Wardrobe undressed: Why the fashion industry needs to change
Since 2009, the London Fashion Week features its eco and sustainability cat walk initiative Esthetica. Ethical and sustainable fashion is, much akin to organic food 20 years ago, a development that is spreading slowly but irreversibly across an industry that boasts an environmental impact second only to agriculture. With this is mind, the present article is the first in our new series that explores Sustainable/Ethical Fashion.
My wardrobe is probably not very typical for a woman, certainly not for one in her mid 30s: with two dozen t-shirts at its core, and only 3 pair of jeans, it boasts more outdoor gear than city-fit outfits. This rather mediocre list is rounded off by some winter jackets, a small selection of household textiles, and – due to a unexplainable fascination – a fairly large collection of ethnic fabric samples I have brought home from my numerous travels around the globe.
The amount of clothing I own may be minimal by some standards, or plainly ridiculous by others – the footprint these clothes made until they came to form part of my humble selection, however, is rather not. Most of what I own is made of cotton – I’m allergic to man-made fibres – , and mind you, organic cotton was not a buzzword yet in the days when those t-shirts and jeans came to life.
My average t-shirt weighs about 200 grams. But that’s only the physical weight I carry once the garment lies snug on my body.
Each t-shirt I own, required 2000 liters, or more, of clean water and about 150 grams of pesticide only to grow the cotton it is made of. Making each of my t-shirts, dying it, and having it shipped to the UK, adds another 1.5 kilos of mostly harmful chemicals, as well as a carbon footprint of 6.5 kilos to the total. With my buying decision though, the havoc I’m responsible for is by far not over yet: About 75% of the energy involved with the making and life of a piece of apparel, t-shirt in my case, is related to the laundering; some 25% of the dye – mostly heavy metals based colours – will be washed out over its lifetime, and be flushed “down the drains” together with the best-possible but still not exactly ecologic washing detergent. And in the end, all that remains to be done with my much loved t-shirt, is to add it together with other discarded items such as plastic wrappings, pots, pans, bed mattresses, to the top of the rubbish pit.
The story of my t-shirt is, of course, not an exception, but sadly the rule. It is an open secret that fashion – across the whole of its production processes – uses more water than any industry other than agriculture. At least 8’000 chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles and 25% of the world’s pesticides are used to grow non-organic cotton. The side effects are, quite logically, irreversible damage to people and the environment, and yet: two thirds of a garment’s carbon footprint will only occur after it is purchased.
In the UK, a total of 2.266 million tonnes of textiles is consumed each year. Taking into account the amount of clothing reused (206’000 tonnes) – the amount of textiles added to the rubbish pit each year totals to 2.60 million tonnes. That is the equivalent of 22’000 average sized male elephants!
The globe, its climate, diversity and people are therefore substantially affected by the way we dress – far beyond high street magazines, fashion shows and trade fairs. Not even logging, mining, and oil extraction does and did have such a profound impact on the planet – and neither on us.
Each of our buying decisions – whether it’s Louis Vuitton or Primark – has a direct, measurable, traceable impact on the planet we leave to our children and grand-children. Each piece of garment we decide to buy influences not only how the garments are designed (think: off cuts and cutting waste), but also the type of fibre grown next season, whether it will be organic or not, and how the garments will be produced, shipped, and finally discarded.
The truth is that fashion is considerable more than just a ‘groovy’ club of VIPs only focused on colours, cuts, designs and pretty, but altered photographs of hungry girls. It is an industry that arches from agriculture, over design, manufacturing, transportation, to marketing, advertising, waste management and recycling. Quite a surprise, considering that we’re only talking of clothes!
If we talk fashion, fibres, fabrics, clothing, we have no choice but to also talk about
environmental damage and pollution such as excessive monocultures, deforestation, ground water draining and poisoning
human-rights breaches such as child-labour and slave labour
carbon footprints and therefore global warming and climate change
waste, be it toxic waste, non-recyclable, non-biodegradable goods or diminishing space in land fills
social phenomena such as fashion bullying, consumerism and eating disorders.
Fashion is a very fascinating industry. No single one industry, other than food, encompasses an equal range of specialities, from agriculture over design, transport to waste management. Fashion only, though, fulfils both, a basic need, clothing in this case, and our natural instinct for grooming and beauty. This is the reason why it is so important to turn Fashion into a sustainable industry. Organic cotton and ‘No Sweat’! campaigns are only the seeds of the change we really need.
Next time when you buy cheap, spend a brief moment thinking of the children that have carried the water for your garment over miles, and still have to make another trip to fetch their own drinking water. Or for the Chinese teenagers that have sewn them while on shift for 15 or even 20 hours at one time, while using laundry pins to prevent their eyes from closing and themselves from falling asleep at work.
Love these kids, as you do the jazzy colours and cuts of your wardrobe. When you buy your next set of spring clothes – appreciate the new designs and garments as much as the efforts that have gone into making them.
By all means, rely on your conscience when deciding what to buy.