The latest Living Planet Index–published by WWF and the Zoological Society of London – showed a 60% fall in wildlife populations in 40 years. But, how does fast fashion play a part in this statistic? How can we, as conscious consumers, help?
Fashion is one of the main contributors to the ecological degradation that our planet is currently experiencing. Billions of animals die after being mistreated for our clothes every year. The fashion industry is one of the most uncontrolled and unsustainable businesses of today. Even though there has been a recent rise in demand for clothing transparency, the damage has already been done. But, it doesn’t have to be this way – a more conscious approach to consumption can help.
For hundreds of years, fashion has often used animals for its gain. However, clever marketing and the appeal of the finished product has distracted the consumer from where our materials actually come from.
What damage does fast fashion do?
It’s tough to love the clothes we already have due to the many temptations from retailers. But, before you head out to buy the latest Instagram trend, try to spare a thought for the impact that fast fashion can have on the environment.
Conventional textile manufacturing is tough on the land, the people working and livestock. Issues arise at almost every step of the process. From the ever-present genetically modified seeds; pesticides; harsh chemicals and toxic waste to the chemically treated clothing that ends up in our landfill.
Fast fashion has exacerbated this. It focuses on speed and low cost to deliver frequent new collections inspired by runways and A-Lister style. And demand means that environmental corners are being cut. The pressure of reducing cost and getting garments from the design stage to the shop floor in a matter of days is a huge strain on sustainability.
The second-largest polluter of clean water, after agriculture, is textile dyeing. Vibrant colours, prints and fabrics are usually the most appealing features of our wardrobes. But, we achieve these with toxic chemicals. Warehouse mills discharge millions of gallons of toxic waste into our water streams everyday, full of colour and chemicals from dyeing and finishing salts.
But, that’s not all. The chemicals used start to corrode pipes and effect the plumbing and sewage near the areas of the factories as the chemicals are flushed into rivers, contaminating the waters. It causes both environmental damage (livestock) and harbours disease throughout developing communities, who have no choice in whether or not they are going to consume it – leaving them with horrible rashes, sore eyes, skin pigmentation and various other issues.
However, the water footprint in fashion isn’t only because of the dyeing of materials – it is the material itself. Materials, namely cotton, pose a separate threat to farmers.
Toxic chemicals used in cotton farming can produce devastating side effects. The process requires high levels of water and pesticides to prevent crop failure. But, this can be problematic for developing countries that lack sufficient investment, leaving them at risk for drought.
The Aral Sea in Asia has reduced dramatically in size due to cotton farming. From formally being the fourth largest lake in the world of 68,000km squared, it now only covers a small fraction of its original size.
The sea was a crucial source of life for the communities that surrounded it and was home to millions of livestock. The drainage of this sea has seen many difficulties. It is now fully inhabitable. The dust emitted is carcinogenic and damages the livelihood of nearby villages.
When regarding the general public, the knowledge of the water consumption of the fashion industry is low. Did you know that it takes around 270 gallons of water to make one cotton t-shirt? – That’s equivalent to three years of drinking water!
Nylon and polyester
Nylon and polyester are both non-biodegradable fabrics. The production process of these add to the environmental impacts of the fashion industry. Nylon manufacture creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Making polyester uses large amounts of water for cooling, along with lubricants which can become a source of contamination. Both processes are also very energy-hungry.
Leather and Fur
Although we’re conscious of animal fur in fashion, it always tends to creep back in. Animals like rabbits, minks, foxes, crocodiles, snakes, alpacas and llamas (to name some, not all) are coveted by the fashion industry. Their fur and skins are used to make a variety of what’s marketed as ‘luxurious’ clothing. PETA found that “85% of the fur industry’s skin come from animals raised in battery cages in fur farms,” depriving the animals of quality of life.
Leather pollutes the world with the process of tanning and dyeing. Animal skin used to be air- or salt-dried and tanned with vegetable tannins or oil. But, today animal skin is turned into finished leather with a variety of much more dangerous substances. From mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and various oils, dyes, and finishes—some of them cyanide-based.
It’s not only the manufacturers that are exploiting the fashion industry for what it’s worth. It’s us too. In a world of accelerating demand for apparel, consumers want – and can easily afford – new clothing after wearing the ones in their wardrobe only a few times. Look at Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing and even now Nasty Gal to name a few. These are entire business models that are built on the premise of “fast fashion”. They encourage the consumer to keep shopping the latest trends with the promise of low prices.
Did you know that we buy more clothes per person in the UK than any other country in Europe. Social media has played a large part in the way this works. Platforms like Instagram have helped develop a type of ‘throw-away culture‘. WHY (influencers)
Conscious consumers and why you should hop on board
At first glance, fashion and consciousness may not seem like a perfect fit. We define fashion with hedonism and short product life cycles and consciousness with the opposite – ethics and the reuse of products. However, the two combined (conscious fashion) is slowly becoming a popular movement.
Some social media influencers and small-business have started a slow revolution for conscious fashion – using their audience and platforms to promote sustainability. To save our planet and create a sustainable circular economy, we need to move beyond the philosophy of single use. Over the past few years, we have been educated on what the fashion industry is doing to our planet. Documentaries such as Fashion’s Dirty Secrets and The True Cost emphasise the price fashion has on our world.
Where have the days gone where we treasure our pieces?