Very slowly, the world is becoming more and more aware of climate change and the environment, yet we have very little idea about how much the fashion industry has had an impact. It’s one of those topics that don’t get a mention in the conversation, but it has a massive effect all the way from production to consumption.
It goes without saying that when we buy clothes, we tend not to pay much attention to the materials mentioned on the label used in production because we buy most of our clothes from bigger and trusted brands. Many brands have developed production processes over generations that maximize profitability without too much regard for the environment.
Changing trends, fast fashion, and consumerism have fuelled an industry that has now caused irreparable environmental damage.
The great polyester problem
Approximately 60% of all clothing contains some polyester, which is said to increase the durability and lifespan of clothes. The fashion industry uses enormous amounts of non-renewables. Petroleum to produce these polyesters. This process is highly energy intensive and releases large quantities of common greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide. The fashion industry is responsible for approximately 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. And most people have no idea.
Our aquatic ecosystems have also suffered immensely as a result of polyester being so heavily used in fashion. Each time we wash clothes with polyester, small particles leach off clothing, forming microplastics. Each household’s wastewater is dealt with through a network of sewage systems that can’t get rid of these microplastics, and they, therefore, end up in rivers and oceans. These microplastics are easily ingested by aquatic life, and this has adverse effects on their health. 73% of deep-sea fish have microplastics in their guts.
Unfortunately, we’re buying more clothes than ever, and only 12% of clothes containing polyester are being recycled. This means that the rest are building up in landfills somewhere.
Cotton’s dirty wastewater secret
Approximately 20% of global waste water is produced in the fashion industry. It takes around 5000 gallons of water to make one pair of jeans and a t-shirt. This raises numerous sustainability issues. Cotton production requires enormous amounts of water for production. Many of the world’s cotton-producing countries may soon be sacrificing clean drinking water for cotton production. India, for example, is the world’s leading cotton producer at 6423000 metric tonnes. According to Bloomberg, India is one of few countries at extremely high risk of water deprivation and severe shortages. Of all the countries included in this category, India has the highest population.
Treating materials such as cotton and polyester need high temperatures and various chemicals to treat them for garment production. This treatment involves patterning and colorizing the materials. These chemicals, including petroleum derivatives, acids, and alkalis, are removed in wastewater after use. Just like in our washing machines, this contaminated water is sent off for treatment where many of the particles are too small to be separated and, therefore, end up in rivers and oceans.
Who are the main culprits?
Most fashion brands have some environmental footprint. In many ways, it’s unavoidable. Since fast fashion focuses on cheap clothes, many of these brands have a larger ecological footprint. Examples include New Look, Primark, and Boohoo: these brands are also known for worker exploitation. Unfortunately, they are the most affordable brands. While this makes them more accessible to larger populations, it also gives people more incentive to be wasteful. Since some of the clothes are so cheap, they become more disposable.
However, many brands are paying attention to the growing demand for more eco-friendly production. H&M is a great example, with an increasing focus on sustainable production, which avoids toxic and fossil-fuel-derived chemicals. Zara, which has also been heavily criticized in recent years, has also done similar.
What changes need to happen?
Clothes are tough to recycle because they are made from such various materials, each of which would need a separate recycling process. Fabrics like cotton are tough to treat and reuse, and they require complex and energy consuming processes.
The biotech industry is at the forefront of developing sustainable recycling methods for textiles. Researchers at the University of Hong Kong have tested processes that use the fungi Aspergillus niger which produces an enzyme that can break down the cotton into glucose syrup. This allowed the team to test different cotton/polyester blends as feedstock for the fungi in fermentation processes. Studies show that the industry-common blend of 80% cotton and 20% polyester was broken down well by the fungi. The cotton was broken down by the fungi into glucose for respiration, with the polyester left as a value-added product that could easily be recycled.
Development of this process could quickly provide a cost-effective and reliable way of recycling our clothes. The cotton isn’t recycled but is used to produce glucose which could be helpful to elsewhere, and the polyester is separated and can be recycled.
This is part of a growing trend within biotech. The use of enzymes for environmental solutions such as recycling plastics is becoming common, and scientists can re-engineer and modify enzymes to improve performance.
One change that would be hugely beneficial is making sustainable clothes cheaper. This would incentivize the public to buy more sustainably produced clothes. In the UK, we have many sustainable clothing brands, but the current economic market probably prefers off-shore brands that don’t use sustainable and eco-friendly production processes. As a result, more sustainable clothes are often more expensive to produce and more expensive to buy.
Without government intervention, it will remain cheaper to produce garments with processes that use sweatshops and have no regard for the environment. Companies that aim to respect human rights and the environment will never be able to offer competitive prices.
What can we do?
Fashion trends and styles change more and more, often with increased social media use and influencers’ emergence. Coupled with the low prices of many clothes, consumerism within the fashion industry continually increases, and we have more clothes now than ever. This inadvertently leads to us buying more clothes, and a lot of older clothes get lost in the wardrobe or thrown out.
One of the best ways we can all help is by buying fewer clothes. According to The World Bank, approximately 40% of all clothes purchased in some countries aren’t actually worn. In the UK, an estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothes build up in landfills every year. The best thing we can do in this sense is only buying clothes that you intend to wear and keep. This gives one big disadvantage to online shopping – we don’t always know if what we’re buying is exactly what we want. “You can always return it if you don’t like it” – something that we’ve all said. But returning items doubles transportation emissions, and many companies dump or burn returned goods rather than try to resell them.
Invest in higher quality clothing. Even though they are often more expensive, they’ll save you more in the long run. Higher quality clothes will last longer, and research has shown that actively wearing clothes for nine months longer than we currently do would reduce environmental impact by up to 30%.
Be aware of what you’re purchasing. You can avoid purchasing clothes with polyester or look for brands that may be using recycled polyester. Some brands may use organic cotton. Organic cotton is cotton that is produced without the use of chemicals. This can result in less toxic chemicals leaching off into the environment and less use of fossil fuel-derived products used in the process.
You should also refrain from throwing your clothes away. If they can be reused, consider selling them on or giving them to charity, this will prevent them from building up in the landfill.