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Let's Be Honest, Episode 36: The Carbon Footprint of Fashion

Let’s be honest is a Food Circle project to open up the conversation about the challenges when being or becoming a member of the SC (Sustainability Club). This series will shine a light on the different approaches to making life more sustainable and the step-backs and difficulties that arise. Being more kind and understanding, instead of critical, will hopefully help to encourage us to try instead of giving up when facing a step-back or failure. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment!

Let’s celebrate the achievements and give room for honesty and struggles!

In an age characterised by consumption, “fast-fashion” is a term we hear every so often. The clothes we wear are not mere garments that serve a function, fashion industry has taken off to unmeasurable heights, dominating the market and influencing the consumers’ consumption habits and fashion trends. The closet does not just hold the utmost necessary items of clothing anymore, rather there’s space for the used, the unused, the old, the dated, the seasonal and the outgrown.

“Fast-fashion” is a rather new phenomenon on the horizon, referring to irresponsible retail practices, brought about by the quick-paced trend cycles [1]. The speed of “fast fashion” is maddening: retailers have the task of putting out new styles as soon as possible, meeting the consumer’s demand for new clothing collections every season. Trends are born only to die too soon, leaving tons of still useful clothing not desirable to wear.

Sadly, it is not just the practice of discarding clothing prematurely that pollutes the planet. The fashion industry is responsible for releasing as much as 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year [2]. Our small purchases may leave a bigger impact than we imagine. But how big really is the carbon footprint of our clothes?

Let us go through each step, from manufacturing to consumption of clothes, and explore what the real “skeletons in your closet” could be.

A Thirsty Industry

Globally, the fashion industry consumes a significant amount of water. Currently, the fashion sector is believed to utilise 93 billion cubic meters of water annually, or 4% of all freshwater extraction worldwide [3]. By 2030, this quantity is anticipated to double based on current trends.

Water is essential to the fashion industry's manufacturing of fabrics and clothing. The most extensively used natural material is cotton, and depending on where it is cultivated, just one kilogram of raw cotton requires 10,000–20,000 liters of water to cultivate. But that is not all. The standard textile dyeing, spinning and finishing are all processes that heavily rely on the usage of water. A 2019 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report revealed that the consumption of water in fashion industry alone would be enough to meet the necessity for water for five million people [4].

The Cost of Factories

Taking the magnitude of fashion industry into consideration, we are all well aware that the industry gives jobs to millions of people. That includes designers, retail workers, but, most prominently, factory workers. Many fast-fashion brands employ developing countries, build factories in such locations as China, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Vietnam [5]. Besides having more lenient labour regulations in these countries, the factories also have very little regulation of their environmental effects, as well as they frequently use coal as fuel.

Can't Escape the Plastic

On surface level, when we buy clothes we may not think that they have a hand in the global crisis of plastic. In reality, research discloses that our clothing is the source of 35% of all the microplastics in the world. When we wash our clothing, these microplastics disintegrate, infiltrate in rivers, and cause irreversible plastic pollution in the oceans.

Most of our clothes’ labels read the words “polyester,” “nylon,” “polyamide” and “acrylic” [6]. These commonly used clothing materials are plastics. Such fabrics release these microscopic plastic threads into the water and in the air every step of the way - when they are created, washed, worn, or dried. Almost everything we eat and drink contains these microfibres, including fish, seafood, chicken, tap water, bottled water, salt, and beer. On top of showing signs of serious human health risks, no environment is safe from the exposure of microplastics, since scientists have proven that microfibres can travel for kilometres before they settle down.

On the topic of plastic, let’s not forget the issue of plastic packaging that the fashion industry is not immune to. With the speed of fast-fashion and the rise of online shopping, plastic packaging is widely used across the industry and along the whole value chain. Carrier bags, e-commerce packaging, and garment polybags are examples of common plastic packaging utilised in the fashion industry [7]. Many brands are actively looking to implement more sustainable strategies when it comes to their packaging, but there are plenty businesses that still resort to plastic.

End of the Cycle

Finally, we have arrived at the final stage of clothing consumption: the disposal. “Out with the old, in with the new” - this principle is greatly followed by fashion enthusiasts and retail businesses. Seasonal clothing items and fashion trends demand a closet clear out, resulting in older, used, outdated garments being thrown away. The majority of clothes that are discarded of either end up in landfills or are burned, a study shows [8]. Shrinking lifespan of clothing - that is one of the reasons why the numbers of clothing consumed and clothing winding up in landfills continues to rise every year. It is also the reason why the fashion industry is responsible for as much as 10% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide [9].

The upsetting part is, only 13% of clothing ends up being recycled in the U.S. The reason behind the low rates of recyclability comes down to the complexity of materials that clothes are made from. Think threads, labels, buttons: the mixtures of natural fibres, man-made filaments, polymers, and metals are used to make the garments, inflicting difficulty to separate them and properly recycle each component.

Taking Action

At the end of the day, clothing is something we all need. Each step that our garments go through - from material extraction, to production, to consumption - tend to be rather carbon-heavy, and it is hard not to get discouraged by this information. Especially knowing that facing a great deal of these challenges is the responsibility of the industry and the economic system.

However, it would be worthwhile to remember that individual habits still do make a difference in the end. And when it comes to clothing, some more sustainable ways to go about fashion have already made their way into our daily lives and become common practices. Shopping second-hand, donating old clothes and upcycling are solutions that many have already adapted to. To add to this list of good habits, you may consider purchasing clothes from sustainable brands. Alternatively, there are more and more opportunities to rent clothing. Special occasion wear that would be put on for just that - one special occasion - perhaps is reasonable to use a fashion rental service for.

Moreover, it is worth thinking about the durability of clothes, or better yet, how to increase it. Purchasing better quality clothes, paying attention to how to wash them properly and learning how to fix clothing are all useful customs to bring into your journey of more environmentally conscious way of consumption.

Author: Liva Puka

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  1. What is Fast Fashion and Why is It So Bad? | good on you

  2. The Carbon Footprint of Clothes | GO Climate

  3. The Issues: Water | Common Objective

  4. Pulse of the Fashion Industry | GFA

  5. Impacts of the Garment Industry | Factory Working Conditions

  6. The Invisible Threat: Microplastics From Your Clothes | Plastic Soup Foundation

  7. Addressing Plastics and Packaging Issues in the Fashion Industry | Anthesis

  8. Textiles: Material-Specific Data | EPA

  9. Why Clothes are So Hard to Recycle | BBC