How clothes are destroying planet – and the way forward

Fashion, a multi-billion dollar industry that thrives on creativity and personal expression, casts a long shadow on the environment.

While we enjoy the latest trends, the processes behind production and disposal contribute significantly to climate change. Many popular fabrics, like synthetic polyester, are derived from fossil fuels. Their production requires vast amounts of energy, releasing harmful greenhouse gases.

Additionally, textiles’ dyeing and finishing processes often rely heavily on water and chemicals, leading to water pollution. A major polluter, the fashion industry is responsible for an estimated eight to 10 per cent of global carbon emissions annually, according to a 2022 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. That is more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.

Fast fashion, a business model based on churning trendy clothes at high volume and low prices, exacerbates these problems.

Clothing is often cheaply made and quickly discarded, leading to mountains of textile waste, with truckloads of clothing ending up in landfills or being incinerated every other second. The burden of this waste disposal, however, is not equally shared. Developed nations, often the largest producers of textile waste, frequently export their used clothing to developing countries in the global south. These countries, lacking the proper infrastructure and resources for responsible waste management, often dump clothes in landfills or burn them in open pits. This practice pollutes the environment and poses significant health risks to local communities.

A 2021 report by Greenpeace highlighted the issue of micro-plastics shed from synthetic garments polluting waterways and entering the food chain.

A recent investigation in Ghana, a major destination for used clothing from the West, exposed the devastating impact. Mountains of discarded clothing choke the environment, while local tailors struggle to compete with the influx of cheap, used garments. The urgency for change within the fashion industry is undeniable. The path toward a more sustainable fashion future requires collaboration between consumers and the industry. Consumers can drive positive change by making informed choices, embracing mindful consumption habits and supporting ethical brands.

Similarly, the fashion industry must prioritise sustainability throughout its supply chain, from sourcing materials to garment disposal.

Our responsibility as consumers

As consumers, we can drive positive change by making informed choices.

Embracing quality over quantity is vital. Investing in well-made, timeless pieces ensures longevity. Opting for natural fabrics like organic cotton or linen, which have a lower environmental footprint than synthetic options, further supports sustainability. Shopping second-hand extends the life cycle of clothing and reduces demand for new garments. Additionally, learning proper washing and storage practices can significantly prolong the lifespan of our clothes. Supporting sustainable brands committed to ethical production and utilising recycled materials is also crucial. The fashion industry’s role The industry itself needs to embrace a paradigm shift. Sustainable sourcing such as using recycled materials and organic fibers can significantly reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.

Adopting circular fashion models, where old garments are collected, recycled and turned into new clothes, minimises waste.

Transparency in the supply chain is essential as consumers have the right to know where their clothes are made and under what conditions, enabling accountability for environmental and social impacts. Furthermore, the industry must invest in innovation, focusing on research and development to create more sustainable and eco-friendly materials and production processes. Luckily, there are a growing number of sustainable alternatives available. With a shift in consumer choices and industry practices, we can transform the fashion industry into a force for good by using several known options.

Natural fibers like organic cotton, linen, hemp, or Tencel, derived from wood pulp offer a more sustainable alternative.

These materials are generally grown with fewer pesticides and require less energy. Recycled polyester, created from plastic bottles or discarded clothing, gives existing materials a second life and reduces reliance on virgin resources. New sustainable fabrics are emerging such as those made from bamboo or algae.

These options often require less water and land to cultivate and boast faster biodegradation rates

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