For a better future of fashion, we have to be “climate positive” — meaning that our industry helps remove more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than are released.
Carbon neutral means that an activity releases net-zero carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Climate positive means that activity goes beyond achieving net-zero carbon emissions to actually create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
So, how can the fashion industry become climate positive?
The fashion industry is one of the largest polluting industries in the world. The production and distribution of raw materials, fibres and garments used in the fashion industry contribute to various forms of environmental pollution, including water, air and soil pollution.
The production of fashion causes more than 8% of the global climate impact. Carbon emissions exceed the emissions of international flights and ocean shipping combined. The fashion industry is also the second-largest consumer of water worldwide. It is therefore responsible not only for the fact that rivers and streams are heavily polluted – even poisoned – but also that water sources dry up where they are urgently needed. Furthermore, fashion products pollute the oceans with micro-plastics. In summary, the fashion industry is the second-largest polluter in the world.
All these environmental damage increases with the economic growth of the industry. Nevertheless, there are solutions and alternatives to reduce these problems. A starting point is to raise awareness of these problems and the willingness to change. To begin with, let get an overview of the various factors of fashion’s environmental impacts.
Fashion’s Environmental Impact*: Why is it dangerous for the environment and people?
WATER POLLUTION. In most countries where garments are produced, untreated toxic wastewater from textiles factories is discharged directly into rivers. Wastewater contains toxic substances such as lead, mercury, and arsenic, to name but a few. These are extremely harmful to the aquatic life and the health of the millions of people who live on these river shores. Another major source of water pollution is the use of fertilisers in cotton growing, which also causes considerable pollution of run-off and evaporation water. This pollution also ends up in the sea and ultimately spreads all over the world.
WATER CONSUMPTION. The fashion industry is a significant consumer of water. Enormous quantities of freshwater are used in the dyeing and finishing process of fashion products. As an example, up to 200 tons of freshwater can be consumed per ton of dyed fabrics. Cotton also requires a huge amount of water during cultivation as it is mainly grown in warm and dry regions. Up to 20,000 litres of water are needed to produce just 1kg of cotton. This creates enormous pressure on this precious, already scarce resource and has dramatic ecological consequences, as the example of the desertification of the Aral Sea showed us. Cotton cultivation here has completely dried up the lake within a few years. (watch video).
GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS. The global fashion industry is by now responsible for more than 10% of global carbon emissions, that accounts a total greenhouse gas emissions related to textiles production are equal to 1.2 billion tons annually, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Clothing production companies produce an abundance of greenhouse gases through the energy consumed in the production, manufacture and transportation of the millions of garments purchased each year. Synthetic fibres such as polyester, acrylic, nylon, etc., which are used in most of our garments, are made from fossil fuels, making production much more energy-intensive than natural fibres. Most of our garments are made in China, Bangladesh or India, countries that are essentially coal-fired. This is one of the most environmentally damaging forms of energy in terms of carbon emissions.
CHEMICALS. Up to 8,000 different chemicals are used to turn raw materials into clothes. Chemicals are used in clothing for various functional purposes. They are used in the fibre production, dyeing, bleaching and wet processing of garments. Fashion brands know that certain chemicals are toxic, but most of them continue to use them because there is no substitute. The fashion industry has so far paid less attention to investing in more environmentally friendly chemicals, even though it spends a lot of money on developing new sustainable materials.** Now is the time to invest specifically in chemical alternatives.
In the documentary “The True Cost“, it is also clear how the heavy use of chemicals in cotton farming causes illness and premature death among cotton farmers. In addition to massive groundwater pollution and a deterioration in soil quality, some of these substances are also harmful to consumers. When Greenpeace launched the “Detox My Fashion” campaign in 2011, the environmental organization named 11 groups of hazardous chemicals used in the fashion industry. There are also regulations that restrict the use of some of these chemicals, including the European Union’s REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) regulation. As well as certification label controlling chemical content such as OEKO-TEX®, GOTS, or BLUESIGN®.
We now pay closer attention to toxic chemicals in our food, but with our clothing, we are less alert. Yet we wear them on our naked skin. Actually, this has the same effect as we do in the food we eat. As customers know better and better what goes into their clothes, brands are now more and more forced to react. It is time for the fashion industry to ban toxic chemicals from our clothes.
