The fast fashion industry is controversial, lucrative and ubiquitous. Valued at £2.3 trillion and employing approximately 60 million people worldwide in its supply chains, it often sparks debate on issues such as environmental and socioeconomic sustainability. After oil, the textile business is the most environmentally destructive form of enterprise and in terms of both industrial and consumer/domestic practices, it is also the largest contributor to anthropogenic climate change. Many choices are made during the production and later life of a garment, each with varying impacts on society and the natural world.
Here is a brief breakdown of the 7 phases in the life of a garment, and their various impacts:
Natural fibres are beneficial because they are biodegradable, renewable and not derived from chemicals – although they often have negative environmental and social impacts if they are grown using pesticides or fertilisers. They require varying amounts of water and land to grow, and sometimes require chemical processing anyway to create a usable fibre. They also tend to crease more than synthetic fibres and therefore use more energy and water down the line in the consumer use phase.
Synthetic fibres tend to be made of synthetic polymers derived from non-renewable petrochemicals. Petroleum extraction has a large number of negative effects on the environment. However, synthetic fibre production doesn’t require as much time, water or land as natural fibres do. Synthetic fibres do not allow the skin to breathe to the extent that natural fibres do. However, synthetic fibres crease far less than natural fibres and so incur less energy during the consumer use phase. Polyester is also very durable and therefore has great potential for recycling. Recycled bottles can be turned into fabric without having to extract oil or create anything new. By this line of argument, we could create fabric by recycling the plastic that is littering the planet.
Organic farming is the practise of cultivating crops without applying chemical pesticides of fertilisers. Organic farming is clearly the most beneficial form of fibre production for the environment and those involved in cultivation. However, farming without the help of chemicals can exacerbate a crop’s exposure to weather-related problems or reduce the crops yield at harvest because it has been exposed to pests.
Non-organic farming relates to genetically modified seeds and/or involves the application of synthetic pesticides or fertilisers to their crops in the hope of having more control over their farm. In theory, these chemicals are brilliant for increasing yields (therefore generating more income for fibre farmers), deterring pests, and increasing crops’ resilience to weathering. However, these chemicals are often incredibly dangerous – some were even used for chemical warfare during WWII. They are sometimes known as ‘ecological narcotics’ because the crops, pests and soil build up a tolerance and require a higher dose every season. These expensive chemical strategies are often aggressively advertised as miraculous money-makers to farmers from less economically developed nations and farmers often find themselves in unmanageable debt to the big chemical companies. In fact, over the last 18 years, well over 250,000 Indian cotton farmers have taken their own lives, usually after taking out extortionate unofficial loans or consecutive crop failures.
Fabric production processes are often the most chemical, water and energy-intensive phases of in the life of a garment. During this stage, fabric will be prepared, bleached, treated, dyed, printed, washed and finished – typically consuming copious quantities of water and chemicals. This is the phase responsible for rivers running with untreated effluents of brightly coloured dyes, heavy chemicals and metals and obviously dead wildlife. The social impacts here range from illnesses contracted through working with these chemicals to whole communities consuming local water and food contaminated with heavy toxins. The use of many of these chemicals is prohibited in some parts of the world because of their dangerous traits, but the chemicals still find their way into these countries in residual form on fabric and garments, and can even be absorbed by the wearer’s skin some thousands of miles away from where a garment was produced.
Garment production is the stage that you might imagine first when you think of the fashion industry. However, it is actually a comparatively small stage when we think of all the time, energy, people, chemicals, water and land required to get a garment to this stage. A garment is produced by pattern-cutting, stitching, pressing and finishing. These process often take place in the same factory, but due to rising pressure imposed by big fashion brands to reduce the price and production time of a garment, factory owners are sometimes compelled to outsource production to smaller unofficial factories to keep up with orders and continue to supply the big brands. Garment production usually takes place in less economically developed nations – far away from the eyes of the ‘developed’ world and their strong environmental and labour laws.
Transportation and Retail
This is the phase where our garments are sent and sold to us. The method of transportation has profound impacts for the environment – the environmental impact of air freight is huge compared to sea freight. 1000kg of air freight will emit around 500g of CO2 for every km it flies in a typical Boeing 747, whereas that same 1000kg package would emit a mere 15g of CO2 for every km it travels via sea freight. Because the garments we wear are often manufactured in far-away places, and in unprecedented quantities at unprecedented speed, this phase can be incredibly destructive to the environment.
Retail is another area of impact in the fashion industry – there are more brands and clothes and stores than ever before. Environmentally speaking, the impact here is mostly caused by the electricity needed to keep shops and stores open. Socially speaking, the seemingly endless array of available clothing means that companies must convince consumers to choose their garments over their competitors – often using advertising campaigns and techniques that can impact consumers’ self-esteem or finances.
The consumer use phase is a particular point of interest because for many of us, it is more relatable than the previous phases. Whilst the production phases of a garment generally take place in the global South, the consumption, use and care of the garment tend to occur in the global North. It is sometimes easy to criticise the seemingly careless use of finite resources and hazardous chemicals during the production of a garment. However, the impact of that garment during its routine care and laundering is a serious area for concern. It is common for consumers to over-wash their garments, at temperatures that are higher than necessary and with too high a dose of detergents. Excessive detergent use can lead to eutrophication in local waterbodies, and over-washing at high temperatures is clearly a waste of resources.
End of Use
This is the final phase of the life of a garment – but perhaps one of the most profound. The best ways to respect the resources and people involved in a garment’s production is to either recycle, up-cycle or re-use it somehow.
Although premature waste is a huge issue here, it is not the most pressing. If a garment is made from a synthetic fibre ends up in landfill, it will remain there for centuries, releasing harmful toxins into the atmosphere as it tries (and fails) to degrade. Almost every piece of polyester that has ever been produced is still here in some way.