Report Condemns Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion

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©. K Martinko – H&M; store in Times Square, NYC, in February 2020

We need a new approach to making and buying clothes because the current system is unsustainable.

The fast fashion industry continues to cause significant environmental damage, a new report says, and revising our approach to clothes should be a top priority. The report, titled "The Environmental Price of Fast Fashion," was published on 7 April in the journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment. Its authors give an overview of the environmental impacts of fashion production, urging companies, governments, and consumers to reexamine the current model for doing business and to embrace alternatives such as slower and higher quality production, resale, repair, and recycling, as well as safer manufacturing processes.

This number is debated, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and, according to the study authors, is second only to the aviation industry. Clothes are produced by a lengthy and complex supply chain that begins with agriculture and petrochemical production (for synthetic fibers), chemical processing of fabrics, and manufacture of garments, and ends with delivery to stores and subsequent sales. It involves an estimated 300 million people along the way, from farmers to garment workers to retail staff.

garment workers in Bangladesh

Fahad Faisal/CC BY-SA 3.0

Environmental impacts

The quantity of resources consumed is enormous. It takes an average of 200 tonnes of water to produce one tonne of textile. Cotton is the thirstiest crop, requiring 95 percent of the water used for irrigating textile crops. This has resulted in water shortages in many countries, including Uzbekistan, where it is estimated that "20 percent of the water loss suffered by the Aral Sea was caused by cotton consumption in the EU." Much of the dirty water used in textile processing is discharged into the same freshwater streams and rivers that provide food and livelihood to many locals.

It is a chemical-intensive industry. Pesticides are used heavily on crops, particularly cotton, and numerous more chemicals are used to spin and weave, bleach and dye fabrics, and to finish with water repellents and other textures. The majority of fabrics sold in Europe are processed outside of the continent, making it hard to know what's in them, but even the European companies are hardly holding back: "In one example, a single European textile-finishing company uses over 466g [16oz] of chemicals per kilogram of textile."

Transportation is another big driver of emissions. The clothing production chain is inefficient, typically involving designers in the Global North and garment workers in the Global South. These "long supply chains mean that garments can have travelled around the globe once or even several times during the many manufacturing steps in turning raw fibre cultivation into a ready outfit."

Clothing is usually shipped by boat, but there is a concerning trend toward using air cargo to save time. This is an environmental travesty, "as it is estimated that moving just 1 percent of garment transportation from ship to air cargo could result in a 35 percent increase in carbon emissions." Then, once clothes are worn out, they're often transported to Africa or other impoverished developing regions of the world, where they're 'recycled'.

second-hand clothes in Africa

Ton Rulkens – Second-hand clothes being sold in Mozambique/CC BY-SA 2.0

What's the solution?

The study authors argue that this entire model is unsustainable and must be changed.

"The current business logic in the fashion sector is based on ever-increasing production and sales, fast manufacturing, low product quality and short product life cycles, all of which lead to unsustainable consumption, fast material throughput, substantial waste and vast environmental impacts. Both production processes and consumption attitudes must, therefore, be changed."

In order to do so, everyone from the textile industry to fashion businesses to shoppers must "create new paradigms", which includes "limiting growth, reducing waste and promoting a circular economy." In simpler, more practical terms, the obvious first step is to step off the fast fashion rollercoaster, where trendy new items are introduced to stores every week and sold at dirt-cheap prices. This fuels overconsumption, perpetuates shoddy construction, and drives exorbitant waste.

The report recommends a move away from polyester, currently the most widely used material for clothing, despite the fact that it's produced by the petrochemical industry, does not age well or biodegrade, and is responsible for roughly 35 percent of ocean microplastic pollution. Unfortunately, polyester is projected to increase as more Asians and Africans adopt Western styles of dress. Nevertheless, the fashion industry should "focus on producing better quality, long-lived items, while innovations like clothes rental and new approaches to resale should be scaled up."

The study authors say it is important for people to stop viewing fashion as entertainment and view it as more of a functional purchase. But as long as resale and rentals can thrive, fashionistas need not feel they're lacking for clothes; there's more than enough to go around without maintaining the status quo. We just need to figure out a better way to share it.