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Sunday 3 May 2020

What does Fashion have to do with Biodiversity Loss and Environmental Damage?


The impact of the fashion industry is far reaching and there is no way to cover every element where it's impacts are felt, whether that be good or bad. But in light of Earth Day and Fashion Revolution Week, I thought it was about time I tried to highlight just some of the ways the Fashion industry is playing a role in from habitat destruction, water pollution and land degradation to energy requirements and waste production.

How we consume fashion has altered dramatically over the past 20 years. Our fashion consumption doubled between 2000 and 2014 (1), yet 50% of the fast fashion garments purchased are thrown away within a year. In Europe, the average number of collections per year for fashion companies went from averaging two in 2000 to five in 2011. Whilst Zara somehow manages to release 24 collections. For comparison, H&M put out between 12 and 16 out.

This excessive buying and waste was naturally going to have an impact, how could it not? From the land required to grow cotton, or the oil needed to create polyester, to the millions are new garment workers required to meet the demand and the chemicals needed to create the colours for that season. All production has had to grow.

Chemical Use in Fashion

Lets begin with cotton, I won't spend much time on this but most cotton is heavily treated with chemicals in fact although it is only grown on 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land, it consumes 16% of all the insecticides and 6.8% of all herbicides used worldwide (2). Not just that though, insecticides and herbicides also destroy the pests natural predators whilst also destroying the soil quality which in turn leads to lower crop yields for farmers. Yet with 73 percent of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land (3) vital resources like water are also being over used and enabling pesticides and herbicides to penetrate deeper into the soils.

On top of this, chemical run of into other land areas, especially if the cotton is grown near forests eventually leads to our water system being polluted. Stacey Dooley's documentary also brought to light something I was taught at uni, that these chemicals and the high exposure is impacting on the communities that live their causing a variety of life threatening conditions and birth defects. Organic cotton is trying to help solve at least some of these problems by removing / only allowing a small number of certified herbicides and pesticides to be used on the cotton but their is still alot of the cotton growing industry that's causing damage(4).

At the other end of the garment process fluorinated chemicals are still being used even though they are among the world most toxic materials in the world (YES, THEY ARE STILL GOING INTO OUR CLOTHES). Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen which can lead to cancer and is known to be an endocrine disrupter is also still being used in our clothing production to get certain effects like waterproofing or crease proofing that customers demand, although I cant imagine they would if they knew the risk (5)!

There are some brands now fighting the norm though and choosing to stay away from these dangerous chemicals. Levi's chose to not add a fluorinated chemical which helps create stain resistance because they felt the environmental impact was too high, just like Patagonia opted to not add a formaldhyde chemical which prevents creasing to their garments.

Sadly though, we still have a long way before the majority of brands are putting planet and peoples health above the look of the garment they are choosing to create.

Water Pollution created by the Fashion Industry

Chemicals and water pollution for the fashion industry tend to come pretty much hand in hand. Textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water, since the water leftover from the dyeing process is often dumped into ditches, streams, or rivers. In fact, the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide (7).

Lack of legislation in many of the countries where the dying and tanning processes takes place leads to this issue and illegal dumping of waste and the heavy metals is common due to regulation (if there are any) not being well enforced. The result?  The  world’s largest clothes exporter, China have declared that nearly one third of the countries’ rivers are classified as “too polluted for any direct human contact”. The same pattern is seen all over the world, and the documentary River Blue is a real eye opener into the true scale of the problem.

Water being polluted isn't just an issue in the process of making our clothes though sadly. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics in the ocean came from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester which is a staggering. Although we are creating clothing our of old plastic fishing nets for example this doesn't stop them shedding in the wash.

Due to the size of of the microfibres that are shed as well, the filters used to clean our water are unable to capture them resulting in microfibres being found in every river studied to date along with being in the vast amount of ocean species. A scary reality check for us all.

At the moment, there are only a few options to try and reduce microfibre shedding with the likes of guppy bags (although some studies don't believe they work well). The best option though, is choosing fabrics with low levels of elastin and plastic fibres or are made completely of natural fibres such as  cotton, wool, bamboo and hemp being fantastic options. That way, no shedding would take place because there is no plastic is in the garment to begin with. For those items that you can't help needing, be sure to try and wash garments less frequently to reduce how often shredding can take place.

The Effect of the Fashion Industry on Biodiversity 

The impact the fashion industry has through out the creation process is pretty obvious to most. The destruction of biodiversity during the growing of crops used and the the degradation of soil mentioned before due to the use of pesticides and herbicides has lead to rapid species decline (7).

To meet the growing demand, land has also had to be cleared to enable new cotton and fabric plants to grow, which will have inevitably caused habitat destruction and in some cases, the creation of habitat separation. The issue with this island style clearing that can take place, is if the remaining pocket of habitat for the species is not big enough, the species will be unable to sustain themselves with genetic diversity and result in eventual species extinction. We also can't ignore the fashion industry demand on oil, which is a result of fibres like polyester (the most common fibre in the world) and nylon. In turn, this means that they are partially responsible for the the oil spills that still happen on a regular basis (even if they are not regularly broadcast to the public). Now this may not be a direct result of their actions, but as we know, demand leads to creation and supply.

The impact sadly doesn't end with cotton or polyester though, leather and viscose have been linked to the deforestation of the Amazon due to clearing for cattle grazing and trees to meet viscose demand. Desertification is also taking place due to unsustainable agriculture practices taking place. Cashmere goats overgrazing in Mongolia’s grasslands provides just one example, and thy have been found to be responsible for more than three-quarters of the decline in grasslands, which is intricately linked with soil erosion (9).

