What is the environmental impact of the fashion industry?

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16 February
16:39
19 February
19:07

The environmental impact of the fashion industry is a global concern in terms of the destruction it causes to the planet and the shocking impact on human life.

It has reached immense proportions simply because the western world is so removed from the garment supply chain, as production mostly happens in developing countries. We are also constantly faced with seductive images from the fashion industry and advertising, transporting us into a glamorous fantasy world most people want to be a part of. After all, clothes are our second skin, a crucial vehicle of self expression and so it’s easier not to question.

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Clothes begin their life from natural or manmade fibre. As an example of environmental impact, lets take a look at cotton fibre production as it presents nearly half of the total fabric used to make clothing today. Most cotton production happens in developing countries where farmers are forced through corruption to grow genetically modified crops which necessitate the use of pesticides (the industry uses 18 % of the worlds pesticides and 25% of the worlds insecticides). Once pesticides are used, biodiversity is lost and so crops continually need to be sprayed as they operate like ecological narcotics, the more you use, the more you need. As the ecosystem looses its natural resistance it takes years for the soil to return to its healthy state. Not only is the soil ruined but vast amounts of water are needed to grow these crops. The pesticides themselves also cause immense damage to human health resulting in severe birth defects, cancer and other health conditions. The immense corruption in the Indian cotton growing industry has over the last 16 years been responsible for 25,000 recorded farmer suicides. This equates to 1 farmer every 30 minutes.

The immense corruption in the Indian cotton growing industry has over the last 16 years been responsible for 25,000 recorded farmer suicides. This equates to 1 farmer every 30 minutes.

Synthetic dyes are largely used for the colouring of our clothes and again this mainly happens in developing countries causing pollution to water systems, that poisons the environment. Also the health and safety in factories in poorer countries is dubious and very hard for companies to monitor even though some organisations stipulate that they follow EU health and safety guidelines.

After the raw fibre has been dyed and spun, fabric is produced which is either woven, knitted, embroidered or printed. The pressures of fast fashion mean that again many of these processes happen in the poorest and cheapest parts of the world, where virtually now environmental and ethical standards apply. No one cares about the pollution from the production processes, waste on landfill, child and slave labour.

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In the actual garment production stage, where fabric is cut and sewn into the clothes we wear there is always huge amounts of fabric waste that goes straight to landfill. The growing global fashion industry is currently worth three trillion dollars and so huge pressure is put on having more seasons and more trends, feeding fast fashion. It’s an industry that is only concerned with looking after big business interests. This ruthless greed resulted in the horrific Rana Plaza disaster back in 2013 in Dhaka Bangladesh where 1127 garments workers were killed because the factory owners ignored the fact that the building was collapsing.

After garments have been made, they are shipped to many different destinations adding air miles and thus Co2 emissions.

When the consumer eventually purchases the garment, there is the environmental impact of the washing to consider, how quickly the garment is thrown away and whether it goes to landfill (only 20% of clothing is collected for recycling) To give a sense of the impact in the UK alone, 10,000 garments are disposed of every 10 minutes.

I have given here a very tiny snapshot of the fashion industries impact on the environment. There are a few businesses and researchers working hard to address some of these problems which is positive. However the damage on the planet and people is so serious that infinitely more needs to be done and at a much faster rate.

I along with my two other colleagues Karen Spurgin and Penny Walsh set up the sustainable consultancy ao textiles back in 2006 from our firm belief that the textile industry needs to clean up it’s act. I have worked and studied in the textile industry for many years and draw upon this knowledge and experience with my colleagues to find environmental textile solutions for luxury fashion and interiors.  

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