The fashion industry has for too long has been unregulated, opaque, and unaccountable, operating to the detriment of the environment. In a consumerist-led society, consumers are trained to find fast fashion pleasurable and addictive. According to the World Bank, the fashion industry accounts for 10% of the global carbon emissions, which is shockingly more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Far too often news and media coverage seek to shed light on the environmental impacts of the meat industry, international travel, and other differing sectors; yet the fashion industry accounts for about 8-10% of global carbon emissions, and nearly 20% of wastewater.
Amid the persistent news of record-breaking heatwaves, raging wildfires and unpredictable widespread flood, the evidence of climate change has seldom felt so crystal clear and undeniable. In the latest report published by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), scientists have warned that society has dithered for too long and done too little. The Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, launched in December 2018 under the auspices of UN Climate Change, has declared the vision of achieving net-zero emissions in the sector by 2050.
It is estimated that more than two tonnes of clothing are bought each minute in the UK, more than any other country in Europe. That amount produces nearly 50 tonnes of carbon emissions – the same as driving 162,000 miles in a car. The carbon footprint of new clothes brought in the UK in just one month, was greater than flying a plane around the world 900 times.
The fashion industry is a major water consumer. Up to 20,000 litres of water are needed to produce just 1kg of cotton – this has had dramatic ecological consequences such as the desertification of the Aral Sea, where cotton production has entirely drained the water. 85% of the daily needs in water of the entire population of India would be covered by the water used to grow cotton in the country whilst 100 million people in India do not have access to drinking water.
The evidence is as powerful as ever, clothing has clearly become disposable. Fast fashion has meant that we generate more and more textile waste, year upon year, than ever before. It has been seen that a family in the Western world throws away an average of 30kg of clothing each year, with only 15% being recycled or donated. This is because although it may be beneficial to our economy (running a consumerist society), more items tend to end up at the landfills because the lower quality clothes are worn out faster, or simply the clothes are no longer in style.
As a result, it falls upon us – the consumers – to explore alternatives to tackle the neglected environmental impact of such consumerism. In the UK continuing to actively wear a garment for just nine months longer could dimmish its environmental impacts by 20-30%. Yet the consumerist-led society has moulded people into believing that fast fashion is pleasurable and addictive. As are those people who are sensitive to rewards – interestingly the reward centres in the brain are those most activated by impulse shopping. Though, if we wear a garment 50 times instead of 5 times 400% less carbon emissions would be produced.
Perhaps, it’s our habits as a society that we need to question, instead of throwing our clothes away which will only resultantly end up in landfills, we need to seek for more sustainable options. Whether that be directing our purchases away from fast fashion companies, wearing our garments more often, reselling our clothes, giving clothes away or simply reducing the amount of clothes we buy per year. Each of these individual choices will aid towards a more sustainable industry. Even a reduction in the number of times we wash a garment – as washing a synthetic garment releases about 1,900 individual microfibres into the water and therefore, horrifyingly, introduces plastic into our food chain: 190,000 of textile micro-plastic fibres end up in the oceans every year.
Much like resale, rental and swapping give consumers more sustainable buying options and push the conversation in the right direction. We must create an ecosystem that fosters this innovative way of thinking and adopting circular fashion principles is an indispensable and vital instrument in the fashion industry’s plethora of tools to combat climate change. As if the industry maintains its course, an increase of 50% in greenhouse gas emissions is expected within a decade. However, if we begin to take conscious environmental steps towards advocating for a green-friendly fashion industry, we can work towards slowing down the devastating effects of climate change.
The fashion industry has lost the privilege of taking slow reactionary actions and needs to aggressively pursue proactive strategies to shift away from its current foreseen trajectory. We need urgent legislation to force brands to act together as a whole, because it’s not just consumers that need to act but rather all individual stakeholders together. Science has left no room for ambiguity – change is imperative for our world’s future.