The fashion industry is one of the most unsustainable and harmful industries in the world. The supply chains for most garments involve extremely inefficient processes that cause unnecessary environmental, human, and animal harm.
Lars Dinjens • 19 October 2020
Change is happening and an increasing number of companies are blazing the trail towards more sustainable production that actually respects people, animals, and the environment.
Unfortunately, most companies still blindly worship profit maximization. As consumers, we have a huge role to play in fighting the negative impact of fashion by changing the way we shop. Because that starts with being informed, here are the 10 biggest issues occupying the fashion industry today.
There is an entire world behind every piece of clothing: from the cultivation of crops and the production of synthetic fibres to the spinning, sewing, dyeing and eventually selling of the clothes. While it makes perfect sense that there’s a production process behind every piece of clothing, it does not make sense that all these steps occur in different parts of the world, which requires garments to travel thousands of kilometers before they finally reach their final destinations.
In our current global economy, every link in the chain is optimized for profit, completely disregarding the environmental impact. It’s time to stop maximizing profits without taking the environmental costs into consideration. It would be devastating for economies in developing countries to completely pull away all manufacturing, but there has to be some paradigm shift in which we minimize global supply chains and move towards more sustainable, local production.
The 2.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions generated by the industry in 2018 makes it one of the most polluting industries in the world. That’s more emissions than all maritime transport and international flights combined. Or more than Germany, the UK and France emit collectively. With these overly complex supply chains in mind, the number makes perfect sense. Transport is one of the main reasons for this staggering amount, but it’s not the only reason. The vast amount of energy used in both the production and consumption phase is also a significant contributor to this huge carbon footprint. If nothing changes, the fashion industry will produce twice the volume of emissions required to align with the Paris Agreement global warming pathways by 2030, and, by 2050, use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget.
Clothing companies used to design and produce for the natural change of seasons: Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer. The ability of fast fashion companies to imitate the latest catwalk styles and transform concepts into products in about four to six weeks has led to brands like Zara to refresh their collections 24 times a year. This is not just the case for Zara. H&M offers 12 to 16 collections a year, and the average number of clothing collections brands yearly produce has increased from two a year in 2000 to about five a year in 2011.
This focus on quick, cheap, and low-quality fashion that is produced in huge quantities has nearly made clothing a disposable good. With the frequency of these collections, fast fashion companies have succeeded in creating a loop that is designed to manipulate us into keeping up with the latest fashion trends by making us feel out of style almost immediately after a purchase is made. The other incentive to keep people buying more and more is by design as well. Most fashion is not designed to last, causing it to wear out very quickly, and naturally making consumers pick up new pieces. Because it’s so cheap, it doesn’t even really matter to the unaware consumer, who is manipulated into a process of buying more and more. This has the industry currently producing the astounding figure of over 100 billion items of clothing every year. That’s almost fourteen pieces of clothing for every human, every year.
Because there’s almost always overproduction, companies just put the clothing on sale to make the cheap clothing even cheaper and it is bound to end up in some person's closet who believes they have just scored an amazing deal. Overproduction is even worse in the luxury segment, where some brands even destroy leftover stock to artificially keep prices high.
While clothing production has roughly doubled in the last 15 years, the durability of clothing is declining rapidly. People are buying 60% more clothing than 15 years ago, but the average number of times a garment is worn has decreased by 36%. Clothing items have become so cheap that almost anyone can afford to purchase them without actual wear intention. As a result, people generally don’t wear at least 50% of their wardrobes. This sets the stage for another drastic problem: waste. A shocking three out of five garments end up in a landfill within a year and every second the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. With the continuing availability of cheap clothing and millions of people in developing countries entering the middle class, these numbers are only destined to grow.
While the demand for resources keeps increasing, less than 1% of clothing is recycled into new clothing, representing a loss of more than 100 billion USD worth of materials each year. Because the clothing is often not made with recycling/upcycling in mind, it’s usually not recyclable, and even if it would reach a recycling facility, it would all go to waste.
Conventional cotton needs 2700 liters of water to produce a single t-shirt. The thirsty crop uses more pesticides and insecticides than any other crop, damaging ecosystems, ruining soils, and exposing workers in the field to toxic chemicals. Organic cotton uses 88% less water, 62% less energy, does not deprive the soil and does not expose workers to these chemicals. How much cotton is being organically grown? Less than 1%.
Brands face a choice when designing new products and have to weigh the pros and cons of every material, taking quality, price and environment into account. The cheap materials often come at greater environmental costs and more environmentally-friendly alternatives come at a greater price. But because the market is so used to cheap clothing, it is very challenging for brands to produce a more environmentally-friendly product. This is one of the main reasons why more sustainable fashion is generally more expensive.
There are tons of more sustainable alternatives sourced by small fashion brands. But, to truly drive the price down, the big fashion companies have to come to the table. Most fashion brands are currently using conventional, heavily subsidized cotton or virgin synthetic materials that are made from petroleum. The industry used 98 million tonnes of oil in 2015 and is projected to annually require 300 million tonnes of oil for synthetic fibers, fertilizers and chemicals by 2050.
The fashion industry is the second biggest consumer of water in the world. If you think the 2700 liters of water needed for a cotton t-shirt is bad, prepare for this shocker: the production of an average pair of jeans requires 7500 liters of water. That’s 10 years worth of drinking water for a single person. There are huge amounts of water needed in different stages of the supply chain. It all starts at the material sourcing stage where the raw materials, mostly cotton, need a huge amount of water to grow. In cotton producing countries, this leads to a drastic increase in water scarcity, completely draining lakes and threatening the availability of fresh drinking water for millions of people that desperately need it to survive.
