‘Fast fashion’ has become the norm; many of us don’t think twice about buying more clothes and throwing clothes away. Delve a little deeper and you may wish it wasn’t.
The clothing industry impacts the environment throughout every stage of the garment life cycle:
- Growing the raw material often uses vast amounts of water, pesticides, leads to soil degradation, reduction in habitat cover in favour of farming, water pollution
- Fiber production: requires energy and chemicals
- Packaging and distribution: emits greenhouse gasses, requires energy and creates pollution
- Retail: uses energy and resources
- Use: washing garments leads to water pollution and pollution by microfibres
- End of life: the garment is eventually thrown away, in 2009 1 million tonnes of textiles ended up in landfill in the UK
The raw materials used in the clothing industry can have a significant environmental impact. Many UK retailers are taking steps to increase the amount of organic and sustainable cotton they use in their products and step away from conventionally grown cotton. This will facilitate a reduction in water use, pesticide, chemical and fertiliser use. One example of the detrimental impacts of conventional cotton farming comes from the Aral Sea in Central Asia. The Aral Sea is a RAMSAR site with over 103,000 overwintering wildfowl, the freshwater also provides drinking water for local human populations. There is a long history of cotton agriculture in the area, to enable this, vast areas of land have been irrigated over a number of years this has resulted in the freshwater lake almost entirely drying up leading to the virtual destruction of this valuable ecosystem and its associated services. Deltas, steppe, fertile river valleys associated with the water body have all been lost. This example clearly demonstrates the impacts conventional cotton farming can have on the environment because of water usage. 80% of organic cotton is rain fed, UK retailers choosing to use organic cotton would help to reduce water abstraction and pressure on aquatic ecosystems so preventing devastation of valuable wetland habitats.
Clothing production involves chemical application at the production and manufacturing stage (Muthu, 2014). 22.5 % of insecticide used globally is applied to cotton, a quarter of all pesticides used in the US are applied to cotton. Dyeing and treatment of fabrics is responsible for up to 20% of global water pollution. If corporations can work towards a reduction in chemical use across the entire lifecycle of the garment a positive impact will be seen in a variety of ecosystems; not only water bodies but soil functioning and food chains where the negative impacts will be reduced.
The WWF have a really great page on some of the environmental impacts, if you’d like to find out more.
So, how difficult is it to buy sustainably produced clothes that aren’t responsible for damaging the environment? It is tricky, but if you are taking the time to look into the company’s corporate environmental responsibility before you buy, you can make an informed decision about where to purchase your clothes.
There are a couple of UK based companies trying to do their bit, here are some of my favourites:
Shop responsibly and help our beautiful planet.