How polluting is the fashion industry?

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The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Fast fashion has dominated and reshaped the fashion industry since the 1990s and been a major driver of the industry’s enormous greenhouse gas emissions and devastating environmental impact. How are the clothes that we buy leading to such detrimental environmental consequences?

18/03/19
By Cameron Boggon

Fast fashion is a business model that promotes rapid production of cheap clothing to meet the most recent fashion trends. First used in the early 1990s to describe Zara’s business model, fast fashion now dominates the industry. Many major retailers like TopShop, Primark, Forever21 and Mammut are able to turn an idea in a designers mind to the high street shelves in a matter of weeks. The rapid rise and success of these brands in bringing cheap, trendy clothes to the masses has lead to a major shift in consumer behaviour. The average person in 2014 owned 60% more clothing items compared to the average consumer in 2000 whilst wearing those clothes for only half as long. Americans bought five times the amount of clothes in 2014 as they did in 1980.

The ultimate cost of this unfettered rise in conspicuous consumption is waste, pollution and sweatshops. In order to provide such rapid turnovers of cheap clothing, companies have gone to extreme lengths to minimise cost margins.

The most famous and well documented consequence of this is sweatshops. In the drive to cut costs, companies have outsourced their labour to economically developing countries where it is much cheaper and labour laws are often far more lax. Repeated scandals over labour conditions including a total disregard for basic safety measures, low wages and violence in the workplace alongside the industry’s seeming addiction for child labour has created much conversation but little change. Many of these issues are outlined in painful detail in the documentary The True Cost.

Fast fashion also encourages the production of lower quality clothing. Quality and durability have been pushed aside in favour of cheap clothing that meets the current trend in fashion but will be out of vogue the following season. The biggest problem with this is that it has lead to enormous quantities of clothing ending up in landfills. 10.46 million tonnes of clothing ended up in US landfills in 2014. A testament to the true scale of this problem is that only around 15 – 20% of the clothing that is given to charity shops each year ever makes it to the charity shop shelves. The volume of clothing they receive is just too high.

That brings us back to the question of production. How is all this largely unworn clothing produced and what are the environmental costs of its production? Clothing is made up of various types of materials, often blends of different fabrics, which all have their benefits and drawbacks in terms of comfort, durability and production cost. However, cotton is found in 40% of all clothing whilst synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon, in 72% of garments. Both have been criticised for their environmental impacts.

environmental destruction: Aral sea in 1989 compared to 2008 showing the water almost disappeared
Aral sea in 1989 (left) and 2008 (right)

Cotton is a highly water intensive plant. Though only 2.4% of the world’s agricultural land is planted with cotton, it consumes almost 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of pesticides. In one of the most destructive environmental catastrophes man has ever created, two rivers that fed the Aral sea were redirected in the 1960s by the Soviet Union to maintain the cotton plantations in what is now Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Without these two major water inputs, almost the entire Aral sea has now dried up leaving mostly arid desert.

Synthetic polymers, on the other hand, are not grown but manufactured. Production of nylon produces nitrous oxide which is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Both polyester and nylon also break down in washing machines leading to the build up of microplastics in our water systems. Scientists are now finding microplastics to be working their way into our food chain, an issue which we do not yet know what the full consequences will be. Cheap, low quality clothing breaks down much faster than higher quality clothing so exacerbating this problem.

The incomprehensible scale of the fashion industry and the sheer quantity of fabrics that are produced for clothing each year is what makes the fashion industry so destructive. Factories are major energy consumers and therefore greenhouse gas emitters. An estimated 80% of the energy used in the fashion industry is used in textile manufacturing. Electricity is needed to run machinery such as sewing machines and air pumps in textile factories. Huge amounts of heat is needed for washing, drying and dying the cloth. Most of these factories operate in China which is largely dependent on coal for producing energy. The further costs of transporting the garments produces additional CO2 as the vast majority of garments have travelled by ship. Ships burn bunker fuel which contains 1800 times more sulfur than US domestic vehicle fuel, making shipping a significant polluting sector.

Many textile factories also dump untreated chemicals into rivers and are responsible for some of the most polluted rivers in the world. Dumping of toxic chemicals used mostly for dying fabrics has made large sections of major rivers like the Citarum river in Indonesia and Pearl river in China uninhabitable for fish and other animals. Alongside these environmental costs, many people depend on rivers for drinking water, washing and bathing, irrigating their land or as a direct source of food. High rates of cancer and other diseases have been found in communities living next to highly polluted rivers, particularly near textile factory water outlets.

Red chemicals polluting a river

With such a plethora of factors contributing to pollution in the fashion industry, the problem can seem so big that it is difficult to know where to even begin in addressing it. The primary driver for all of this, unfortunately, is demand for low cost and, essentially, disposable clothing. So to tackle the problem at its source, the slow fashion movement and campaigns like Fashion4Climate aim to encourage people to buy quality and durable clothing that is produced in an environmentally sustainable manner. This includes buying environmentally sustainable fabrics like linen, hemp, silk, ramie, organic cotton and sustainable wool or recycled fabrics. Fashion ecolabels also aim to inform consumers about where a garment comes from and how it was produced.

In the spirit of tackling the problem step by step, here at EKOenergy we recently launched our fashion campaign. We aim to get clothing companies and retailers to buy renewable energy. We suggest companies start with simple steps, such as buying renewable energy to power their outlet stores and shops. Secondly, move to sourcing renewable energy for all buildings, warehouses and factories owned by the company across the supply chain. Third, encourage all factories and third parties from whom the company buys, particularly textile manufacturers, to start using renewable energy too. Greening the supply chain is a huge challenge in the fashion industry. By tackling energy consumption in the industry, we hope to play our part in moving fashion towards a more environmentally sustainable industry.