Fashion + Our Oceans

Our Love of Fast Fashion Is Destroying Our Oceans

How the fast fashion industry is harming marine life + what we can do to help

There is no denying that our planet is suffering. This fact is an unpleasant truth that all of us live with. We’ve seen the upsetting images of wild animals losing their homes to human destruction, getting trapped in nets and litter, or even, becoming extinct right before our eyes.

In an attempt to reverse the damage we’ve caused, we are changing decades worth of bad habits. We now question ourselves before throwing anything away – can this carton be recycled? Does it need another rinse clean? We may tut and sigh when our delivery parcel contains more packaging than product. Some of us may even go the extra mile and make it an active choice of lifestyle to be as sustainable as possible. But despite our efforts, there is still a global-wide issue. We appear to be in denial about the extent of our climate emergency. I’m talking about our consumption of fast fashion, and its devastating impact on our oceans.

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word, ‘fast fashion’? Perhaps it’s ‘wasteful’? Unethical’? ‘Cheap’? If you would have asked me to summarise my opinion on popular fast fashion brands as a young teen, I’d have said gleefully: ‘bargain!’ However, in recent years, the tide has turned on this industry.

So what does fast fashion actually mean? Well, it is defined by Oxford Dictionaries to be: “Inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends”. Now, this may not sound so sinister, but combined with our planet’s dwindling resources, it is an incredibly wasteful and polluting practice. These garments are poorly made by exploited workers, dyed with toxic chemicals, and dumped in landfills shortly after they’re sold – a consequence of their poor quality and our mass-consumption.

Whilst most of us are aware of these unsustainable and unethical practices of the fast fashion industry, we may not be aware of how it is affecting our oceans – how it is even killing marine life.

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A turtle swims with a plastic bag – Marine Conservation

Why our oceans are so important

Before dissecting the many ways that fast fashion contributes to the ocean’s devastation, it is important that we understand why we should care about our seas.

  • Our oceans provide approximately 50% of the entire planet’s oxygen
  • They store 50 times more carbon dioxide than our atmosphere
  • They make up 71% of our planet’s surface and 97% of all its water
  • They regulate our climate and weather patterns
  • They are a home to 230,000 known species (and potentially 1.8 million undiscovered species!)
  • They are the primary food source to over 3.5 billion people

Every single bit of plastic, litter, and pollutant in our oceans has a direct impact on all life, including ours. It boils down to the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. It’s our weather patterns, global warming, and melting icecaps. We need our oceans to be healthy. When they suffer, we suffer too. Protecting them should be our top priority.

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Richard Carey Photography

Fast fashion’s impact

You may be wondering how exactly the fast fashion industry is damaging the oceans – it certainly isn’t the first thing we think about. The damage, however, is significant, and it’s time for all of us to understand the real impact.

Microfibres

Microfibres are microscopic fibres that are shed from our garments. These tiny fibres are released into the water supply when they are washed in the manufacturing process and in washing machines. In fact, Green Peace notes that “One piece of clothing can release 700,000 fibres in a single wash” – wow!

To make matters worse, these fibres are finding their way into our oceans. A 2011 study by ecologist, Mark Browne, revealed that “85% of the human-made material found on the shoreline were microfibers, and matched the types of material, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing.” (The Guardian)

So, what’s so bad about these tiny fibres? Well, the biggest concern is that vast amounts of these microplastics and fibres are being ingested by fish and other marine life, leading to long-term damage and potential mutations. It doesn’t stop there, however – these microplastics are finding their way onto our plates too. When we consume fish that have ingested these harmful microplastics and fibres, we too, ingest them.

Perhaps the most concerning of all, is that a recent study revealed the presence of microplastics in foetuses – a never seen before occurrence. The long term effects of microplastics in our bodies are still unknown, but it is thought that they can cause developmental issues with the immune system.

“Microplastics pollution has reached every part of the planet, from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans. People are already known to consume the tiny particles via food and water, and to breathe them in.”

Damian Carrington, The Guardian
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Ocean plastic pollution – Paulo Oliveira / Alamy

Plastic waste

It may not occur to us, just how much plastic is used in the fast fashion and textile industry. If we think of all of the little things that we often overlook, (clothes hangers, plastic packaging, shopping bags, and plastic textiles including nylon and PVC), we can get an idea of just how much plastic pollution the industry emits. Each fast fashion item you buy has been shipped in plastic packaging, hung on plastic hangers, and may be woven using plastic fibres. With online shopping on the rise, our consumption patterns have only become more excessive. Think back to your last online fashion purchase, what materials made up the garment? How much unnecessary plastic packaging came with it?

Whilst these practices are not unique to fast fashion, the rate of production, mass-consumption, and throw-away culture of the industry, makes it one of the worst offenders for waste and pollution.

“Plastic waste kills up to 1 million sea birds, 100,000 sea mammals, and countless fish each year. Plastic remains in our ecosystem for years, harming thousands of sea creatures every day.”

Save The Sea

Carbon dioxide and climate change

As we are all aware, climate change and carbon dioxide emissions are an increasing threat to our planet. Unsustainable practices, air polluting factories, and the mass-use of fossil fuels are just few of the factors that have caused our climate’s temperature to rise.

Nature.com notes: “textile production is one of the most polluting industries, producing 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2 e) per year, which is more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping 2.” This sobering statistic reveals just how damaging both the textile industry is for our climate and air quality.

You may be wondering how exactly this relates to the oceans, as this is not something we often think about. Here’s how: carbon dioxide (known as a greenhouse gas) creates a greenhouse like effect in our ozone layer. This traps heat in our atmosphere and results in the gradual rise in our planet’s temperature. This rise in temperature is contributing to the melting of icecaps, rising sea levels, and irreversible damage to wildlife.

One of the most well-known consequences of rising sea temperatures and change in acidity levels is coral bleaching. BBC News notes that “Climate change has reduced coral cover, and surviving corals are under increasing pressure as water temperatures rise and the frequency and severity of coral bleaching events increase.”

Why is this so problematic? Well, healthy coral reefs are vital for the marine ecosystem. They provide a rich, biodiverse habitat for small sea life who need these healthy coral reefs to thrive, and if their habitat is destroyed, they will decline. This decline in biodiversity has a direct and devastating consequence on the entire ecosystem and affects us too.

The degree of biodiversity in the reefs is unmatched anywhere else in the world with the exception of some rainforests. This, in turn, creates a complex food web, that goes from the sharks and dolphins at the top of the food chain to tiny sponges, invertebrates, and plankton at the bottom.”

Green Matters
See the source image
Coral reef bleaching off Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef
AFP/Getty Images

So, what can we do to help?

The most effective thing we can do as individuals and as a society, is to embrace a more circular economy, where we reuse and recycle our clothing. There are plenty of wonderful sites and shops out there to get you started, including Vinted, Depop, and Rokit, where you can buy and trade second-hand clothing. Remember, don’t rule out a good charity shop too! They can be a treasure trove for unique pieces.

If you must buy new, try to avoid poor quality, fast fashion clothing, as these garments will not last and are only destined for landfills. Additionally, we can now also support brands that are creating new garments out of recycled ocean plastics. If you’re interested in learning more about this exciting new practice, Casha Doemland, blogger at Dieline, listed six brands to help you kickstart an ocean-friendly wardrobe.

Written by Isabella Noulton

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