Only 2,5% of the world’s water is freshwater, and we’re wasting it for fashion purposes. But the problem goes further than just the consumption of water. The fashion industry is also responsible for 20% of global wastewater. In the wet processing stages of textiles, like dyeing and leather tanning, a large amount of water comes in contact with harmful chemicals from the bleach and dye, extremely polluting the water. After it has been in contact with these hazardous chemicals, the water is referred to as wastewater and is often released into oceans and rivers, causing huge ecological catastrophes.
Another big problem with water takes place when garments are used and washed by end-consumers. For each wash cycle 40 to 80 liters of water are needed. A large amount of clothing is derived from oil and has some form of plastics in them. These plastics break down in the washing machine and are released into the environment. About 1.8 to 5 million tons of microplastics are released each year throughout different industries, and about half of that ends up in the ocean. An overwhelming 35% of these microplastics are released through the washing of textiles. If current production patterns continue, it is estimated that between 2015 and 2050, 22 million tons of microplastics will enter our oceans, causing serious damage to ecosystems and human health.
The vast majority of fashion is not organic. During crop cultivation and textile treatment, a large amount of chemicals are used. This is not only extremely harmful to the environment, but also causes serious health problems for the people involved in the production process. In opposition to nylon and polyester, materials like cotton, linnen, and hemp are natural products and can be produced organically. But even for these natural fabrics, a large amount of chemicals is used. Wearing non-organic clothing can have serious consequences for consumers’ health, but the effects are highly dependent on the type of substance and the period of exposure. There have been loads of cases in which harmful carcinogenic chemicals have been found in clothing, including kid’s wear. We know for certain that these chemicals are polluting our oceans, rivers, soils, and workers, but we’re still unsure to what degree. To prevent the extreme pollution, we need to buy organic and stay far, far away from everything involving toxic chemicals.
Adidas supply chain on the Open Apparel Registry, Source: Open Apparel Registry
The fashion industry employs about 75 million people worldwide. Millions of these people are working in horrific conditions. Countries like India, Turkey and China, all have the ingredients for cheap labour, of which clothing brands are eagerly making use. But the dire situation is best illustrated in Bangladesh. The country has 4.5 million people working in the textile industry, which makes the garment industry responsible for 84% of national export. Yet, most of these predominantly female workers are exploited by the fashion industry and a government that is so dependent on this industry, to the extent that the minimum wage in the country is a mere 94,- dollar, which is less than half than the 214,- dollar needed for a living wage. The real export product of the country is cheap labour and limited oversight, which results in excessive overtime, a lack of unions and ultimately the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013. And even though 1134 people died in the disaster, little has changed and garment workers are still speaking out against unsafe working conditions, labour abuse, harassment, extreme overtime, lack of union protection, lack of contracts and job security. Most recently, hunger became a pressing issue because of the heartless decision of most brands to cancel all orders in the midst of the corona crisis.
Guaranteeing a safe working environment that provides opportunities for workers and a better life has to be very high on the priority list of fashion brands. Unfortunately, they still seem to prioritise maximizing profits over workers’ rights. This economic pressure has time and time again proven to be the cause of very serious cases of child labour, migrant workers being exploited, and people working extreme hours without any opportunities at all to ever break out of the cycle of poverty.
Many of those animals are suffering. Wool, cashmere, fur, leather, silk, pearls and down, all involve animals in one way or another. Because of the scale of the industry, and with that the huge demand for animal-derived materials, the treatment of these animals is absolutely outrageous. They are also very well-documented. There are dozens of reports and investigations that expose many horrible cases of animal abuse. Mulesing causes extreme suffering to sheep, cows are transported halfway over the world to end up being slaughtered in India or China without anaesthesia for their leather hides, over 100 million animals are killed every year for their fur after being raised in a tiny cage, and millions of ducks and geese are live-plucked. All these atrocities are performed to supply the fashion industry. Don’t even start on how silk is made.
It gets even worse with luxury brands, who to this day use exotic animal skins and furs from crocodiles, lizards and snakes, which are bred exclusively for the fashion industry. Canada Goose still uses fur from wild coyotes in their products. A recent Four Paws report found that only 38% of fashion brands consider animal welfare risks to some degree in their supply chains and purchasing practises, and only 25% of fashion brands have animal welfare policies in place to minimize these risks.
While all of the horrors described above happen on a daily basis, it remains largely impossible to truly find out how brands make their products. There is little to no information made available by fashion brands. Most publications focus on proposed policies rather than actual implementation, which makes sustainability reports extremely untrustworthy and sensitive to greenwashing. The data and statistics that do get published are often cherry picked and portrayed as much more significant than they really are. The Fashion Revolution’s 2020 Transparency Index report states that only 40% of brands publish first-tier manufacturers, 24% publish processing facilities and a mere 7% publish suppliers of raw materials. Many fashion brands are greenwashing to portray themselves as sustainable companies, but in reality little action is taken.
We find ourselves in a situation where 43% of people distrust sustainability claims and find that brands make it hard for them to be environmentally-friendly and ethical in their daily life. In contradiction, 70% of consumers are interested in learning the ecological footprint of their consumption and 88% of people would like brands to help them be more environmentally friendly and ethical in their daily lives. Besides that, 75% of people believe that companies should contribute positively towards society, the environment and workers’ wellbeing, and 98% of people believe brands have a responsibility to make a positive change in the world.
Businesses must be held accountable for their actions, not only by government regulations, but also by us: the consumers. Every time we purchase from a more sustainable or ethical brand, we speak out against animal cruelty, child labour, and pollution, and we vote for fairness, respect, and sustainability! We have the power, let’s start using it today.
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