Geology for Global Development


Wearing the Earth Down: The Environmental Cost of Fashion

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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.


A comparison of the Aral Sea in 1989 (left) and 2014 (right). Credit: NASA. Collage by Producercunningham. PUBLIC DOMAIN

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.

Figure 2- Expanding childrens trousers to minimise clothes waste (Credit: Petit Pli website

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. **

Diamonds aren’t Forever

Boom & Bust in the Namib Desert


Namibia is mostly desert. Like its neighbour South Africa, the country was gifted with diamond-bearing Kimberlites. The Sperrgebiet (or “forbidden territory”), where the diamonds are concentrated, is strictly off-limits to the public. Namibia’s natural resources have played an important role in shaping the development of this inhospitable landscape.

Rumours of diamonds began trickling out of Namibia towards the end of the 19th century, but the isolated, underpopulated region remained under most people’s radar. It wasn’t until 1908 that a man called August Staunch, who managed part of a railway line running through the Namib desert, took a punt and asked his men to keep an eye out for shining stones. When one of his workers dutifully presented him with a rough diamond, he snapped up the licensing rights to the area without delay. His decision turned out to be very sensible indeed.


The now disused railway line running through the Namib desert

The Kimberlite pipes that carried the ancient gems up from deep in the Earth’s lithosphere have been weathered away by howling desert winds, leaving diamonds glinting across the red sand. Staunch’s area turned out to be teeming with undiscovered diamonds; a man could strike it rich by simply crawling around on his hands and knees in the moonlight.

One of the only roads to infiltrate the sand dunes runs to a small port called Luderitz. The town is a lone beacon on this stretch of treacherous coastline, dubbed “the gates of hell” by Portuguese sailors. Following the diamond discoveries, Luderitz became a boomtown. The stock exchange was housed in the Kopp Hotel and the barmaids were paid in diamonds when the cash ran out. The Germans moved in and built a bowling alley, shortly followed by a gymnasium and a ballroom. Water was shipped from Cape Town by the ton to feed the artificial oasis. The hospital also boasted Namibia’s first X-Ray machine – although it was primarily used for catching diamond smugglers.  There seemed to be no end to the flow of diamonds from the sands.


Ships sail close to Luderitz port, a lone beacon on a long stretch of deserted coastline

World War I may have seemed a world (or at least a hemisphere) away from here, but the resulting slump in global diamond sales had a damning effect on this party in the desert. Just as the industry was beginning to recover, World War II hit, and superior reserves were uncovered further south. The death warrant of the Sperrgebeit was finally signed when the company headquarters were transferred to Orangemund in 1943.

The boomtowns became ghost towns, abandoned to the march of encroaching sand dunes. Standing testament to the glory and greed of the boom years, these towns now draw in the odd tourist, and Brian Cox (he flew into Kolmanskop ghost town to make some spurious link between sand dunes and the second law of thermodynamics in his globetrotting BBC series!)


Abandoned houses are filled with sand. The decaying roof rafters allow sunlight to shine through


Sand fills up a home, wedging the door open

The rights to the region now belong to NAMDEB – a company jointly owned by the Namibian government and De Beers Ltd. The remaining diamonds are easy to find, so the region is still closed to the public – trespassing is met with a not insignificant £500 fine or one year’s imprisonment (your choice!).


Sign warning that “Diamond theft hurts us all”


An old sign warns the public against entering the Sperrgebeit

The diamond industry has left the region both scarred but spared of over-use. Most of the Sperrgebiet is simply acting as a ‘buffer zone’, and so remains largely untouched. The areas where the diamonds occur, however, have suffered considerable damage. Some of the open-pit mines are being re-vegetated, and it looks like the area will slowly open up to tourists in the coming decades, providing new opportunities for a no longer forbidden Sperrgebiet.

The Complexity of Development

A view of the White Cliffs of Dover, taken on September 7 2004 Source: Original author: {{cc-by-sa-2.0}}

A view of the White Cliffs of Dover, taken on September 7 2004 Source:

Development is a complicated process, with a range of considerations to be taken into account. In an article published recently by David Shukman (BBC Science Editor), Shukman poses the question ‘would you mine the white cliffs of Dover for £1 billion worth of gold?’ For those readers not familiar with British culture, the chalk cliffs of Dover are a national emblem of Britain, a landscape strongly associated with national pride, heritage, wartime resilience or defiance. The bright white chalk cliffs are easily visible when sailing across the Channel and coming towards Great Britain, they are a visible reminder that the UK is close. Shukman poses the interesting dilemma that if there was £1 billion worth of gold (which there isn’t, this is purely hypothetical) would we mine this national treasure for a very different type of treasure? What if there was £1 trillion worth of gold in the cliffs? Would we then choose to mine and extract it?

Development is complex. The tax revenues and royalties from a trillion pounds worth of gold would make a huge contribution to education, healthcare or infrastructure in the UK. It would also provide a range of skilled jobs. The impact on the natural environment, however, would be significant. Large-scale removal of rock material, heavy-laden trucks, and emissions – a landscape changed forever.

Whilst this situation is purely hypothetical, Shukman describes the real case situation in Brazil, where $1 trillion worth of iron ore is being extracted in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. Brazil had to make the choice between conserving a part of the Amazon rainforest, an important ecosystem, and generating vital income to help Brazil overcome severe poverty. Decisions such as those above are far from straightforward. Rainforest has a significant economic value in its own right. Ecosystem services, such as clean drinking water, biodiversity and protection against natural hazards (e.g., natural protection against landsliding) are valuable contributions to human and societal development. On the other hand, however, cash – alongside intelligent policies – is required for healthcare facilities, sanitation, education, sustainable and safe shelter and housing.

