For our friends in fashion, this article will dive deeper into the (fast) fashion industry and its impact on the environment. Here’s what you need to know.
We no longer have to tell you that the climate is changing. In recent years, the effects of climate change were more tangible than ever. Regions have experienced heat waves, droughts and extreme weather events. Fortunately, due to the pandemic, there was a temporary reduction of greenhouse emissions in 2020. However, as of today, emissions are rapidly recovering and CO2 concentrations have hit record highs since.
As mentioned in one of our previous articles, greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are the main gases responsible for climate change. These gases absorb the energy from the sun and keep the heat close to the earth, also known as the greenhouse effect. Due to this effect, planetary heat isn't able to dissipate into space. The eight worst industries for the environment are Energy, Agriculture, Fashion, Food, Retail, Construction, Technology and Forestry. It is therefore not surprising that we’re writing about fashion. Since 2000, there has been an explosive expansion in fast fashion. Where do these emissions come from? How can we prevent them? Is there a way back? Time for a deep dive.
The eight supply chains mentioned above account for more than 50% of global emissions and fashion is one of the largest categories in the list. The fashion industry includes everything from raw materials to production, export, logistics, returns and disposal, plus many more intermediary steps. According to a McKinsey study, if the industry continues in the same way, carbon emissions from fashion are estimated at around 2.1 billion metric tons a year, which is around the same as is emitted today. If the industry wants to follow the climate pact, which aims at limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures, larger and deeper efforts for change are required. The usage of renewable energy, a change in consumer behaviour and operational improvements are examples of key solutions to fix the fashion footprint.
Excessive usage of water
To produce clothing, water is used excessively. The fashion industry consumes an estimated 79 billion cubic metres of water per year. Water is used in all stages of production. It takes around 10,000 to 20,000 litres of water to cultivate one kilo of raw cotton, which is one of the most used materials for clothes. To put that into perspective, if you drink around 3 litres of water a day, this water would be enough to drink for at least the next 9 years (and who drinks enough water anyway..?). Given the fact that not all cotton grows in rainy areas, the use of water for cotton production also causes water shortages around the world. According to Unicef, four billion people experience water scarcity for at least one month each year.
53 million metric tons of thrown away clothes end up in landfills every year. These are not only clothes that could have been recycled, but also single-use products which include complex polymers. Polymers are especially hard to recycle. By washing and wearing this fabric, polymers severely are shortened and weakened. This means that these fibres can not be reused, severely increasing the impact per purchase. In addition, clothes that are made of natural resources like cotton may naturally degrade in months, but synthetics can take up to 200 years to degrade. To top this off, most of today’s textile-to-textile recycling technologies cannot separate out dyes, contaminants, or even a combination of fabrics such as polyester and cotton, causing clothing that contains even a slight percentage of polymers to end up in landfills.
At the moment, synthetic fibres are mostly used for fast fashion; and especially polyester. The material is cheap and easy to obtain, and although it requires less water than cotton, it is not sustainable at all. Both the fossil fuel usage and the pollution involved are way higher. The CO2 emissions that are emitted when producing polyester are three times higher than for cotton. Besides the carbon footprint, polyester production leaves many non-biodegradable waste behind. According to a study, a single clothes wash may release 700,000 microplastic fibres. When you are using the washing machine you are basically flushing (<5mm) microfibers into the sewer of which many end up in the ocean. When fish eat these microplastics, they eventually end up in our food chain, potentially causing harm to both larger animals and humans.
Around fast fashion, there are many more relevant issues to be tackled, and true sustainability doesn’t stop at climate. Most of our clothes are made in countries which have cheaper labour costs. While in essence this isn’t as bad as a principle, cheap labour costs often go paired with child labour and very bad working conditions. Globally, around 170 million children are estimated to be in child labour. Many of these child labourers work at some point in the fashion supply chain. Unfortunately, most of the countries have limited workers’ rights. Employees work for extremely low wages and at poor working conditions. In addition, many of these workers live in industrial regions that are heavily polluted by the chemicals that are released by fabric dyeing.
How do we shift to a more sustainable industry and how can businesses that are active in the fashion industry work towards a more sustainable future? As mentioned above, there are many challenges the industry is facing. Unfortunately, there is a long road ahead. We have to search for ways to make the industry more circular and look for solutions to these issues (reduce water usage, encourage reuse, improve waste streams and much more).
Looking at greenhouse gas emissions, Coolset can help. Engaging suppliers to report on their climate impact naturally encourages the shift to a more sustainable production practice. If no progress is made, why not consider switching suppliers through a sustainable fashion sourcing platform such as Manufy? The companies that choose to use Coolset's software, measure, analyse and reduce emissions throughout their business and portfolio. In addition, Coolset offers industry benchmarks and emission offsetting solutions for companies to neutralise their climate impact. Are you ready to take action?