Photo by Francois Le Nguyen
The short answer is “YES!”.
But as we always want to be fair subjective, in this article we are going to elaborate on the extended answer to that hot question.
So, is fashion a threat to the environment’s health with all the consecutive effects to the health of animals and humans? What is the contribution of the fashion industry to the rapid escalation of the climate crisis? Does fashion play a role to the sad situation at the bottom of our oceans, seas and lakes? Does the fashion industry has a share to the pollution of the aquifer?
To start with and as we analyzed in a previous article on polyester, a great volume of garments (and fashion products in general, such as accessories, shoes, bags, etc.) is nowadays made from polyester, a seemingly cheap, durable and versatile plastic derivative. This, by definition, answers all the above questions as polyester has not only flooded the market but may be the main raw material used by fabric manufacturers in our days.
So, if we opt-in for other artificial or natural raw materials, we can assume that the fashion industry will become environmentally friendly. Correct?
The short answer is “NO!”. But why?
Based on the “dilemma” slow vs fast fashion, in recent years with the abundance of garments, the turn from the traditional 2 collections / year to 5, 6 or more, and the price drop, each of us buys at least 5 times more clothes than people bought 2 generations ago on a yearly basis. But how is it possible that we can buy that much? The fall in production costs has led to a drop in final prices, which in turn allows us to buy to the point that our closets burst with clothing!
But how do production costs fall? Innovations? Smart production methods? Machines with state-of-the-art technologies? Or is it a more productive workforce? Obviously, all of these have played an important role in reducing costs; but it is still not enough to make up for the price difference. We now know without a doubt and with evidence that reducing production costs so dramatically comes with a price: effects on the environment, animals and human health.
The following is a brief but concise description of fashion’s impact on the environment:
Contaminating the aquifer
Clothing production requires chemicals, as performed in the context of fast fashion to reach fast-speed and low-cost goals, involves highly toxic chemicals and dyes which are released into the aquifer in various ways. Ingredients such as lead, mercury and arsenic are particularly harmful to any form of life as well as essential substances contained in the chemicals used. Waste is dumped in rivers or seas, especially in countries where mass production of clothing takes place today with very loose institutional and legal frameworks. Moreover, the cultivation of some natural, non-organic, raw materials requires pesticides and insecticides to increase production which end up in the exact same place…the aquifer.
Water & Power consumption (using non-sustainable, renewable sources)
Growing cotton, an especially hydrophilic raw material usually cultivated in arid areas, requires huge amounts of water. But massive cotton cultivation has also led to the desertification of areas especially rich in water (take the example of the Aral Sea, a lake between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that hosted about 1,100 islands and dried up in 2010 as rivers that maintained it were artificially diverted to irrigate areas where cotton was cultivated, with huge negative effects on the native flora and fauna1). It is pretty terrifying to know that producing 1kg of cotton, requires 20,000 liters of water2!
But it’s not only cultivating or producing raw materials; the processing, production and dyeing of fabrics all require huge amounts of water (for every ton of dyed fabric, 200 tons of clean water are needed). Isn’t it a great price to pay, especially if you consider that approximately 750 million people in the world do not have access to drinking water…?
The numbers are similar for energy consumption, which is mostly electric.
Microfiber and Microplastics
As we analyzed in the article on polyester, synthetic clothes release microfibers and microplastics during washing, which cannot be retained by the sewage system. It is noteworthy that when we wash a single synthetic garment, 700,000 microfibers are released into the water3. “Naturally”, they all end up in the seas and oceans, swallowed by fish, mollusks, and shellfish and, ultimately, end up in our plate!
Nowadays, there is also solid evidence that wearing synthetic clothing releases microplastics into the air (more than 900 million polyester microfibers in a single year by a single person)4.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The processing of raw materials and the production of fabrics requires enormous amounts of energy, releases harmful gases into the atmosphere and dramatically increases the greenhouse effect. In particular, synthetic fibers (polyester, nylon, acrylic, etc.) are produced from fossil fuels, the processing of which is much more energy-intensive than that of natural fibers. Moreover, most of the clothes we buy today are produced in countries such as China, India and Bangladesh that use coal, one of the “dirtiest” fuels in terms of carbon emissions.
The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions.5
Soil Degradation & Deforestation
Areas that are over-exploited by grazing animals for the production of raw materials, such as cashmere and wool, soil devaluation due to the rejection of chemicals from crops or material processing, over-cultivation of raw materials that make the soil barren as time passes, deforestation of tropical, ancient and endangered forests for planting trees from which rayon, viscose and much more are produced…
And we need the soil for the cultivation of food but also for the prosperity of the flora and fauna of the planet. Which is more important then?
Trashing, Littering, Landfills
And after all of the aforementioned points, and since we usually have a closet that literally suffocates – with many clothes that we wear from 1-2 times per year to none – the point when we need to dispose of some of our clothes comes… when we no longer want a piece or it no longer fits us or when it has been worn out, torn and faded beyond repair, what do we do? Most of the time, they simply end up in landfills since a small percentage of them can be recycled (that is, if the owner takes it for recycling…) or donated to be reused by someone else. The landfills are full, but the most important thing is that somewhere within those landfills infinite amounts of microfibers and microplastics reside (from the synthetic clothes that are the vast majority of the clothes we consume today), free to circulate in the environment!
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aral_Sea
- Source: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/mar/20/cost-cotton-water-challenged-india-world-water-day
- Source: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/sep/27/washing-clothes-releases-water-polluting-fibres-study-finds
- Source: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/news/wearing-clothes-could-release-more-microfibres-to-the-environment-than-washing-them
- Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2015/12/03/making-climate-change-fashionable-the-garment-industry-takes-on-global-warming/?sh=1c9838ff79e4