In developing countries (and others), these are decisions that have to be made on a regular basis, and decisions that often directly impact the lives of individuals and communities. It may be a mine (small or large scale) close to local communities, a dam providing much needed power, a road system allowing goods and services to better reach remote communities. All of these developments can bring prosperity and wellbeing to communities, but they all come with a cost. Good practice can help to minimise these costs and maximise the benefit to local communities, but there still retains a number of complexities surrounding any large scale development such as that seen in Brazil, or the hypothetical example described in the UK.

The differential valuation of the landscape, not just in economic terms, but in cultural and historical importance should be taken into account. A local community may have strong spiritual or cultural associations with a particular region that would make development highly distressing. The vast array of stakeholders involved means that effective decision making must consider all points of view.

The distribution of financial reward for any development project must also be carefully considered. The benefits of a nickel mine in Tanzania, for example, are likely to be shared amongst a number of stakeholders. An international company may be undertaking the extraction and therefore making money from the sale of the material. Tax revenues, license fees or royalties are likely to be paid to national governments. Employment opportunities and investment in services are likely to be made in the local communities themselves. The distribution, particularly of the tax revenues, is something that can result in contention.

Ultimately, the decision to develop land to access valuable minerals – be that in an important national heritage site or a locally important site will almost always generate disagreements. Geologists may sit on both of sides of the argument – recognising the importance of conserving geologically important sites but also understanding the importance and benefits that natural resources can bring to communities. GfGD is working to help young geoscientists to understand these complexities and ensure the contribution that geoscientists make is sustainable and effective. We are training geoscientists with the skills to communicate across stakeholder groups, and understand how to better involve local communities in decision making. To find out more about our work and the role of geologists in international development, as well as the complexities involved in undertaking such work, why not register for our upcoming National Conference. We’ll be having a range of interesting talks and discussions about some of these issues.

‘Fighting Global Poverty – Can Geologists Help?’ is the first GfGD National Conference, kindly supported and hosted by the Geological Society of London. For information on the day and registration please visit our website –

Guest Blog: An Economist’s Perspective on Natural Resources

Helen Ashcroft is currently a DPhil student at the University of Oxford. She blogs for the Bang! Science Magazine (Planet Blog) and is also a STEMNET Ambassador, working to promote science, technology, maths and engineering to young people.  Jim Cust, a graduate student in economics, presented this term’s Oxford University Group GfGD seminar. In addition to his research Jim is also a director of the Natural Resource Charter, an organisation which gives guidance to societies and governments on natural resource extraction. Helen has written for the GfGD Blog before, about career paths in the development sector, and today she shares some of the lessons from Jim’s seminar with us.

Hearing an economist’s perspective on the mining of natural resources was very interesting to me as a geologist. I discovered it isn’t as simple as extracting the resources and benefitting from their sales; Jim pointed out some of the long-term economic issues that I hadn’t really thought about before.

In developing countries, the discovery of a new natural resource, oil or minerals for example, can seem like a gift, as it offers the potential for independent economic development for the country. However, observations of the economic growth of countries within Africa has shown that countries which are rich in natural resources actually exhibit less growth than resource poor countries – this phenomenon is known as the ‘resource curse’.

Obviously factors such as population size and the ability to efficiently extract the resources affect the economic growth of a country, but a systematic investigation was needed in order to understand this ‘curse’. There are several steps in the successful extraction and usage of natural resources, which are complicated by the rising prices of commodities across the globe, as well as taxation laws.To reap the maximum benefits a set of guidelines needs to be emplaced.

One thing which I hadn’t considered before was the rate at which the resources should be extracted and what should be done with the profits – i.e. how the development can be made sustainable. When resources are extracted, the profits earned from their sale can either be spent immediately or invested into long term projects or ‘produced capital’ (hospitals, roads, education etc.). Different countries have different requirements due to the differences in capita, for example Norway is rich in natural resources and produced capita, and so it can look at ways to maximise its profits, whereas lower income countries like Nigeria would be better investing their profits into building a stable infrastructure or produced capital so that if the global market crashes they have some financial security.

One difficulty with all of these considerations is that it can be difficult to give advice to a country, and communication between governments and the public needs to be effective. For example the profits made from copper mining in Chile are partly put into savings, which was not a popular choice during an economically wealthy time period, however when the prices of commodities crashed, the Chilean population were relieved that they had put aside money for a ‘rainy day’.

Jim’s talk emphasised the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to improving global development, and pointed out that it is the geologists’, geographers’ and engineers’ role to effectively and efficiently extract resources with minimum damage to the local environment and to the community, but that it is the role of economists to aid countries in the investment of the profits gained.  As a true economist, Jim pointed out that the extraction of natural resources should be considered as a cost balance with respect to the damage done and the profits gained, and suggested that it is worth extracting natural resources if the profits gained can then be put to good use in development and repair to damage already done.

The importance of international guidelines and support is particularly important at the present, due to the rise in prices of commodities, the improvement and advances in the identification of new natural resources especially in regions which have low incomes, and the growth of China which has led to Western civilisation having less money to give as aid to developing countries. Therefore is imperative that we enable these countries to build economically as this will provide them with more wealth now and in the future.