‘Fashion shouldn’t cost the Earth.’

– Mary Creagh, former Member of the Parliament of the United Kingdom

Many people may not think that the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry after PET bottles and congestion. The competition between brands is becoming increasingly fierce in the clothing industry as well. Sales are pushing people to buy dozens of T-shirts and clothes. Unfortunately, too few are aware of the fact that our over-excessive consumption of clothes has a significant impact on climate change, as the clothing industry contributes to 8% of global greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere.

It should be noted that the clothing industry is the second biggest consumer of water after agriculture. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), it takes 2,700 litres of water to make just one cotton T-shirt, which is enough water for one adult person to drink for two and a half years. We should just think of how many T-shirts a clothing brand comes out with in a single year or of the fact that manufacturing a white shirt produces the same amount of emissions as driving a car for 60 kilometres. Thus, it is no coincidence that our insatiable appetite for new clothes has made the fashion industry the second most polluting industry in the world. The excessive and unconsidered purchases of clothes jeopardise one of our most important natural resources, water that is essential for life, in a world where a third of the world’s population do not have access to healthy drinking water.

What to expect, according to analysts

The growth is expected to be of such magnitude by 2050 that the textile and fashion industries will be responsible for a quarter of the annual carbon emissions of the global economy. Such magnitude would correspond to the environmental threat posed by the emissions of sectors that are traditionally and predominantly based on fossil fuels, such as merchant shipping. If the industries responsible for the greenhouse effect do not significantly reduce their emissions, severe global economic and social crisis may develop in just a few decades from now. If the trend in terms of purchase behaviour in fashion consumption continues, the clothing industry may use a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050, causing climate change to accelerate, although it would be a relatively easily remediable issue.

Causes of pollution in the clothing industry

The clothing industry is substantially increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Buying a garment makes a contribution to the acceleration of global climate change. How? The manufacture of textiles used for producing clothes is one of the most pollutant industries in the world and is responsible for 5% of total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The average consumer is now purchasing 60% more items of clothing compared to 2000, it is therefore not surprising that it implies a rise in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Beyond production, washing clothing using washing machines requires vast amounts of water; washing a single pair of jeans requires nearly 4,000 litres of water throughout its life. A wide range of environmentally harmful substances are formed in the course of the process, which are released into the marine environment, polluting living marine resources. To think, two tonnes of clothing are bought each minute in the United Kingdom. The manufacture of that quantity of clothing produces 50 tonnes of carbon emissions; by comparison, driving a car for 27,000 kilometres creates the same amount of carbon emission. Despite the fact that the United Kingdom is having economic problems, the fashion sector has continued to generate growth. According to the British Fashion Council, the UK fashion industry contributed 28.1 billion pounds to national GDP in 2015, up from 21 billion pounds in 2009. The Environmental Audit Committee warned that the globalised market for fashion manufacturing has facilitated a ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon with cheap clothing and a quick turnover encouraging consumers to keep buying.

The way we design, make and discard clothes has a huge environmental impact. Producing clothes produces climate-changing emissions. Every time we put on a wash, thousands of plastic fibres wash down the drain and into the oceans. It is not uncommon for production plants in the third world to discharge unfiltered water containing hazardous chemicals into rivers after completion of the manufacturing process, causing incalculable environmental damage. 20% of industrial water pollution globally is attributable to textiles and clothing producers. This fashion model is also similar in this case, meaning that the Western world is benefiting from cheap labour and low-cost production in Asia and that is coming at the cost of diseases in the local population attributable to groundwater pollution.

Outrageous waste

In the mid-1990s, the average American bought 28 items of clothing a year, today they buy more than twice that much. However, clothes are used for only a short time and disposed prematurely. The average number of times a garment is worn has decreased by 36% compared to 15 years ago. The same pattern is emerging in China, where the average number has descended from over 200 wears to just slightly more than 50 in just twenty years. These data are obtained from a study published in Nature in spring of 2020, which provides exquisite detail of the environmentally destructive impacts of the clothing industry, primarily focusing on fast fashion. The current business model that is seem to be taking over the clothing industry and is seriously damaging to the environment has allowed people to consume more and more unnecessary garments while spending less and less money on a single item of clothing. The UNECE considers that, by 2030, the global middle class consuming the most pieces of fast fashion clothing will nearly double, growing from 3 billion in 2015 to 5.4 billion.

Production of cotton, one of the raw materials used in the garment industry, is responsible for the consumption of a high percentage of total annual water use. According to a survey by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, approximately one kilogram of a pair of jeans takes as much as 10,000 litres of water to produce (from production of cotton to the finished product). Synthetic fabrics have a smaller water footprint but a greater carbon footprint. Polyester production was estimated to release 706 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2015, the equivalent of the annual emissions of 185 coal-fired power plants.

