The UN has predicted that the global population could reach a whopping 9.8 billion people by 2050. If this happens, we will need the equivalent of 3 planets to provide the resources needed to sustain our current lifestyles. So how can one planet create all these resources? And how can we as consumers change our behaviour to stop us killing our planet?
How Bad is the Fashion Industry Environmentally?
We all know that fast fashion is causing the fashion industry to be one of the main pollutants of the environment. Each year we, as a planet, consume more than 80 billion items of clothing. Another £12.5 billion worth of clothes were thrown out in 2018 which is shocking. These items weren’t recycled. These were thrown out. Into a standard black bin.
When clothes are thrown into landfill, the harmful chemicals and dyes used to treat them are released into the environment around them. These chemicals can be absorbed into the soil, which in turn will damage the plants growing on the soil, or even stop them growing at all.
Unsurprisingly, when unsold clothes are burned they release CO2 into the environment. The World Resources Institute actually reported that the fast fashion industry is responsible for releasing 1.2 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. But fashion fashion isn’t the only issue here. Luxury retailer, Burberry caused a media storm when they admitted to burning all unsold stock to prevent discounting.
Are the Materials we Use Killing the Planet?
When considering how the fashion industry could change its use of materials, it’s really a case of the lesser of two evils. Popular synthetic fibres such as polyester are non-biodegradable. However, polyester is found in 60% of clothing. This equals to about 21.3 million tons of polyester that could potentially be thrown out and either left in the environment, or burned. Even more worryingly, when you wash polyester clothes, they shed micro plastics which get fed into waterways and therefore the oceans. These micro plastics are so small that fish absorb them. So if you eat fish, you can end up consuming these micro plastics.
While you might think that natural fibres like cotton are better for the environment, on a large scale, you’d be wrong. Cotton is known as the world’s dirtiest crop as it uses 16% of the world’s pesticides. These chemicals are harmful both to the farmers and the wildlife around them. For this reason, many retailers such as Monki, H&M and Zara are switching to organic cotton. But even still, cotton is the main and only component of denim, the biggest pollutant in fashion.
Is Denim the Problem?
On average, denim production requires 3,781 litres of water. And the current worldwide demand for fresh water is way above what is available. Not to mention the fact that denim production also created 33.4 kg of CO2. This clearly means that denim is unsustainable. But how can we live without such a key material?
In short, we probably can’t. This is why retailers such as Levi’s have developed denim using hemp. Well, ‘cottonised hemp’ to be exact. This means that while hemp can be weaved the same way as cotton to create denim, it’s really coarse. It has to be treated. The standard way to treat material is with harsh and harmful chemicals, using a lot of water and energy. However, Levi’s have worked with fabric technologists to develop a way of treating the hemp denim using as little energy and water as possible.
Are Retailers Killing the Planet?
The main step retailers must complete to reduce their waste is recycling. More specifically, recycling unsold or returned items into new ones. It sounds simple enough, but will actually result in a complete change in the way the business runs. It will also mean that products will be made significantly slower. But in order for this to be profitable, consumers must accept that products will get to market slower.
H&M have a system where you can drop off clothes you no longer want to be recycled, then you get a voucher. And Primark are trialling a similar idea in a select number of stores, but without the reward. These items can then be reused to make new items.
Recycling clothing is the best way to reduce the amount of resources needed for the fashion industry. These clothes are sent back to factories and either recut into new items, or the material can be re-spun and made into whole new garments. This is called a circular economy, and greatly reduces textile waste.
How is Consumer Behaviour Killing the Planet?
So how can we change our behaviour to make all these changes possible? Well, firstly, we need to accept that sustainable products take longer to get to market. But the likelihood is that these products will be of a higher quality than fast fashion products so they will be worth the wait.
We as consumers must also become used to repairing items that are looking worn. Just buying a sewing kit and patching up a hole could extend a product’s life by 3 months and reduce its carbon footprint by 10%. It’s almost like we need to take inspiration from the past and repair items instead of buying new ones.
This change in the consumer mindset and behaviour could save the planet’s resources from being drained. What’s more important to you? Fast fashion items or the planet?