Having converted to a meat-free lifestyle in my first year at Oxford, I felt I could live with a level of environmental smugness – I didn’t need to feel bad about my personal contributions to climate change because I hadn’t eaten beef in a year and a half. However, deep in the depths of long vacation boredom I began to do a bit of research about my other personal contributions to climate change and made the horrifying discovery that the fashion industry emits more carbon than the aviation and shipping industries combined. It is estimated that across the full lifecycle of clothing the industry produces 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2e globally per year. In perspective, the 28 EU member states have a combined carbon footprint of 3.5 billion tonnes a year.
The rise of cheap clothing has enabled consumers to purchase more garments, more often with online shopping making it easier and more convenient than ever. For example, sites such as Missguided have now partnered with Klarna which give consumers up to thirty days to pay for their orders. Buying clothes has never been easier but this has not happened without environmental consequences at every stage of the supply chain.
This is not an issue specific to clothing but also to bags and accessories. The ongoing fires in the Amazon rainforest have been linked to the creation of pasture for cattle which are not only farmed for beef but also for leather used for things such as belts, bags and shoes. The global production of footwear was up to 23.5 billion pairs in 2018, accounting for 55% of all leather production.
Additionally, textile production alone contributes an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2e per year. The majority of fast fashion garments are made from artificial materials such as polyester and a polyester garment has more than twice the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt (5.5 kg CO2e vs. 2.1 kg CO2e).
Carbon emission is not the only environmental issue that the fashion industry is to blame for. Producing one kilogram of cotton, for example, a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, can use between 10,000 and 20,000 litres of water. By 2030, the fashion industry is expected to use an extra 115 million hectares of land to produce garments.
As the fast fashion industry leans towards synthetic clothing, this creates more harm than simply producing more CO2e. Between 20 and 35 percent of micro-plastics in the ocean originate from clothing and a single wash has the potential to release as many as 700,000 fibres. With the amount of garments consumed expected to rise by 63% by 2030 – from 62 million tonnes to 102 million tonnes – the situation is only going to worsen.
Online shopping has meant that clothes are contributing more to the environment since not only do they produce emissions in their transportation on ships and planes but also when they are delivered to homes and workplaces. The deliveries Oxford students receive every day contribute far more carbon emissions than students walking, cycling or getting the bus into the centre of Oxford for shopping.
At the other end of a garment’s lifecyle arises the issue of disposal. Instagram has only added to the idea that outfits are only to be worn once – have you ever seen your favourite influencer in the same attire twice? If garments are only being worn once, they have to be disposed of at an increasing rate. Millions of items of clothing end up in landfill every year. The UK compares poorly to other European Union countries, consuming nearly twice the amount of clothing thanItaly, the Netherlands and Sweden.
In addition, fast fashion leads not only to environmental issues but also human rights concerns. Workers at the production stage bear the brunt of the reduced prices that consumers are paying. Paying £4 for a t-shirt or £1 for a bikini seems too good to be true and that is because it often is. Workers make garments in dangerous working conditions for low pay, their plight occasionally highlighted in the international media after tragedies such as the 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse where over 1000 people died. It later came to light that these workers were making clothes for brands such as Primark and Mango. Other fast fashion household names, such as H&M and Gap, are notorious for the excessively long working hours and violence against factory workers in their overseas sweatshops.
There are many sustainable alternatives to simply binning old clothes. It is heartening to see sites such as Depop and Ebay encourage second-hand buying and selling, which is significantly better for the environment. Moreover, there is always the trusty option of taking things to the charity shop. There are also more sustainable fabric options with certain brands focusing on sustainability and reducing emissions in their production.
The most effective way to disrupt the fast fashion market is to adjust our purchasing habits – why not browse Depop before Pretty Little Thing or check out some more sustainable brands? Or we can learn from Lucy Siegle, an environmental journalist who champions the idea of only purchasing garments you believe you can wear thirty times. We are all guilty of buying something we can only see ourselves wearing once or twice, an outfit that works for a bop theme or a particular event. We need to end the stigma of wearing the same outfit more than once; in fact, the recent trend of reusing wedding dresses shows that there is no outfit that cannot be repurposed for more than one event.
For more information on the fashion industry, the Environmental Audit Committee’s Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability Report is a good place to start.
Image: Stephanie Nakagawa