WASTE ACCUMULATION. Clothing has become a disposable item. Consumers want to follow the fast-changing trends: They buy cheaply and take it out of service quickly. This causes enormous amounts of textile waste. According to Fashion Revolution, textile waste is estimated to increase by about 60% between 2015 and 2030, with an additional new 57 million tons of waste being generated annually, reaching an annual total of 148 million tons. Only 15% is recycled or donated, and the rest goes directly to the landfill or is incinerated. An overview of the biggest textile waste polluters in Europe provides the Fashion Waste Index. Synthetic fibres, such as polyester, are plastic fibres, therefore non-biodegradable and can take up to 200 years to decompose. Synthetic fibres are used in 72% of our clothing. Not only consumption must be rethought here. The fashion industry must rethink its business model and change the classic linear value chain in favour of a circular economy.
DEGRADATION OF SOIL QUALITY. The fashion industry has a major influence on the massive deterioration of soil quality for agriculture. The soil is a fundamental element of our ecosystem. A third of Earth’s soil is acutely degraded due to agriculture. We need healthy soils for healthy food production, but also to absorb CO2. So, the massive, global deterioration of soil quality is one of the biggest environmental problems currently facing our planet.
“We don’t need to be sustainable, we need to be regenerative.”Aras Baskauskas, the CEO of Los Angeles label Christy Dawn in an interview with vogue.com
The fashion industry plays an important role in soil degradation in various ways*: Overgrazing of pastures by cashmere goats and sheep bred for their wool; degradation of the soil through the massive use of chemicals for cotton cultivation and deforestation by wood-based fibres such as rayon. (see RAINFOREST DESTRUCTION)
For example, when forests are deforested, the soil is exposed to sunlight and the erosive effects of wind and water. A number of major soil-related problems occur. The aeration of the soil is increased and the weathering rate increases. Apart from erosion, the amount of organic matter in the soil gradually decreases. We need to bring back the trees and stop the one-sided exploitation of agricultural land through cotton cultivation. Replenish the soil with nutrients and thus ensure the next generation of fertile soil. For further reading: Regenerative Agriculture Can Change the Fashion Industry – And the World; www.vogue.com
MICROFIBERS IN OUR OCEANS. We all know that plastic is one of the biggest polluters of our oceans. Today, most of our clothing is made from synthetic fibres, including include nylon, acrylic and polyester. So, most of the plastic polluting the ocean comes directly from our clothing. When we put our clothes through the washing machine, small microfibre particles come off the fabric and pass through the filters. About 1,900 individual microfibers are released into the water, making their way into our oceans.* 40% of these fibres are released into rivers and oceans. t’s time to act now more than ever, because more than 150 million tons of plastic waste has been released into the ocean. By 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. Scientists have also discovered that small aquatic organisms ingest those microfibers. These are then eaten by small fish which are later eaten by bigger fish and so it ends up on our plates. Not a very pleasant outlook!
RAINFOREST DESTRUCTION. Rainforests around the world still continue to fall. The situation is worse than ever. By destroying the tropical forests for example, we risk our own quality of life, gamble with the stability of the climate and local weather, threaten the existence of other species, and undermine the valuable services provided by biological diversity. It threatens our ecosystem. Every year, thousands of hectares are cut down and replaced by plantations of trees. Fashion uses wood to make wood-based fabrics such as rayon, viscose, and modal. Rayon might seem like a better alternative to synthetic fabrics, but it’s not.
“Rayon is the palm oil of the fashion world.”
Most consumers have no idea that fabric can even be made from trees. Viscose, modal and lyocell are specific types of rayon. Each has a different manufacturing process and properties. Viscose fibres are also made from cellulose from wood pulp. The cellulose goes through various processes before it is regenerated into fine filaments. Viscose is a very chemically intensive, toxic process and it’s also very inefficient. You lose about 60% of the tree through that chemical breakdown. The demand for dissolvable pulp is increasing at a 9% rate annually and projected to double in the next 20 years.
Transparency and traceability in fashion supply chains could be a first step.
SOLUTIONS. By the year 2030, the fashion industry is predicted to increase its water consumption by 50%, and its carbon footprint will increase to 2,790 million tons while fashion waste is predicted to hit 148 million tons, according to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. The demand to become climate positive in the near future is tremendous. The very idea of becoming climate neutral soon is challenging. The last few months with the corona crisis have given the industry time to reflect. I think there is great potential to rethink how fashion should operate. The question is, will we use this opportunity or just try to re-establish everything as it was? Many solutions are already out there, many more to come but these cannot be adopted on a large scale until there is a serious reworking of the current fashion industry model.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash