Did you know that fashion is ranked as the world’s third most polluting business, after the oil and gas industry? This is because throughout the product lifespan – from manufacturing to disposal – all phases of the fashion industry may have significant environmental implications, which contributes to fashion’s excessively large aggregate ecological footprint.
During my parent’s childhood, clothes were rationed. I still have my Dad’s ration book, showing the meagre allowances he had. This meant that every item had to be looked after, mended, and when outgrown, repurposed.
Fast forward to now and it’s all about fast fashion. We’re encouraged to buy something new every week and with masses of choice and cheap labour, it’s become an ecological minefield.
Fast fashion demands high speed and low cost to keep up with the worldwide thirst for novelty, which has fuelled the multi-trillion-dollar garment industry’s expansion. However, fast fashion can have a large impact on the environment, mainly because of increasing amounts of chemicals used in the production process and the consequent chemical by-products, plus water usage and all the waste.
Let’s look at some of the impacts of fashion on the environment in more detail and we’ll end with ideas for more zero waste fashion:
According to research published in 2018, the global fashion sector used more than 75 billion cubic meters of water that same year. Furthermore, by 2025, this quantity is expected to reach up to 100 billion cubic meters.
This staggering use of water is down to the fact that much of fast fashion is made of cotton. It can take up to 20,000 gallons of water to create one kilogram of cotton, so the average quantity of water required to make one garment is 2,700 litres; that’s enough freshwater to keep one person hydrated for a few years!
Not all materials are equal
Fortunately, there are cleaner, more sustainable, and eco-friendly clothing options. For example, data sourced from Compare the Market shows that clothing made from sustainable materials can have a positive impact on health and an overall better user experience. For example, materials such as organic cotton, recycled organic hemp, linen, bamboo, and many others can be less harmful to the environment and are also much healthier than those made of different chemicals such as polyester and the like. In short, there are always good and bad choices, and some aren’t as obvious as others, but take your time and do some research.
Greenhouse gas emissions
Greenhouse gas emission is another serious impact from the fashion industry. Due to its energy-intensive production methods that exceed those of the aircraft and cargo sectors combined, the fashion business produces approximately 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
This is mainly because of the chemical-based materials used in the production of these clothes. These include synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic, which require the burning of fossil fuels in addition to the need for chemicals during the process.
Clothes made of these materials can be far more polluting than those made of organic hemp for example. They also pollute the water and environment when being washed, since microplastic from these pieces of clothes easily escapes and then are released into the environment. Likewise, they do not break down in landfill easily if disposed there at end of life.
Zero Waste Fashion
In an average European country, more than £100 million worth of clothes are thrown out every year, amounting to more than 300,000 tonnes of unwanted apparel. A typical Western household discards 20+ pounds of clothes per year, of which only a small portion is recycled or given away, with the remainder going to landfill or being burnt in an incinerator.
The garment industry is believed to be responsible for up to 20% of global water pollution, with more than 700 chemicals needed to turn raw materials into clothing materials such as textiles and polyester.
What is more, it’s reported that pesticides are used extensively in the manufacture of natural fibers such as cotton. These hazardous chemicals are absorbed into the soil before entering waterways and contaminate rivers, oceans, and other water surfaces, especially when these clothes are washed for the first time.
It seems that the cheap fashion industry is by no means cheap in terms of the environment. In fact, the cost is to both our health and the environment. So what can we do about it?
Here are some ideas to reduce your fashion eco footprint and achieve zero waste fashion status!
Learn to love what you have
With tonnes of clothing sitting unloved in wardrobes, it’s time to fall back in love with things. Things often come back into style or can look completely different when pared with different items. Take time to try things on in different combinations and see if you can go shopping in your wardrobe
If you find things that you sort of like, but aren’t quite right, you could have them altered. A change of length of hemline or an alteration to a neck can completely revolutionise an item and make it look brand new.
Learn a new skill
Part of being a zero waste warrior is learning how to mend and repair and it’s pretty fun to do this with clothing. You could learn to sew patches onto your jeans, replace buttons or fix a zip. There are plenty of online tutorials, as well as local groups to learn new skills.
Use charity shops
Use charity shops to both buy and purge. By adopting a ‘one in one out’ rule, you’ll never have that ‘too many things but nothing to wear’ dilemma. One of the reasons we sometimes can’t find something we feel inspired by in our own wardrobe is because there’s actually just too much in it.
Organise a swap party
‘Swishing’ is a fun way to get new items for free and to give away items you no longer use. There are instructions online for organising your own swishing event, but essentially each item you donate gives you a credit to ‘spend’ on another item. Add friends, wine and nibbles and you’re good to go!
Look after your clothes
Many items wear out quickly because they are not looked after properly. They might be washed at the wrong temperature, put away in the winter where there are clothes moths or put in the wash with another item that leaks colour. Washing and storing clothes properly increases their longevity and means you don’t have to throw them away unnecessarily.
Rent for special occasions
Rather than end up with an item you only wear once or twice, why not rent? This is a wonderful way to preserve resources, protect the environment and potentially find an item you’d never normally wear!
In all honesty we’ve scratched only the surface. There are lots of things to weigh up such as cost per wear, organic vs recycled fabrics, as well as the every day care – does something need dry cleaning for example… The fashion world is pretty much a minefield. But the basic advice is this – ask yourself if you really need it before you buy. And if you DO need to buy, do your research and make the most ethical purchase you can find.
What about you? How do you promote zero waste fashion in your day-to-day life?