Charlie Bedwell shines a spotlight on the damaging reality of our obsession with the fashion industry. Do you really understand your individual impact through buying new clothes? Charlie lays down some facts and offers a solution to help limit your individual impact as a student.
The fashion industry is the second most environmentally-damaging industry, beaten only by oil. Fashion as an industry has damaging consequences to the planet (not to mention our self-esteem and bank accounts!). It isn’t often that we think about the process required for making the clothes we wear every day, but once you start looking it might surprise you how much damage this process creates.
Most of our clothing is made from polyester or cotton. You might imagine that cotton was a safe bet being that it is present in around 40% of the clothing we make, cotton is also associated with the image of “natural clothing”. But this is not the case. While it makes up only 2.4% of the world’s cropland, it is responsible for the use of 25% of all insecticides and 10% of all agricultural chemicals. Cotton is grown globally, so the effects that this is causing are catastrophic.
Aral, Uzbekistan is a heart-breaking example of the damage the cotton industry is capable of. In the early 1950’s the river was diverted to provide irrigation for cotton production. Water levels are now 10% of what they were 50 years ago. This decrease in water levels caused industries that relied on the river to suffer massively, impacting the local families that relied on its trade. When areas of the water bed then dried up, chemicals from cotton fertiliser that had contaminated the water settled in the dust and caused a public health crisis.
Cotton has extensive water requirements in its crop growth
Cotton requires a huge amount of water to grow. Approximately, 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to make one pair of jeans. The USDA report that over two billion pounds of synthetic fertilizers is applied to US cotton annually. The risk of chemical corruption of water nearby is a pressing issue that makes the fashion industry hugely damaging to our planet.
Polyester, unfortunately, comes with a similar story. When washed, polyester sheds microfibres which are adding to the enormous amount of plastic ending up in our oceans. These fibres are tiny enough to pass through sewage and water treatment systems; ending up in our rivers and seas. Once in the water cycle, they can absorb hazardous chemicals making them a huge threat to aquatic life. Microfibres are eaten by creatures such as plankton which then will make its way up the food chain, further contributing to the decline of ocean environments.
Unfortunately, deciding what to compose our clothes from is only the first step in a succession of damaging processes. Next, our clothes are dyed. This is a three-stage process consisting of preparation, dyeing and finishing. When preparing clothes, they are subjected to detergents, enzymes or bleaching to remove any impurities; meaning that even if a shirt is to remain dye-free, it may still have been exposed to toxic chemicals. Next clothes are dyed. Here the dye is applied at different temperatures under different pressures to achieve adequate absorption and diffusion. Finally, the shirt is finished. Chemical compounds are added to the fabric to improve its quality allowing for water-proofing, stain resistance and softening.
These are all toxic, energy consuming and wasteful processes. The stand-out issue with dyeing, however, is the huge amount of water required to rinse each fabric after it has been exposed to chemicals during multiple stages of the process. There are two ways in which dyeing can occur; batch or continuous processing in which water waste is at its worst. Continuous processing involves fabrics being exposed to heat, steam and chemical solutions in various baths. Every time a piece of fabric is passed through a solution an amount of water equivalent to its weight will be used. Batch processing on the other hand, allows fabric to remain in one bath and be repeatedly treated and rinsed. Every time the bath is refilled it will be at five or ten times the weight of the fabric being used. From this, it is clear to see that we need to rethink the way we treat and dye our clothing.
Water wastage is harmful enough for the environment, but unfortunately that is not where the problem ends. The baths which are used to remove chemicals from clothes are escaping water treatment systems as they are made to resist bleaching, chemicals, soap, detergents, temperature and water. This resulted in an estimated 10-50% of colorants being lost to the environment; some of which are highly toxic. When these enter water systems, it can no longer be used for recreation, drinking or irrigation.
Is it time to fund more sustainable and natural dyeing practices?
Many researchers have investigated new forms of treatment to reduce the environmental impact of compounds used in the dyeing process. Such research has investigated the use of ultrasonic energy in dispersing dye in clothing. By moving particles of dye through a fabric using vibrations, we can remove the need for heavy machinery and some toxic chemicals that aid dispersal.
Luckily, dyeing polyester fibres using ultrasonic energy resulted in an increase in dye uptake and enhanced dyeing rate and has since been used more frequently in the textile industry. Unfortunately, ultrasound energy is yet to be used globally and is just the beginning of tackling environmental issues caused by the fashion industry.
In a further attempt to reduce the energy used in the dyeing process, some companies are implementing liposomes into the dyeing process. These act as a delivery method for dye, allowing more encapsulated dyes to be carried into the fabric. They remove the need for a potentially toxic wetting agent and help dyes disperse at temperatures up to 10 degrees lower than the current rate; again, helping to economise energy.
Whilst some people have been successful in finding microorganisms that reduce toxicity in the water used for rinsing; few of yet have received adequate funding to make the maintenance costs manageable.
Dyeing is the second biggest polluter of clean water, second only to agriculture. We need to find a sustainable way of colouring our clothes if we are to avoid CO2 emissions increasing by 60% to 2.8 billion tons a year by 2030. This means investment in research and the methods discussed above, as well as a focus on reducing water waste and contamination.
After clothes are dyed, they then need to make it to your doorstep. This means more CO2 emissions in transporting them across the globe. To tackle this issue, people need to start supporting companies who are concerned about the environment. An example of such a company is Rapanui. To reduce CO2 emissions, they send clothes via sea freight. By having a steady flow of blank shirts sent to the UK to then print, the company avoids having to rush clothing around by air freight or throwing away excess clothing as they only print when orders come through.
An estimated 80% of the carbon emissions associated with clothing come from washing, drying and disposing of the item after it has been purchased. With growing materials, dyeing and transport only contributing to 20% of CO2 emissions, it might feel disheartening to hear that most of the damage caused comes from individuals. However, this gives us control over the problem; allowing us to make changes to improve the planet’s future.
To reduce the number of washes that you are doing you can use colour absorption sheets and bung everything in the wash together! This makes life easier as well as helping the environment. Consider the type of was that you are doing too. Can you do a cool wash? Could you air dry your clothes instead of tumble dry them? All these decisions will reduce water wastage and energy use.
A final big change to consider is how we dispose of our old clothes and how many clothes we buy in the first place. Currently, 13.1 million tons of textiles are trashed each year in the U.S.A. Of the clothes that we purchase, only 15 percent are donated or recycled, leaving the rest to end up in a landfill. This needs to change. So, what can we do? The first and most obvious port of call is a good old charity shop! Donate your clothes here and extend the lifecycle of others when you make your own purchases. A second idea is to upcycle your own clothes to get your “new outfit” fix, by remodelling what you already have. Finally, swap outfits with friends! This way you get to spice things up without damaging the environment.
In summary, the fashion industry is hugely damaging to our environment: from the chemicals, water, energy used to make our clothes to the vast transportation networks required for clothing deliveries. More pressure needs to be put on large companies to change how they are producing clothes and we need to support smaller businesses who have taken matters into their own hands! There are also a lot of things that we can do once our clothes reach us to reduce the damage that clothing is causing to our environment. These include remodelling and repairing old outfits, donating clothes to charity, sharing clothes with friends, cool-washing and air-drying clothes.