As the apparel industry is pressed hard to quickly produce affordable and cheap clothing to satiate the need of the ever-growing fashion enthusiasts, it does not come as a surprise that the industry takes shortcuts to meet the demand and mercilessly pollutes the environment. Toxic substances and carcinogenic chemicals end up in water bodies, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere while textile waste sits in landfills for years.
NEW DELHI, INDIA. How about I leave early today and browse through the latest collection of clothes and shop for a bit, thought Sangeeta, a 30-year-old bank employee. It is not unusual for her to leave early to shop. She is fond of shopping and loves to have a large collection of clothes and footwear. She spends most of her day in the field and travelling from one corner of the capital to another which gives her even more opportunities to shop.
Talking about the frequency of shopping, Sangeeta says that presently, she shops at least twice a month besides the usual ‘impulse’ purchases. However, during her college days, she used to shop every week, sometimes twice a week as well. Sangeeta does not wear any piece of clothing more than 4-5 times a season. “It is unnecessary to repeat clothes especially when trends change every week and there are plenty of economical options to buy from,” she admitted. Given the competition and options available in the market, you don’t need to shell out a lot of money to stay trendy. “I spend around USD 40-200 per shopping trip,” Sangeeta confirmed. She shops even more when there is a sale going on.
Sangeeta is not alone who loves to stay trendy and shops without a second thought, there are many people who too shop irresponsibly without realising the damage they are causing to the environment. According to an UN report, published in 2019, the average consumer buys more clothes than 15 years ago and only keeps each piece of clothing half as long.
Fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world, just after the oil industry. The Quantis International 2018 report lists the three main drivers of the textile industry’s global pollution impacts- dyeing and finishing (36%), yarn preparation (28%) and fibre production (15%).
It is appalling to know that the fashion industry accounts for 10 percent of global carbon emissions which is more than the combined emissions for all the international flights and maritime shipping. “According to the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change, emissions from textile manufacturing alone are projected to increase by more than 60 percent by 2030,” said Faiyaz Ahmad Khudsar, a scientist at the Centre for Environment Management of Degraded Ecosystems, Delhi University.
Additionally, a Greenpeace report states that emissions of carbon dioxide for polyester are three times more than those for cotton. Not only does fast fashion contribute to greenhouse gases emissions but pollutes water, air, and soil as well.
Contaminates water sources
Have you ever imagined the amount of water that goes into the production of a pair of jeans? You will be surprised to know that it is 2000 gallons, which can meet one day’s drinking water supply of 1500 people. Given the climatic change the world is undergoing and the shortage of water due to extreme weather events like drought, it is only fair to think twice before getting the next pair of jeans.
“Fast fashion industry is not only depleting the world’s water sources but is also poisoning them,” said Khudsar. It is the second biggest consumer of water and is responsible for 20 percent of global wastewater. It is hard to believe that the dyes used for colouring the clothes in the textile industry are the second largest water pollutants, just after agriculture that pollute fresh water. The World Bank has identified 72 toxic chemicals that end up in waterways from textile dyeing. Most of the textile industries dump untreated water which contains harmful substances like lead, mercury, arsenic etc.
If that was not enough, clothing is also adding plastic to the ocean and polluting it. It is surprising but true that about 60 percent of material used for making clothes is plastic including polyester, acrylic and nylon textile. These fabrics are in demand as they are durable, lightweight, and economical. However, they shed microplastics each time they are washed. The laundry alone releases half a million tonnes of microplastics into the ocean every year.
Textile industry releases various pollutants; some are known while others are not completely known which are called ‘Emergent Pollutant’. “Usually microbes present in water and soil degrade pollutants but no microbes seem to be familiar with these emergent pollutants. Therefore, such pollutants remain in the environment for a longer time,” informed Khudsar.
Heaps of discarded clothes
We throw away a piece of clothing without giving a second thought. Do we know where these discarded clothes end up? One may argue that companies recycle them but that is not the complete truth. All dumped clothes are not recycled and a major portion of them either goes to the landfills (around 85 percent) or is burned up. According to reports, one garbage truck of clothes is sent to landfills or incinerated every second and only 1 percent of clothing is recycled.
It is important to note here that synthetic fibres which include polyester can take up to 200 years to decompose because they are made up of plastic fibres and hence are non biodegradable. The clothing waste releases these microplastics into the soil and pollutes the nearby areas.
Less is more
The global fast fashion market is expected to grow from $25.09 billion in 2020 to $30.58 billion in 2021 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 21.9%
“In view of the growing population and demand for low cost clothing with trends changing frequently, it is not easy to achieve equilibrium between fashion and environment,” said Khudsar. However, he was quick to add that the impact of the industry can be minimised by using biodegradable and renewable resources.
We need to be conscious of our fashion choices and not give into the temptations of the latest trends and shop recklessly. If we seriously want to contribute to the environment then we need to switch to clothing produced by natural resources which include natural dyes for colouring and printing clothes. Khudsar discouraged the use of clothes that heavily pollute the environment.
It is also a good idea to upcycle, rent, and share. It is advisable to buy only when it is absolutely necessary.