Sustainable U: Fast fashion and its environmental impact
By Rachneet Randhawa, December 30 2021—
What better time to become more mindful of our purchases than the most festive — and commercialized — time of year? Why do we need to be more mindful of what we buy on a daily basis, you ask? For starters, the fashion industry is one of the top five most polluting industries in the world and is responsible for 10 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, with fast fashion being the main culprit.
What is fast fashion? It can be defined as garments that are made and sold on the cheap so that the consumer is enabled to buy new clothes more frequently. The satisfaction of keeping up with the latest fashion trend is never-ending. And let’s face it, we’ve all done it — we fantasized about buying that cute new top, only to give it a few wears and toss it into the deep lagoon of our closets.
Take the most well-known fashion brand and retailer in the world — Zara. The company has a rapid turnaround time of 14–21 days, from inception of the garment, to the final sale of the product with at least 52 micro seasons per year. On average it churns out 450 million garments a year and 500 designs per week. Our so-called “need to spree” and “retail therapy” needs to take a breather as our consumer obsession with needing, not wanting the latest trends is rapidly depleting our planet’s precious resources while polluting Mother Earth. Yikes!
There are three facets of fast fashion’s disastrous environmental impacts — water usage, waste generation and toxins.
All about water:
This consists of both water consumption and water pollution. For starters, it’s not surprising that the fashion industry is a super-soaker consumer of freshwater with textile dying being the second largest polluter of water streams globally. It takes up to 2,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans. And cotton requires huge swaths of water — nearly 20,000 litres worth to plant, seed and grow a mere 1kg of cotton. Of course there’s the added backlash of drying out the land, a phenomenon known as desertification and soil degradation.
The overgrazing of pastures by goats and sheeps raised for their wool and excessive use of pesticides and herbicides to grow cotton fields is a great example of this. It gets worse with rainforest destruction and the loss of hectares of ancient forests being slashed for wood-based fabrics like rayon, viscose and modal.
When it comes to water pollution, your clothes are made in a chemical soup from fibre production, textile dying, bleaching and wetting process to finishing. It’s no wonder allergic reactions to clothing are becoming more common. A deadly moat of toxic chemicals surrounds most garment factories. Untreated toxic waters containing trace amounts of lead, mercury and arsenic are dumped haphazardly into rivers at production facilities around the world that eventually leech back into surrounding water streams.
Clothing has become used, abused and tossed away — that is disposable. Our post-consumption problem includes how much we toss out in the garbage. The average person sends 70 pounds of textiles to the landfill each year. Plastic fibres which are non-biodegradable like polyester, spandex and nylon used in the vast majority of our clothes, can take up to 200 years to decompose.
The fashion industry is responsible for 92 million tons or four per cent of the world’s annual solid waste. The current approach of producing, distributing and using clothes occurs in a closed-loop. From the initial mock-up design to wear that is used for a short period before being easily tossed in the trash, it’s an unsustainable lifestyle. The new normal is that clothing is disposed of and unfortunately this nasty habit of ours is generating textile waste at unprecedented levels –— nearly 85 per cent of our clothing ends up in landfills.
Around 60 per cent of the clothing you wear contains plastic microfibers, the most popular of which is polyester. Even the post-consumption aspect is disastrous thanks to microfibers. For instance, every time you wash a synthetic garment, such as polyester or nylon, thousands of microfibres are released into the water. According to the World Economic Forum, washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibres into the ocean each year, which is the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.
Polyester as plastic is found in an estimated 60 per cent of garments, of which producing it as a material releases 2–3 times more carbon emissions than cotton. Worst of all, polyester does not break down in the ocean. Small aquatic microorganisms ingest these microfibers which are then eaten by small fish and then bigger fish and finally eaten by you during one of your daily dinners of freshly caught salmon. This phenomenon introduced to our food chain is called bioaccumulation
Polyester is a petrochemical-based fibre that is reliant on large amounts of fossil fuels to be manufactured. Did you know that more than 330 million barrels of oil on average are used to make polyester and other manmade clothing fibres every year? Let’s be real, fast fashion companies love polyester because it’s cheap, easy to manufacture at a relatively low financial cost but costs us the environment.
As a consumer every day, you can choose to adapt your lifestyle to be more eco-conscious and opt for brands that impact the triple bottom line — people, profit and planet. Best of all, you can do convenient sustainable swaps for your clothing like buying consigned and local, buying higher quality garments that last for years, going on a fun clothing swap or simply mending your clothes when they rip or tear rather than tossing them in the trash. You too can be the change you wish to see in the world, so choose to be your own hero.
This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.