The devastating consequences felt from the growing need for materials is most obvious in Uzbekistan. With the demand for cotton in the region, new farms were set up and water filtered from the rivers and away from the Aral Sea. So much so that in 50 years, the sea had completely vanished. Once one of the world’s four largest lakes, the Aral Sea is now little more than desert and a few small ponds. This of course not only had a dramatic impact on the people that relied on the lake for their livelihoods but also all of the unique species that once called it home which are sadly now all gone (9).

Biodiversity has also taken a hit in so many of the river systems due to the high levels of pollution pumped out during the dying and tanning process. In rivers like Bangladesh's Buriganga, that see vast amounts of chemical waste disposed into it from the buzzing garment industry on its shores, the river is incapable of supporting almost any animal life and this is not a one off event (10).

There is hope for Bangladesh at least though, with the announcement last year that The Bangladeshi Supreme Court has given all rivers in the country legal rights. This means that "people who damage a river can get taken to court by the government-appointed National River Conservation Commission. They’ll be tried as if they’d harmed a living entity, because each river now has the right to life. That means the river’s government-designated human representatives can sue on its behalf when it’s being endangered" (11). It's early days as to whether this will rapidly help reduce pollution and enable species to return back to the waters but at least its a start.

Waste Produced by the Fashion Industry 

The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second. Or in numbers, it's estimated that the fashion industry produces 92 million tons of textile waste annually or 4% of the global waste. Now for products that we should hold on to and cherish, 4% is ALOT.

With only around 30% of clothes going to charity shops, its easy to see why and how so much of our clothing ends up as waste yet this doesn't solve the problem. Poor quality clothing that is produced quickly means that even though garments may be unwanted, they can not go onto new homes due to them being unable to last and instead, end up as waste.

Fast fashion and its poor quality is just one side of the story. The trend driven market is another. With fashion collections coming out so regularly, a recent survey found that on average, women are only wearing clothing pieces 7 times before getting rid of them shedding light to just how much of our wardrobe is not used or simply wasted.

As the fashion industry continues to grow, the amount of waste we are producing is only going to increase but there are brands and initiatives trying to help the cycle. From HURR to depop, rental and resale platforms are increasing helping to find new ways of utilising fashion whilst also reducing the amount of waste that may have originally been created. Now though, we need brands to step up and take control on their waste in the supply chain and their wasted stock. In recent years, luxury brands have made headlines because they've chosen to burn their stock to help retain brand value without thought of the impact on the environment. We need better!

The Fashion Industries Energy Demand 

With ever growing demand for fashion it is not surprise that the industry is responsible for 10% of humanity’s  annual carbon emissions. That's more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined! What may be even more staggering is that at this pace, the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions will surge more than 50 % by 2030 (3). A figure that most definitely is not in line with the Paris Agreement and 1.5 degree temperature rise which is what the world is meant to be aiming for.

The energy demand and carbon emissions produced by the fashion industry mainly comes down to the size of the supply chain and its complexity. The shipping, and travel expense and emissions for each part of the fashion journey means that small adjustments to each stage could have a large impact. From using lighter storage boxes, to streamlining vehicles to reduce drag, to switching to electric vehicles that are powered by renewable energy. There are lots of options to explore and ways for the industry to do better, if they are determined.

Take Away on Fashion and the Environment 

The impact of the fashion industry is far reaching and at a larger scale than most people can imagine. It doesn't have to be this way though, if the demand for fashion was not continuously growing, then the need for further habitat destruction would vanish. If we could help create the infrastructure and regulations in the countries producing the clothing, rivers would not be polluted and instead wildlife would be able to come back. If we reduced our dependency on pesticides and herbicides through education and partnerships, crop yields would remain stable, soil would be in better condition and the risk to those living in the areas of production would be far lower. If we could learn how to mend our clothes, and create a system which enabled real recycling of fibres to be used again we would be able to dramatically reduce our waste. Finally, if all of the billion pound companies invested in their supply chain to encourage renewable energy supply, especially considering many of these countries experience a lot of sunlight, they could not only help reduce fashions footprints but also ensure clean energy for their workforce. A win win.
There is a long way to go. yet there are brands working to improve the industry through transparency and changing the system. We need clothes that last, that are beautiful and that are able to be enjoyed from generation to generation. Clothing is part of our identities, it how we express ourselves yet the fast fashion industry and its constant new trends every month, means many of us do not know what is our own style and what we have been sold. We need a fashion revolution back to slower times, where our environment can sustain our demand and that we can get to wear clothes that make us truly happy (as well as being well made and environmentally friendly).


 

References

1. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability/our-insights/style-thats-sustainable-a-new-fast-fashion-formula
2. http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/thirstycrops.pdf
3. https://organiccotton.org/oc/Cotton-general/Impact-of-cotton/Risk-of-cotton-farming.php
4.https://www.pan-uk.org/cottons_chemical_addiction_updated/
5. https://www.voguebusiness.com/technology/fashion-remove-toxic-chemicals-from-clothing
6. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/A-New-Textiles-Economy_Full-Report_Updated_1-12-17.pdf
7. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/09/23/costo-moda-medio-ambiente
8. https://www.voguebusiness.com/sustainability/fashion-biodiversity-problem-wildlife-stella-mccartney-kering
9. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/sustainable-fashion-blog/2014/oct/01/cotton-production-linked-to-images-of-the-dried-up-aral-sea-basin
10. River Blue Documentary
11. https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/8/18/20803956/bangladesh-rivers-legal-personhood-rights-nature

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