What is the environmental cost of fashion?
We are currently living in the Anthropocene era. It is a period in which human activity has been identified as the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Meaning – what we do affects everything around us.
When we talk about climate change, we talk about global carbon emissions in our atmosphere. There are 1.7 billion tons of carbon emissions from the fashion industry per year – more than the aviation and shipping industries combined. The levels of CO2 exceed what is safe in our climate. The fashion industry has a direct impact on climate change.
Climate change effects are already impacting our world with extreme heat waves, affecting air and water quality, heavy downpours, sea level rising compromising eco systems and agriculture, drought and insect outbreaks, and increased wildfires.
About 10% of global emissions are caused by the fashion industry. If the industry continues on its current trajectory, that share of the carbon budget could jump to 26% by 2050, according to a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
These emissions come from the production of raw materials and garment care. About two-thirds of our clothing comes from fossil fuel-derived synthetics, such as polyester, that emit greenhouse gases and also shed microfibers that add plastic pollution in the ocean.
Let’s remember that: POLYESTER IS PLASTIC.
Every year a half a million tons of plastic microfibers are dumped into the ocean (as much as 20% to 35% of all primary source microplastics in the marine environment are from synthetic clothing), the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.
Microfibers cannot be extracted from the water and they can spread throughout the food chain (gross!). Cutting down on washing can help to reduce the carbon footprint of your clothing wardrobe, while also helping to lower water use and the number of microfibers shed in the washing machine.
In North America alone, 10.5 million tons of clothes are sent to a landfill each year where most won’t decay or decompose. Also, unfortunately, it is cheaper for internet retailers and fashion brands to dump or burn returned goods rather than attempting to find another home for them. This means that further greenhouse gas emissions will be released as the clothes rot or burn.
Research has suggested that online shopping can have a lower carbon footprint than travelling to traditional shops to buy products, especially if consumers live far away. But the rise of online shopping has also driven changes in consumer behavior, contributing to a fast fashion culture where consumers buy more than they need, have it delivered to them and then return a large proportion of their purchases after trying them on.
Returning the items can effectively double the emissions from transporting your goods and then you are left with the problem I mentioned above regarding dumping and burning of returned items.
A simpler way to reduce the footprint from online shopping is to only order what you really want and intend to keep (or order what you actually need). According to the World Bank, 40% of clothing purchased in some countries is never used.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the average number of times a piece of clothing is worn decreased by 36% between 2000 and 2015. In the same period, clothing production doubled. We have become a nation of overconsumption and fast fashion. Secondhand clothing can give clothes a second life and help slow down this cycle.
This is our challenge in the fashion industry. Many of the changes that need to be made for clothing to be more sustainable need to be implemented by the manufacturers and big companies that control the industry.
But as consumers the changes we can make in our behavior can add up and drive the change in the industry.
From designers to manufacturers to consumers, we can all make a difference. By being more thoughtful as consumers, we can be more aware of what we are buying.
Change starts with you!
What can we as consumers do? Start with these small steps and be an eco-warrior:
- Before buying, check the company’s website to see if they are sustainable in their practices. If not, reach out to the brand and see what they are doing to change that!
- Be creative in combining garments and recycle them after they wear out.
- Repair clothing – Invest in a sewing kit!
- Donate what you no longer use – you can also swap or resell these items.
- Buy only what you need. In some countries, 40% of purchased clothing is never used.
- Consider quality over quantity. Every additional year a garment is worn means less pollution. Cheap clothing often doesn’t survive the wash cycle, meaning that in the long run you don’t save money compared with buying better quality garments.
- Shop second-hand or buy new from sustainable brands.
- Be a smart about your laundry — wash full loads, wash less often and consider eco-friendly laundry products that are gentle on your clothes and better for the environment.
Next time you shop, consider brands that use plant based materials in their line, like VALANI. Plant based fabrics are made from plants (obviously!) – like banana fabric made from discarded Banana Tree stems (cruelty free alternative to silk). Or Tencel made from sustainably managed Eucalyptus trees. Plant based fabrics take less time to decompose going back into the soil being gentler on the earth. Kinder to our planet
Nature is our only home, let’s not mess it up.
She's on a mission to shift the industry towards an eco-friendly and socially conscious future.