Fast-fashion has a toll on the environment

Sales, Black Friday, low prices! Textile companies always encourage us to buy more and more clothes. As a result, around 80 billion items of clothes are produced each year. And this number is only growing up… By 2050, global clothing sales could more than triple. The term “fast-fashion” refers to clothes that are inspired by recent style trends seen on celebrities and on the runway for an affordable price for the average consumer. To go faster and keep prices as low as possible, retailers often cut costs, an action that increases their carbon footprint. Consequently, these clothes are responsible for ecological damage and social issues. Cities Foundation is here to shed light on what is truly happening when you buy a 5$ T-shirt!


The textile industry as the second largest industrial polluter worldwide

From production to recycling, the textile industry performs highly in destroying the planet. First of all, the production of raw materials – mainly cotton and polyester – is responsible for multiple ecological disasters. In 2017, 25 million tons of cotton were produced – mostly in India, the United States and China. The cotton production consumes most of the world’s freshwater resources, leading to their drying out. The case of Aral sea, in Uzbekistan, is significant: this lake used to be the fourth biggest lake on the planet. But, as the country slowly became the second biggest cotton producer, nowadays, there is almost no water left.

Step number 2: transforming raw materials into clothes. For that, textile industries use, most of the time, chemicals and toxic substances – such as chrome, mercury, lead or copper – to tint, wash-out or soften textile. In Europe, since 2007, the regulation REACH has been forcing producers and importers of chemicals to prove that their products do not put the consumer’s life in danger. However, that is not the case in the developing countries, where most production processes take place.

Thirdly, combined with transportation issues, clothes are responsible for 1,2 billion tons of greenhouse gas every year. For instance, a pair of jeans sold in France travels around 65000 kilometers before being sold : the cotton is produced in Uzbekistan, the pair of jeans is spined in India and tinted in Morocco and then sold in France.

Finally, once the clothes end up in your wardrobe, the pollution doesn’t stop. Actually, clothes in polyester are made from microfibers which come off in the washing machine. Yet, they are too small to be filtered by the water treatment plant, thus directly ending up in the oceans: about 500.000 tons of microplastics from polyester end in the oceans each year. As for the recycling part? Each year 4 million tons of clothes end up in landfills around Europe, with only 20% of these clothes being recycled.


Behind the veil : social and health issues 

The exploitation of workers in developing countries is part of the fast-fashion system. Most clothes are produced in Bangladesh. In Dhaka, price rates for production and manufacturing are low: workers – mainly women and children – earn only 2-3$ a day. Apart from that, owners of textile fabrics have to cut down costs, thus ignoring security rules to meet the demands of big industries. This causes a lot of accidents, such as the collapse of a building of 8 floors in April 2013, when more than 1000 workers died.

« Each day we woke up early in the morning, we go to the factory, and we work very hard all day long. And we do all the hard work for clothes. People have no idea how hard it is for us to do the laundry. They only buy and use it. I think these clothes are produced with our blood. Many textile workers die in separate accidents.” Shima Akhter, garment worker (quote from the documentary The true cost)

In addition, a lot of people die due to chemicals and toxic substances used by the textile industry. In Texas, 80% of cotton production is produced with GMO cotton plants, which are proven to cause cancer. In developing countries, the rivers next to fabrics are also polluted by the chemicals. The case of the Ganges river next to Kanpur is a good illustration: each day, 50 million litres of residual toxic water are released into the river. Subsequently, the population living near textile factories suffers from diseases directly connected to the chemicals found in the water.


Why should we keep sustaining the current textile system, since only the owners of the big textile industries gain something out of it? 

Advertisements about fast-fashion are nothing less than pure propaganda. In fact, they make us believe that the only way to solve problems in life is over-consumption. But the truth is that, according to multiple studies, people who are actually addicted to fashion and excessive buying of clothes are not happy at all. On the contrary, they have a higher stress level and are not satisfied with their life.

But also from the consumer point of view, is it really democratic to buy a tee-shirt for 5$, a pair of jeans for 20$? Because they [the big fashion industries] are making us believe that we are rich or wealthy because we can buy a lot. But in fact they are making us poorer, and the only person who is getting richer is the owner of the fast-fashion brand.” Livia Firth (quote from the documentary The true cost)

So what can we do? Do we keep buying stuff we don’t even like or need, knowing that, in this way, we contribute to the destruction of the planet and exploitation of workers in developing countries? The answer is a big NO! At Cities foundation, we think that global issues can be tackled by local solutions.


Alternatives to fast-fashion 

At the moment, there are a lot of alternatives and inspiring initiatives, which can help you turn into more sustainable ways of dressing. First of all, we could limit the amount of clothes in our wardrobe. Most of them are not even worn twice. A simple tip for this would be to go for casual clothes that you can mix with everything and wear in different circumstances. Original pieces are also cool but you will only wear them a few times. Secondly, we could choose the materials we mostly like: materials such as organic cotton and linen are natural and biodegradable, while polyester and cotton pollute the planet a lot.

An important effort is currently being made by some brands in order to minimize their effects on the environment (non-harmful dyes, natural fibres, protection of their workers interests). We should definitely support these brands, instead of buying from big textile companies. Speaking of which, Reformation is a brand you should keep an eye on! They follow sustainable practices, such as using recyclable and biodegradable packaging, and 100% compostable bags for instore purchases. Reformation also produces their clothes in green building infrastructures and tries to minimize their waste, water, and energy consumption.

Last but not least, not buying new clothes at all is another, though a bit extreme, solution. You can be part of the above-mentioned trend via some challenges, such as #noshoppingfor2020, where people assume that they have enough clothes in their wardrobe and they don’t need new ones. What’s more, if you really need something during the year, you still can buy from second-hand shops. Plus, second-hand clothes are usually cheaper! Oh, it is also possible to use a filter for your washing machine to filter out microplastics which come off from polyester clothes.

At a local scale, creative initiatives are flourishing too. If you live in Amsterdam, there are more and more alternatives to fast-fashion. Here are some few local initiatives to feel inspired!

The Lena fashion library is the place to borrow your wardrobe in Amsterdam. Renting your clothes is fun and you don’t hurt the planet each time you wear a new dress.

At Repaircafe, you can repair your damaged clothes in a good atmosphere and make connections with your neighbors.

Genaaid and De steek are offering sewing courses: learning how to sew could be the solution to change your wardrobe sustainably.

Long story short, as the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood said, “buy less, choose well, make it last”. We should think about our clothing as an investment and not as a consumption product that we use and then we just get rid of a few months later. As individuals, we have to turn into solutions that boycott big textile industries and force the end of this destructive circle.  Just find the alternative that suits you best! After all, there is no planet B!


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Created on 13 February 2020

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