Opinion: The environmental cost of fashion

We are all aware of the looming climate catastrophe that faces the world. The crisis has – for several years now – been a topic of heated debate and frequent press coverage. Climate change has led to issues of extreme weather events, desertification, melting of the ice caps, among many other tragic occurrences. This has become a real concern when the ramifications include environmental refugees, the acidification of the ocean and increasing numbers of endangered species, to name only a few. The press coverage of these issues has only been enhanced by the recent COP26 discussions, as well as the craze of ‘Seaspiracy’ earlier this year. Despite the rising awareness, insufficient change has been made to delay the non-reversible tipping point of the climate crisis. The tipping point in question has been assessed to happen at an excess of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, however, despite efforts to encourage and establish more sustainable solutions like charges for plastic bags, the use of renewable energies, and greater availability of meat alternatives, not enough is being done.

This article will focus on fast fashion, considered to be a major negative contributor to the climate crisis. Fast fashion is a concept largely applied by the fashion industry, where companies mass-produce clothes at an incredibly fast rate and a very low cost, generating ridiculous amounts of money. The firms release an increasing amount of collections every year, producing the items not for longevity but for the fulfilment of the latest fashion trends. This is exemplified by Zara, which releases 24 collections a year, far greater than the four (one per season) we could deem necessary. The increase in production and greater number of trends has led to ever more clothes in landfills. In a current article by The Independent, it has been found that every year, at least 39,000 tonnes of discarded fast fashion is left in rubbish dumps in the Atacama Desert (Chile). There has also been evidence that globally, the equivalent of a rubbish truck’s worth of clothes is dumped in landfills every second! The increased turnaround not only means higher use of natural resources such as water or fossil fuels for transport; 60% of garments are now made from fibres such as polyester. The plastic within these garments means they are unable to decompose and consequently require either: space in landfills or incineration, which is in no way a better alternative. The repercussions of fast fashion mean that if the enthusiasm remains the same, its greenhouse gas emissions will increase by more than 50%, by 2030.

Evidently, the fast-fashion craze is not sustainable and will continue to produce greenhouse gases and exacerbate the looming climate crisis. A dominant issue we are faced with in fast fashion is the marketing tactic used by companies of substantially decreasing costs – particularly on Black Friday and Christmas – encouraging over-consumption. Many readers will remember the controversy exposed by climate activists last year over the Pretty Little Thing clothing brand selling clothes for as little as 8p during their Black Friday sale. The direct repercussion of advertising such little prices is that people will be encouraged to buy a lot more than they would usually buy, and many items will go to waste and never be used. Indeed, in some countries, 40% of clothes purchased have never been worn. The tactics of lowering costs and offering deals, especially throughout the festive period, demonstrate that tackling fast fashion is not only an issue at the individual level but rather (and most importantly) a structural one, for governments and supranational institutions to regulate. The problem we face with the fashion industry – like many other manufacturing industries – is that despite the climate impacts, they are relied upon by many, for employment and economic stability. With greater levels of outsourcing followed on from the move of developed countries in Western Europe to the tertiary sector, countries in South Asia picked up the textile demand and have become fairly dependent on it for economic growth. The fashion industry is valued at 2.4 USD and employs 75 million people through its value chain. Evidently, there is a conflict between the environment and the economy, which is apparent within all layers of the environmental debate, from fossil fuels, manufacturing and even meat production.

Furthermore, an attempt to change the behaviour of individuals is made particularly difficult within the current tradition of over-consumption perpetuated and encouraged by big brands. Individuals are invited to shop locally, through charity shops, or engage in clothing exchanges but the pressure and availability of fast fashion and over-consumption is a hard temptation for many of us to ignore. It is evident that fast fashion is not a sole driver of the climate crisis, but with it accounting for 10% of current greenhouse gas emissions, its reduction can make a real difference within the climate issue.

From a personal standpoint, I would call on readers to consider the ramifications of over-consumption, especially in the fashion sector in the coming few weeks. With Black Friday coming up, engage instead in a “buy nothing day” and not fall into the traps set by companies to buy unnecessarily. This is not to place complete responsibility on the individual – as structural change is desperately needed – but to have companies take the demand for sustainability and ethical production seriously, there needs to be sufficient drive from consumers to set the standard.

Image: Victor Camilo, 2011//CC BY-ND 2.0

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