5 Ways Fashion Affects The Planet

by: Rosie Dalton | 1 month ago | Features

Image: Vivienne Westwood campaigning as part of her Climate Revolution. Image source.

A lot of people have been referring to Australia's 2019 federal election as "The Climate Election" – and, with the results just in, we are sad to report that the climate lost. With no real climate action planned by the re-elected coalition, we are now facing a few more years of inaction from a policy standpoint. Which means that we need to keep fighting hard from the ground up, to initiate positive change. And our wardrobes are an important part of this picture. 

According to British MP and Environmental Audit Committee chairwoman Mary Creagh, swift climate action is essential in a fashion context. Because, if the current clothing consumption continues, then fashion “will account for more than a quarter of our total impact on climate change by 2050". Creagh goes on to point out that "three in five garments end in landfill or incinerators within a year – that's expensive fuel! Half a million tonnes of microfibres a year enter the ocean. Doing nothing is not an option."

So to illustrate why we need to act now on reducing impact in our wardrobes, we are shedding light on five of the ways that fashion affects our planet – and what we can do about it. 

1) Plastic fibres threaten our oceans
According to The Guardian, 85% of the human-made material found in the ocean actually comes from clothing. 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. These small microfibers (which can be less than 1mm in diameter) generally slip through the filters and are washed away into the ocean, where 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.

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 why not consider supporting local brands instead? Each piece of clothing will have far less distance to travel, which means that you can reduce your overall carbon footprint.

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, conventional cotton crops are actually among the dirtiest in the world. Using just 2.4% of the world's land, they account for as much as 5% of all pesticides and 14% of all insecticides use globally, according to the Cotton Advisory Committee (CAC). 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 both humans and animals. With this in mind, you can make a big difference by choosing sustainable fibres in your wardrobe instead. 

4) Fashion has a serious waste problem
Producing clothes creates waste. For example, it takes about 290 gallons of water to grow enough conventional cotton to produce one T-shirt. 
In addition to this, overproduction is rampant in fashion, which is why retailers like H&M are discarding millions of dollars worth of unworn clothes. And the waste doesn't end with brands, either. Despite the fact that we are now buying a staggering 400% more clothes than we were 20 years ago, an average 30% of those garments are 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 discovered that the second-hand clothing system is on the brink of collapse. So to combat this, we can all buy less and buy better by supporting fashion labels with minimal waste supply chains. 

5) Fashion’s footprint continues at home
Just as fashion's waste output doesn’t end with brands, neither does its carbon footprint stop at the shop floor. In fact, reports show that between 75% and 80% of our clothing's lifecycle impact comes from washing and drying in our own homes. 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. Handwashing is ideal where possible, but it has been estimated that about 90% of the energy used for washing clothes is actually for heating the water. Which 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. 

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