The Fashion Industry and Its Impact on the Environment and Society

Editor’s Note: This post is part of the on-going collaboration between S&S and GreenBuzz to promote increased dialogue between sustainability practitioners, academic experts, and the general public. GreenBuzz chapters in different cities coordinate on-the-ground events for a word-of-mouth driven community of professionals engaged in sustainability, bringing sustainability leaders together to connect with each other and to discuss specific sustainability topics. S&S will publish excerpts, summaries, and discussions generated by these events in order to facilitate on-going debate and make the information presented at these events available to a world-wide audience.

When we think of climate change, certain sectors, such as agriculture and transportation, are most commonly considered key in addressing climate change posed challenges. However, “fast fashion”, fashion that is cheap, quickly discarded and that spirals into ever shorter and faster production and sales cycles, also has a role in climate change related challenges.

Behind fashion shows and catwalks, what we wear everyday has become a popular topic of discussion. The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, which killed more than a thousand people, put a spotlight on the industry. The documentary “The True Cost”, released in 2015, helped inform a broader audience about the unfair manufacturing conditions and the enormous environmental impacts of an ever-growing demand-driven industry.

The film claims that the garment industry is the world’s second biggest world polluter. Apart from that, there is hardly any data available on emissions and pollution generated by the global fashion industry. This might be due to a long and complex global supply chain, which mainly consists of cotton farming, fibers manufacturing, dyeing, printing and bleaching.

Cotton production is one of the most water intensive crops – responsible for 2.6 percent of global water use. Moreover, it is dependent on high volumes of pesticides and fertilizers in order to increase output per acre. The use of such chemicals contributes to the pollution of groundwater and air, as well as the reduction of soil fertility.

Dyeing, printing and bleaching are one of the most energy and chemical intensive stages along the manufacturing line. China for instance, home to 53 percent of the world’s total textile, produces and then discharges about 40% of all dyeing chemicals worldwide, most of them untreated.

It seems fair to say that we are wearing Earth down. Data confirms this point. According to the EPA, 13.1 million tons of textiles are trashed each year in the U.S.A., of which only 15 percent are donated or recycled. In addition, large quantity of textiles go to waste each year due to production non-conformities. Most synthetic fibers – accounting for about half of all fiber usage – do not decompose and wool releases methane during landfill decomposition. More can be done to reduce textile production and waste and recycle old clothes.

People seldom remember that once clothes are sold, their life span does not come to an end. Rather a new economic chain of used clothes commerce begins. Its volumes have been noted in policy and ecological discussions because they impact entire economic development trajectories in poor countries“– Anguelov (2015).

Most consumers assume that by donating their second hand clothes to charities, that clothes are being recycled or given to genuinely less fortunate people. However, there are too many second-hand clothes being donated. Not only does the availability of such a great quantity of second-hand clothes create unemployment within the garment sector of developing countries, but it also negatively impacts economic growth and destroys the designs inspired by local cultures and traditions. Upcycling may be a better alternative to donating, because through upcycling the garment is turned into something new.

In Germany’s capital Berlin, the Sustainable Fashion community is quickly growing, with concept stores and innovative designers that offer alternatives to an environmentally and socially unsustainable fashion industry. The first Sustainability Drinks event (organized by GreenBuzz Berlin) in 2016 was an opportunity for Berlin-based upcycling and sustainable fashion businesses, such as Moeon, The Upcycling Fashion Store, Substantielles Minimum, Anekdot, fickle sense and Virtu to narrate about alternative fashion and inspire sustainable purchasing habits.

Unfortunately, there is very little data available on the fashion industry’s impact on climate change. Nonetheless, producing garments mostly means using finite resources – dirty energy – the number one polluter. Hence, every step taken to reduce the demand for cheap clothes and fashion garbage is a step towards the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Raising awareness among consumers is paramount to help the apparel sector accelerate its environmental and social impact reduction.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Originally published by S&S on March 2, 2016.

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