Chemicals represent a further serious threat, which are used throughout the three-stage textile-making process: pesticides in cotton production, various chemicals in the working of fabrics and, last but not least, dyes for dying fabrics. In this regard, Greenpeace for example tested children’s clothing and sports clothing in 2014 and found several hazardous chemicals in the products made by top clothing brands.

The end-of-life of clothing is no more environmentally friendly than its production. 73% of the textiles produced were assumed to be landfilled in 2015. In the United States of America and the United Kingdom, the average person throws out 30 kilograms of textiles annually. The proportion of textile in mixed waste may thus be as high as 22%. 82 billion of textile waste is generated annually, which is enough to fill the Sydney harbour. Selling used clothing is no solution either, as clothing quality is decreasing along with costs, thus, new clothes are often available at more affordable prices. Garments mainly made of petroleum-based fibres would decompose within hundreds of years, while a large proportion of clothes are incinerated, which further increases greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Although apparent efforts have been made towards recycling, the scale of many of these changes is small for now.

Exploitation of workers in the clothing sector

It is also important to talk about the human dimension of the industry. In order to be able to buy a T-shirt for a few euros, not only do we need not to pay the real cost of the resources used and pollution, but we also need to terribly underpay workers sewing garments. It is not by chance that large part of textile manufacturing is concentrated in countries where workers’ rights are very weak or not rigorously observed. It does not just concern salaries but also other working conditions: workers, who are frequently women, suffer extremely poor working conditions in many factories in Asia. According to the UNECE, one person in six in the world works in a fashion-related job. There has been plenty of news in recent years about the wretched working conditions and exploitation of ‘fashion workers’, child workers employed in the clothing sector, or shopping bags made in a Chinese prison. The collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh killed 1134 garment workers in 2013. This terrible tragedy has triggered significant changes in the fashion industry, which have a resonance today.

What is the solution?

Many positive examples can be seen, showing how certain industry players in the clothing sector seek to manufacture clothing in an environmentally responsible way and to develop recycling technologies. However, this ideal situation is being achieved neither for all garments nor by all industry players, thus, the best we can do is to pursue a more conscious lifestyle, which requires effort and sacrifice. But we will realise quite soon that we did not in fact even need that many pieces of clothing. Purchasing clothes made exclusively of natural cotton is not the solution, either, as fertilisers used in cotton agriculture are also hazardous to the environment. However, we should also know that there are already a number of textiles which are not only environmentally sound but also made of sustainable raw materials, and thus may help to develop a more sustainable lifestyle.

These include hemp, linen and Tencel, the production of which pollutes less. Hemp requires 60-70% less water at the stage of production than cotton. Clothing made of hemp is antibacterial, antifungal and more durable, and naturally filters UV light. Hemp takes up much less dye at the manufacturing stage than cotton, a minimum quantity of chlorine is therefore required for bleaching.

The durability of linen has long been known, as flax, from which linen is made, is one of the oldest continuously cultivated plants in the world after hemp. Linen is made from cellulose fibres that grow inside the stalks of the flax plant. Linen fabrics are breathable, durable, lightweight, absorbent, antimicrobial and aerating. Linen is one of the best summer fabrics: not only does linen fabric conduct heat away from the wearer but also reflects heat. Like hemp, flax also requires much less water than cotton, moreover, it does not require any chemical fertilisers or pesticides. The prime benefit of linen is its price, as it is much cheaper compared to hemp.

Tencel is still unknown to many. This artificial fabric is made of cellulose (unfortunately mostly of wood cellulose but is sometimes extracted from the cellulose of eucalyptus), it is thus fully biodegradable. Tencel structure is fine, and the fabric is antibacterial, which can be of great benefit. But on the downside, vast quantities of chemical solvents are used in the process of manufacturing to dissolve wood pulp. Although its environmental impact can be reduced by re-using solvents to minimise hazardous wastes.

It is therefore clear that a global transformation in the clothing industry with a disastrous impact on the environment is necessary to become more sustainable and ethical in its production processes. However, there is still a long way to go before this goal can be achieved. As a first step, we as consumers need to endeavour to make conscious and sustainable purchasing decisions. It could be the most important engine of change.

The so-called Second-Hand September movement has been launched in the United Kingdom, which aims at encouraging people not to buy new clothes for a month, thus reducing the large-scale pollution caused by the fashion industry. The whole point of the campaign is to make people pledge to avoid shopping any new clothes for the entire 30 days of the month, but they can buy second-hand clothes or even give away or sell their own discarded and unused garments. If all British people participated in the initiative and avoided purchasing new garments for only a month, greater emissions would be saved than those from flying a plane around the world 900 times. 

Besides environment-conscious production and the development of new technologies and fabrics, buyer awareness will in effect bring about positive changes in the clothing industry.