking requirements for over two years. We have a limited amount of fresh water available and as such we need to be more conscious about our consumption. Our “virtual water” use is much higher than we realize and the items we invest in have a ripple effect as to how much we will continue to use; not only the water used to make the shirt, but in caring for it. By skipping the ironing and machine tumble dry of your clothes, you can save a third of its carbon footprint. We often think the environmental impact ends after we complete our purchase but in reality we need to be consistently mindful as to how we care for our belongings. (4)
A November 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Circular Fibres Initiative acknowledged the linear usage of the textile industry and found that more than USD 500 billion was lost each year due to clothing under-utilisation and lack of recycling. Monetary implications aside, they discovered that the total greenhouse gas emissions from textile production was 1.2 billion tonnes annually; this tally is higher than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The textile industry is voraciously devouring non-renewable resources; over 98 million tonnes per year, in oil, fertilizers and chemicals. Cotton farming uses 93 cubic meters of water per year, putting an unnecessary strain on our natural resources. The microfibers released during washing have contributed to ocean pollution at a rate of 16 times more than plastic microbeads from cosmetics.
The potential for circularity in clothing and apparel, where raw materials are kept in continual circulation, is completely achievable yet the barriers preventing it are challenging. We are extremely excited to see the dedicated team at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation applying its systemic approach to aggregating key players in the industry to work together and overcome these challenges. This report will no doubt play a crucial role in increasing exposure, intensifying efforts, and driving momentum towards a circular resource model for clothing and textiles to a time where the concept of textile waste has been relegated to the history books.
CYNDI RHOADES, CEO, WORN AGAIN
The massive under-utilization of clothing results in consumers wasting USD 460 billion worth of value each year by throwing away clothes they could have continued to wear; 60% of German and Chinese consumers admitted to owning more clothes than they needed. Another issue is that less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is later used to recycle and make new clothing. By not utilizing existing fabrics to create new designs, we are losing more than USD 100 billion per year and continuing to contribute to landfill over-usage.
The current numbers are startling enough on their own, but considering the trajectory and expected demand for growth across all markets, total clothing sales are expected to grow to 160 million tonnes by 2050. If we continue on this path for the next 30 years, we will be well on our way to encouraging a 2˚C temperature increase and tip us into irreversible global warming.
A circular textile economy would allow a sustainable market for consumers. Clothes, fabric and fibres would be kept at high value during use and then would re-enter the economy after use, never ending up as waste. By using higher quality fabrics, encouraging clothing care and reusing all textiles in production we could potentially allow a growing world population access to a high-quality and affordable shopping experience while using renewable resources and decreasing our carbon footprint. (5)
As consumers, we can do our part to reduce our consumption and eliminate wastefulness. By shopping consciously (i.e. thrift-shopping and clothes swaps) we start implementing a circular fashion cycle. Wash your clothes less obsessively, buy better quality and learn to mend and re-purpose old clothing. We have been trained by conglomerates and media to rampantly use and purchase but the time has come for us to provoke the change we want to see in the fashion industry. Challenge yourself to go a month without purchasing any new items and see if you feel better about your spending habits. The smallest changes can have the biggest benefits in the long run.
What is your relationship with fast fashion? Leave any comments below.
1. Lieber, Chavie. “Kim Kardashian’s love-hate relationship with fast fashion, explained.” Vox, 26 Feb. 2019, https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/2/26/18241625/kim-kardashian-fast-fashion-fashion-nova-missguided.
2. Azevedo, Andrea. “The Impact of the 52 Micro-Seasons on the Environment.” Medium, 02 April. 2018, https://medium.com/@andreaazevedo_32670/the-effects-of-the-52-micro-seasons-on-the-environment-edd87951b74f.
3. Braun, Jennifer. “How often you should wash your clothes? Not that often.” Frank And Oak, https://www.frankandoak.com/handbook/style/why-i-don-t-wash-my-clothes.
4. “The Impact of a Cotton T-Shirt.” WWF, 16 Jan. 2013, https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/the-impact-of-a-cotton-t-shirt.
5. Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, (2017, http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications).