The Fashion Industry: The Dirty Truth
It all started with a little stroll down Auckland’s city centre. Being inundated with billboards, shop windows and the throbbing mass of people moving from one sale to the next. Fashion! It can elicit a cacophony of emotions; pride, lust, greed, pleasure, happiness, jealousy, wrath. It has produced some of the most recognisable names in the world, and allows the planet to express their creativity in some form or another. And it got me thinking … as much as it impacts us, how much does it impact the environment?
The fashion industry is one of the major polluting industries in the world. It contributes significantly to a variety of forms of pollution; including carbon emissions, local freshwater and soil. It is an industry worth 3 trillion dollars annually and is continually growing. To give you an idea of just how pervasive this industry is, the numbers state that more than 150 billion garments are produced annually (which is enough to provide 20 new garments to every person on the planet, yearly). America is the largest consumer of clothes and throws away over 30 kilograms of clothing, per person, per day.
The most common fibre used in our clothing is a synthetic fibre, called polyester. Each year 70 million barrels of oil is used to make this material and the fibres take over 200 years to decompose. Approximately 85% of the plastic fibres found in our water supply and polluting our ocean shores (and the animals that reside there) come from the shedding of our synthetic clothing. If you think it’s just the synthetic fibres that are to blame … cotton is the largest pesticide consuming crop, polluting surrounding soil and water resources with a variety of nasty chemicals.
With all this ‘bad press’, not just with their environmental issues, but the ethical issues as well (think child labour, exploitation of third world countries, horrific working conditions, the use of fur, etc.), the fashion industry is poised to start acting differently, and has begun to make large strides to address the issues that have plagued it in the past. To start, brands are looking at the base fibres that the materials are made of to make more sustainable choices.
These brands are looking at the renewability and source of the fibre, the processing to convert the fibre into a usable material and the working conditions of the people producing the material when considering what material to use. By using natural (think linen, hemp etc.), recycled and upcycled materials to build the material base, the industry has made huge strides in beginning to address their environmental and ethical issues.
But as with most product based industries, if there is a market for these goods, then there is no incentive for the large organizations to change their practices. Therefore, the beginning of the change needs to start with the consumer … you. Change the way you are buying your clothing. Do your research into the fibres that you are wearing and the sustainability practices behind them. Have a look at the brands you are interested in and see what sustainability practices they are engaged in. Some well-known brands that have pioneered these practises include Patagonia, Levi Strauss and ESPRIT. But do your research into local businesses that are making an impact and support the local sustainability industry.
So, how do you sustainably get rid of your clothing? Unfortunately, due to the complexity of the materials in clothing, not a lot of the garments you give back are recyclable. For example, H&M has one of the most established and wide spread in-store recycling drop off networks, yet only 35% of the clothing donated is actually recycled. The rest is transported and resold far away from its point of sale. So what do you do? Try give clothes a longer life, repair them as best you can, consider swapping or donating your clothing with/to someone else who will wear them. You could create new uses for items such as rags in your household or quirky pillows. As a last resort, consider donating them to charities and second hand stores but make sure you phone in advance to check if they need material for anything.
Finally, and most importantly … don’t buy so much. Keep your wardrobe functional and minimal. Have items that can be used in many different circumstances and situations. With a bit of forethought and planning (and a ton of google searches), you can reduce your wardrobe quite substantially (… or is that sustainably?).