produce the T-shirt you bought last month, your favourite pair of jeans and even the pyjama bottoms you love to wear all day long on a cold Sunday¹. This is the how the dirty journey of fast fashion begins. Each piece of clothing carries an environmental story we don’t know or prefer to ignore.
Cotton is considered one of the most “thirsty” crops, responsible for 2.6% of the global water use and more than a quarter of the total of pesticides used in the US, which along with China and India produce 50% of the cotton of the world ²,³.
The process to turn raw materials into textiles requires a lot of water. Textile manufacturing leaves an estimated 17 to 20% industrial water pollution worldwide⁴. Textile dyeing and treatment uses 8,000 synthetic chemicals often releasing chemical waste into freshwater resources. There are many other fibres but cotton still represents at least half of the fibres used to make clothes and textiles around the world¹. You just need to look around your house to realise that cotton fibres are present in many more items than your clothes.
Cotton’s destructive journey into fashion starts with thirsty crops and pesticides but it continues with manufactured textiles arriving at sweatshops ready to be turn into garments. Appalling working conditions are unfortunately the norm rather than the exception. For instance, garment workers in the Philippines are paid as little as US 0.88 per day and wages are unlikely to be higher in Bangladesh, India, China or any other third world country where hand labour is cheap and therefore the focus of mass production for the rich countries. Last year a collapsed sweatshop in Bangladesh left 1,000 garment workers killed and 8,000 orphans as a reminder that we are not aware of the real cost of the fashion we actually crave for⁴.
A path of environmental destruction
“Fast fashion” is a new term to define a trend that seems to be as destructive as fast food. Millions of garments are produced every day to satisfy the demand for cheap clothes in trend filling shops to the brim³. At the same time, new clothes go on sale sooner than ever before if they are not sold at full price immediately. Shops make sales more attractive in the hope older lines are taken away by customers looking for a bargain so new space in the shops can be emptied for new lines already waiting.
These days it is unlikely for fashion trends to last more than a few weeks before shops stock more of the same (if the demand is good) or move on to other lines. A great part of the problem is that we are no longer shopping to satisfy a real need. Instead we give in to the suggestion that every new piece of clothing is a unique opportunity for a bargain.
Those unsold items we did not buy or we bought but never wore more than once become part of the waste we produce. There is an average of 350,000 tonnes of clothing binned every year in the UK and 12 million tonnes of textile waste generated in North America⁵. Regardless of where you live in the planet, buying every new item of clothing contributes to contaminating water, reinforcing low wages and unacceptable working conditions.
The fashion industry knows about the amount of waste generated and although you can choose to buy organic cotton, fairtrade or second hand clothes, there are more shocking numbers to consider: A 5% of landfill production is textile waste in North America alone. Although the textile industry is one of the pioneers on recycling, it only manages to recycle 15% of the total production with most of the remaining 85% going straight to landfill⁵.
The picture is grim and after many failed attempts from single companies to cut waste, avoid water contamination or reinforce recycling it is up to us as consumers to shift the fast fashion trend.
What can you do to get out of the vicious circle?
There is a lot that can be done individually to curve the current environmental impact of fashion:
- Buy organic cotton, fair trade and whenever possible, locally made.
- Do not buy on impulse or because you are offered a bargain. It is not a bargain for the planet and whilst it might be cheap for you it costs the environment a huge amount of effort to recover.
- Mend the clothes you already have. The life span of textiles is longer than we can imagine and it continues in the landfill if you don’t take advantage of the possibility to mend and continue using your clothes.
- Swap, trade or give away. This is a new trend populating social networks and it allows you to support a sustainable way to have new clothes without involving shops and new garments.
- Give to charity and offer both good and bad pieces. What cannot be sold as second hand is sold by weight and likely to be reused as rags or manufacturing other products.
- Use as rags, fillers for cushions or reconstruct into new items. This is another option to explore particularly in cases where others may go to a shop to buy a new cushion or a new bed for their pets instead of looking into what is already available at home.
- Reuse in other ways such as dusting cloths, shopping sacks or covers for items in storage.
- Do not buy unless it is really needed. The actual amount of clothes needed is minimal and yet we continuously convince ourselves that we need something else.
- Do not buy because it’s cheap. In addition to the impact that cheap clothes actually have on the planet, the correlation between low price and low quality does not require any serious research. Low price materials are unlikely to last because they are being manufactured to supply an immediate demand rather than being tested for durability.
If only a 10% of the consumer population would follow the above principles for a few months the effects would already be overwhelming and a new trend could be set to change the actual relation between offer and demand. We may not be able to modify the shopping trends of 10% of the consumer population, but nothing is stopping us to change our own shopping habits, promoting an ethical view on what we are willing to pay for and becoming responsible for the actual impact our actions can have on the planet.