5 Ways Fashion Affects The Environment – And What You Can Do About It

by: Rosie Dalton | 4 years ago | Features

Image: how toxins used in fashion production can affect water supply. Image source.

The Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 shed some urgent light on the devastating effects fashion can have on human lives. But there are lots of environmental implications as well that don’t seem to get quite as much airtime. This is partly because there are so many nuanced factors at play here, but also because plenty of brands and consumers are simply happy to remain blissfully unaware. The problem is, though, that things have now become so dire that we can’t afford to ignore fashion’s major impact on the natural world anymore.

Unfortunately a lot of us don’t know how our clothes were made or what they are made from. In fact, a 2013 Australian Fashion report conducted by Baptist World Aid and Not For Sale Australia found that even 61% of Australian companies surveyed don’t know where their garments were made. But without this vital knowledge, we can’t really know the impact we’re having through our shopping habits either. So in this sense, we consumers can be complicit in many of the fashion industry’s devastating environment effects. With that in mind then, we believe knowledge is power, so we’re shedding some light on the major ways that fashion affects our planet — and the things you can do about it. 

1) Plastic threatens our marine ecosystems
According to The Guardian, 85% of the human-made material found in the ocean comes from materials, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing. You have probably heard of microbeads — which New Zealand recently banned — but microfibres can be just as damaging. Many modern fabrics like polyester, nylon and acrylic are actually made up of plastics. Which means that when we wash those clothes, miniscule pieces of plastic tend to break off. In fact, research conducted in 2011 showed that a single synthetic garment can release more than 1900 fibres per wash. Just like with microbeads, these small microfibers (which can be less than 1mm in diameter) generally slip through the filters and are, instead, washed away into the ocean. Here they can cause serious damage to the marine environment. So if you care about our oceans, then it’s important to check your clothing labels for fabrics containing plastic. And perhaps choose a tencel dress instead next time.

2) Fashion has a colossal carbon footprint
According to Ethical.org, the carbon footprint of a T-shirt is estimated to be about 6kg — or 20 times its own weight. In fact, it’s estimated that 1,074 billion KWh of electricity (or 132 million metric tons of coal) is required to produce the annual global textile production of 60 billion kilograms of fabric. And much of this carbon footprint comes down to the great distances that our garments must travel from place of production to our wardrobes. So with that in mind then, why not consider supporting local brands like Nobody Denim instead? Each piece of clothing will have far less distance to travel, which means that you can reduce your overall carbon footprint as a shopper as well.

3) Pesticides poison the planet
When buying ‘natural’ fabrics such as cotton, you mightn’t think that your wardrobe is doing much damage to the environment, but this is where fashion can be particularly sneaky. Because, despite this veneer of being ‘natural,’ conventional cotton crops are actually the dirtiest in the world. Using just 2.4% of the world's land, they account for a whopping 11% of the world’s pesticides and 24% of the world's insecticides. Which means that conventional cotton T-shirts can have disastrous effects on the natural world, creating toxic runoff that pollutes the water supply and can be lethal to members of the animal kingdom. With this in mind, you can make a big difference by choosing sustainable fibres in your wardrobe instead. Whether that’s through buying an organic cotton T-shirt by Bon, for example, or exploring other sustainable options such as Tencel or hemp.

4) Fashion’s energy consumption extends to our homes
The energy output of our clothing doesn’t end once it reaches the shop floor. In fact, reports show that between 75% and 80% of our clothing's lifecycle impact comes from washing and drying. With that in mind then, washing your clothes less means that you can reduce your overall impact. Even washing your garments differently can have a positive effect. For instance, Ethical.org points out that about 90% of the energy used for washing clothes is for heating the water. This means that by doing four out of five loads in cold water, you can cut down 32.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions every month. 

5. Large amounts of waste clog landfill
Despite the fact that we are now buying a staggering 400% more clothes than we were 20 years ago, many of us don’t ever seem to feel as though we’ve got enough. Which is perhaps why an average 30% of garments are now worn just once before they are thrown away. It’s little wonder, then, that so much clothing waste is currently choking up landfill all over the world. Or that a Greenpeace report recently discovered the second-hand clothing system is currently on the brink of collapse. Think you can’t do anything about this problem personally? Well you can, because Australians send an average of $500 million worth of clothing and textiles to landfill every year. That’s 30kgs per person and if every Australian committed to reducing that personal number just a little bit, then our environment would be all the better for it. In addition to reducing the amount you buy though, you can also support fashion labels like Belmore that are doing their best to minimise waste throughout their production processes. After all, every little bit counts.

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