5 Of Fast Fashion’s Worst Environmental Impacts

by: Rosie Dalton | 3 years ago | Features

Image: “The rivers around Tirupur are often red or purple with runoff from nearby factories.” Image source.

Since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, we have been well aware of the effects fast fashion can have on human lives. And many designers have spoken at length about the demise of creativity that also largely comes down to this industry’s breakneck pace. But then there are the very real environmental impacts of this global business to consider as well. I think it is fair to say that most of us understand that fast fashion is bad for the environment — but do we really understand why? And we think it is really important to be across issues like this, for the sake of cocktail hour chatter, as much as making informed personal decisions when it comes to our own shopping habits. Which is why we have rounded up some of fast fashion’s worst environmental impacts and why they matter.

1) Increased air pollution
According to Live Science
, air pollution causes 3 million premature deaths globally per year. And Fibre2Fashion points out that the textile industry is a major cause for concern here. “Boilers, thermo pack, and diesel generators produce pollutants that are released into the air. The pollutants generated include Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM), sulphur di oxide gas, oxide of nitrogen gas, etc.” This affects the health of humans, but also releases toxic gas into the atmosphere more generally. According to the Make and Do Mend organisation, it is not just fashion’s production cycle that’s contributing to this air pollution either, but also the transportation thereof. In fact, Kate Fletcher writes in Sustainable Fashion & Textiles that the “..average T-shirt travels the equivalent distance of once around the globe during its production”. With that in mind then, air quality is becoming radically affected by the fast fashion cycle. “From cotton field to textile mill to the garment factory, each stage adds to the carbon emissions,” argues Made and Do Mend. And that's not even to mention the whopping amounts of energy us consumers use in the actual washing and upkeep of our garments.

2) Led to severe soil toxicity
As the WWF points out
, 2.4% of the world’s crop land is planted with cotton and yet it accounts for 24% and 11% of the global sales of insecticide and pesticides respectively. These drastic levels of pesticide use can also have disastrous environmental impacts — like in Tirupur, India for example, where crops of coconut trees have become dangerously compromised as a result of toxic runoff from the garment trees. Or in the region of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan, where the soil has become so polluted that vegetables will no longer grow there. This has had human effects in this region as well, leading to high levels of malnutrition, anaemia, and even rates of throat cancer. In fact, according to a report prepared jointly for the FAO, UNEP and WHO, “between 1 and 3% of agricultural workers worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning with at least 1 million requiring hospitalisation each year”.

3) Taken landfill to new levels
According to Forbes
, we now purchase 400% more clothing today than we did 20 years ago. But what’s even worse than this is the fact that the average party top is now only worn 1.7 times before being thrown away, as discussed in Sandy Black’s The Sustainable Fashion Handbook. It’s no wonder, then, that Australians send $500 million worth of clothing and textiles to landfill each year — the equivalent of 30 kilograms per person. But this starts to become incredibly problematic when you consider that much of this clothing will take decades to break down in the environment. And in the meantime, it is left to clog up the atmosphere around us.

4) Polluted water supply
Fashion is consideredthe second biggest polluter of clean water. And not only are 85% of the human-made materials found on ocean shorelines microfibers frequently used in clothing. But Greenpeace research has also found the presence of toxic chemicals in finished clothing from many major and well-respected brands. These toxic chemicals then tend to run off into local water supplies with devastating effects. Take India’s Tirupur (aka ‘Knit City’) for example. Approaching the city’s Orathupalayam Dam, Newsweek says “it quickly becomes clear that something has gone terribly wrong”. Not only do the lush rice paddies and banana trees give way to a parched, red landscape within 2 miles of the dam, but the “Noyyal River, which used to be clean and clear, now runs foamy and green, polluted with the toxic runoff of the titanic textile industry 20 miles to the west, in Tirupur”.

5) Destroyed an entire sea
It isn’t just the pollution that’s causing a problem for our water supply though. Have you ever heard of the Aral Sea? If not, it’s probably because it no longer exists — at least not in its former glory anyway. Once the world’s fourth largest inland lake, this sea in Central Asia used to boast a thriving ecosystem. But it has now “shrunk to just 15% of its original size, mainly as a result of irrigation for the cotton industry,” says People and Planet. Trucost reiterates this by pointing out that more than 53% of the world’s cotton fields require irrigation and the majority of these fields are in regions where water is scarce. As a result, from 1960-2000 “the Aral Sea lost approximately 70% of its volume as a result of diverting water to grow.” What remains now is an almost barren wasteland that’s characterised mostly by infertile soil and salty desert.

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