Eloise Hunt is an Earth science student at Imperial College London, and coordinator of the GfGD University group there. Today we publish her first guest article for the GfGD blog, exploring the environmental cost of fashion.
When we think of pollution, we imagine raw sewage pumped into rivers, open-cast mines or oil spills. We don’t often think of our inconspicuous white shirt or new jeans. But, the overall impact that the fashion industry has on our planet is shocking. The production of clothing has been estimated to account for 10% of total carbon impact. The fashion industry has been argued to be “one of the greatest polluters in the world, second only to oil“, although there is a lack of data to verify this.
Following London Fashion Week 2017, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on the environmental impacts of the fashion industry. Whilst geoscience may not seem to link to fashion, once you look closer at the production and environmental costs of textiles, you can see they are coupled with situations where geoscientists may be involved. Geoscience alone cannot improve the world. But, through collaborations between geoscientists, engineers and policy makers, real changes can take place.
The lack of sustainability in fashion can be blamed on four major factors. Firstly, there is enormous energy consumption associated with clothing. Production is concentrated in countries such as Bangladesh and China. Factories are powered by coal before garments are shipped to the rest of the world. It is difficult to find reliable data on how much fuel is used to transport clothes. Yet, we do know that in the US only 2% of clothing is domestically produced and globally 90% of fabrics are transported by cargo ship (read more). One of these ships can produce as much atmospheric pollution as 50 million cars in just one year.
Another major factor is cheap synthetic fibres increasingly replacing natural cotton or wool. Polyester and nylon are both synthetic, non-biodegradable, energy intensive and made from petrochemicals. Polyester is rapidly increasing in value and is now in over half of all clothing. Nylon is absorbent and breathable making it a popular choice for sportswear manufacturers. But, nylon production forms nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Viscose is another synthetic fibre which is derived from wood pulp; the material’s popularity in fashion has caused deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia. These countries are home to rainforests, often described as the ‘lungs of the earth’, acting as our most effective carbon sink and oxygen source.
Even stepping away from synthetics, cotton is hardly innocent. It is incredibly water intensive accounting for 2.6% of global water use. It takes 2,700 litres of water to produce the average cotton t-shirt. Furthermore, 99.3% of cotton growth uses fertilisers, which can cause runoff and eutrophication of waterways. Uzbekistan, the 6th largest producer of cotton in the world, is an important example of ‘cotton catastrophe’. In the 1950s, two rivers were diverted from the Aral Sea as a source of irrigation for cotton production. As the sea dried up, it also became over-salinated and laden with fertiliser and pesticides as a result of agricultural runoff. Contaminated dust from the desiccated lake-bed saturated the air, creating a public health crisis with some studies linking this to abnormally high cancer rates. Groundwater up to 150 m deep has been polluted with pesticides and regional climate has become more extreme with colder winters and hotter summers. Currently, water levels in the Aral are less than 10% of what they were 50 years ago (Fig. 1). Whilst this is a dramatic example of cotton farming, environmental problems have occurred in other locations.
The final environmental issue with fashion is responsible consumption and production (SDG 11). Water problems in cotton producing areas cannot be fixed without consumers being held responsible for ecological impacts in the producing areas. Globally, 44% of water used for cotton growth and processing goes towards exports. High demand produces 150 billion items of clothing annually, which equates to 20 new items per person every year. Then, on average, each garment is worn only 7 times before being dumped in landfill. In the UK alone, £30 billion worth of clothing is buried unused in our closets.
Faced with issues of energy consumption, the rise of synthetics, water consumption and fast fashion, it’s easy to feel powerless but with increased scrutiny come sustainable solutions. The UK James Dyson Award was recently bestowed upon the student inventor of Petit Pli, innovative children’s clothing with pleats which allows it to grow with children from four months to three years old (Fig. 2). This could help tackle clothes waste and is a small yet significant thread of hope. On an individual level, when you need new clothes opting for Fair Trade or organic fabrics is a simple way to minimise pesticide pollution and, in the case of cotton, reduce water consumption. Or, better yet choose second hand, vintage or upcycled items to prevent processing of more virgin fibres.
Fashion is not yet sustainable. We as consumers hold enormous power to persuade brands to make products that are clean, of high-quality and worth wearing. People need to be taking fashion more seriously, not less.
**This article expresses the personal opinions of the author. These may not reflect official policy positions of Geology for Global Development. **