Maybe you saw us on the TV news recently? We were pleased to be asked by STV to talk about the environmental impact of fast fashion, and in such splendid company. Isn’t it encouraging to know that there are so many people out there using their time and talents to fight the climate emergency and in the process raise awareness of the issue and make it easier for us all to do a little bit more.
It was great to be able to address the problem with fashion because it’s fair to say, it’s not always the first thing people think of when they make the decision to lead a more sustainable, greener life. Most of us are now very well aware that single use plastic is bad and that food waste is to be avoided, but your clothes? Sure, we all know that fast fashion is bad, but do we know just HOW bad?
There are so many reasons to avoid fast fashion anyway – exploitation of workers, poorly made garments designed to fall apart quickly, the pressure they put on us all to be constantly buying new clothes and never being seen wearing the same thing twice – but, as if all that wasn’t enough, we’re here to talk about the damage caused to the environment.
Our clothing is causing more harm that than we may realise. Globally the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of all carbon emissions. That’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Just stop for a moment and let that sink in – ALL international flights and maritime shipping! Maybe you, like us, think really hard before stepping on to an aeroplane, but do you go through the same thought process when you are about to pay for a new jumper or pair of shoes?
By the way, in case you are interested, international flights and maritime shipping account for 5% of global carbon emissions. The clever ones among you will have noticed that that is only half the amount that fashion emits. Quite a thought ……
It is said that if things continue as they are – which means, if we continue to behave as we are currently doing – that fashion’s share of the carbon budget could jump to 26% by 2050.
Figures from Zero Waste Scotland show the extent of the problem and why it is not immediately obvious. Textiles are responsible for the highest proportion of carbon emissions from household waste in Scotland. The interesting this is that they only make up 4% of household waste by weight, but they account for a whopping 32% its carbon impact.
By comparison, other waste, that we are much more aware of, has a very different impact
· Plastic waste makes up 9% of total weight, but 14% of the carbon footprint
· Food waste accounts for 18% of household waste, but 30% of emissions
Much of this is because whenever we throw something away, we are wasting all the resources that went into making it in the first place, and believe us, clothing requires a LOT of resources. There is a long supply chain, and each stage is very carbon-intensive
· Growing fibres like cotton
· Manufacturing material into clothes
· Packaging and transporting clothing around the world for sale
The fast fashion industry is based on high volume production of low-quality garments at great speed. Why? To satisfy our consumerist demands. In the UK we buy more clothing per head than any other country in Europe. In America they buy far more than us, but that’s not really any consolation.
We all know – of course we know, even if we try to push it to the back of our minds – that these clothes are often manufactured in developing countries. Put together the more relaxed regulation, and the need to keep costs down and production times as short as possible, and of course corners are going to be cut. What does that actually mean? Cheap, toxic dyes that end up, along with all the other wastewater, polluting streams and rivers.
Now, you’re maybe reading this and feeling rather pleased with yourself because you only wear second hand clothes, or you buy from eco-friendly fashion companies. Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but although it helps, if we really want to tackle the negative environmental impacts of fast fashion it’s not enough. We need to reduce our consumption of all clothing in the first place.
What that really means is that we must re-think our attitude to our clothes.
We have got into a strange way of thinking, haven’t we? We are led to believe that we must buy a new outfit for any special occasion. Note, we said ‘outfit’. It is not enough to buy a new dress, we must also have the shoes, the bag, the jewellery …….. and once we have been seen in that outfit, we must not be seen in it again. This pressure is, of course, ramped up by social media. It’s not just those who were at the party or the wedding who see your outfit, is it?
Incidentally, we can’t help but compare the difference in expectations of men and women in these cases. Does a man generally buy a new outfit every time an invitation is delivered? No. For a formal occasion he can wear the same suit or kilt year after year, assuming his waistline permits :) On that theme, isn’t the kilt a wonderful garment? It can be taken in or let out as required, so not only does it continue to fit its original owner for a lifetime, it can also be easily altered to fit a new owner. That’s sustainability in action. That’s what it means to invest a large amount of money for something you know will last.
It's the complete opposite to fast fashion garments that are produced at great speed and displayed in shops and online, increasing the pressure to buy something new, then discard it quickly. We really are living in a throwaway society and are going to have to pay a huge price for it sooner rather than later.
To go back to address specifically the environmental problems with fast fashion, let’s look again at the beginning of the process. What should we be concerned about there?
· Massive water consumption (thousands and thousands of litres go into make a single t- shirt or pair of jeans)
· Huge quantities of pesticides are used, degrading the soil and potentially causing untold harm to anyone living in the area
· Likewise chemicals used in the manufacturing process leach into the surrounding areas
· Textile waste – yes, it starts long before we throw out something we have worn a handful of times
· Manmade fibres don’t help at all. Polyester is made from fossil fuels and can shed microfibres that add to the plastic in our seas
So, what are the answers here? Clearly, we are not suggesting that you spend the rest of your days wearing only the clothes you currently own.
Buy Less: obviously!
Think before you buy: is this purchase a need or a want?
Choose well: only buy something you know you will wear a lot. Does it go with other clothes you own? Will you actually wear it, or are you buying into a fantasy lifestyle?
Make it last: this is really important. It’s all very well thinking you will wear it for years, but if it you don’t look after it, it won’t last. Don’t wash your clothes too often – they will shrink and fade. Mend them if necessary
Ultimately, is this about giving our clothes proper respect? Valuing them?
While researching this piece we came across a statistic from Oxfam. Sometimes a startling statistic is very helpful when trying to get a point across.
For every new pair of jeans made an estimated 16.2 kg of CO2 is emitted. That’s the equivalent of driving over 58 miles in a car.
If this has all seemed a bit gloomy, please don’t despair. There is a lot of help out there. For starters, you might want to take a look at Hubbub’s Off the Hanger campaign. We all know that feeling of looking into a crammed wardrobe and thinking that we have nothing to wear. We love the phrase “Shop your Wardrobe” because that’s exactly what we need to do sometimes. Look afresh at what we already have.