“Become an active citizen through your wardrobe.”

Livia Firth (Founder & Director, Creative Age)

“Imagine a scenario where a group of teenage girls are flipping through the fashion magazine at a shopping complex somewhere in London. The girls are flooded with shopping bags and are furthermore tempted to buy more after flipping through the magazine. Simultaneously, somewhere in South Africa, a young man is flaunting his American basketball t-shirt, a t-shirt made on different continents. Two different scenarios in two different parts of the world are explaining a product lifecycle.”

Globalization and urbanization make it possible for a young boy in South Africa to initially wear a t-shirt from the USA; we call it “fast fashion”.

Fast fashion makes clothes affordable, but it does have an environmental cost. A cost that affects the environment globally and adds to the GHG emissions makes the ecosystem hotter and unbearable for species other than humankind to survive in their natural environment. The garment industry accounts for more than 10% of the global climate impact, more significant than the air flights and maritime shipping trips combined.

Clothing has complex supply chains that make it difficult to account for all of the emissions produced by producing a pair of trousers or a new coat. Then, the clothing is transported and disposed of when the consumer no longer wants it anymore. It is hard to visualize all of the inputs that go into producing garments, but let us take denim as an example: the United Nations estimates that a single pair of jeans requires a kilogram of cotton. Moreover, because cotton tends to be grown in dry environments, producing this kilo requires about 7,500–10,000 litres of water. That is about ten years’ worth of drinking water for one person. There are ways to make denim less resource-intensive, but in general, jeans composed of material that is as close to the natural state of cotton as possible use less water and hazardous treatments to produce. This means less bleaching, less sandblasting, and less pre-washing.

The fashion industry has a disastrous impact on the environment and is the second-largest polluter in the world after the oil industry. It would be unfortunate to understand these figures that the environmental damage is increasing manifolds with the fashion industry’s growth. In order to substantiate the fact that the fashion industry is the second-largest emitter of GHG emissions, it would be interesting to highlight some facts and figures:

1. The fashion industry consumes nearly 93 billion cubic meters of water every year, enough to meet approx’s water consumption of 5 million people.

2. Nearly 20% of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric dyeing and treatment.

3. Of the total fibre input used for clothing, 87% gets disposed of in a landfill.

4. If the lifestyle patterns continue to grow with the current pattern, global apparel consumption will rise to approximately 102 billion tons by 2029.

5. Half a million tons of plastic microfibres are dumped in the ocean every year, equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles. These microfibres cannot be extracted from water and can spread throughout the supply chain.

The UNEP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation published the above facts and figures to assess the global fashion industry’s damage. These facts and figures highlight the dark side of the glamorous glamour world. The world, which has a massive employment generation, completely neglects the impact of its activities on the environment and humankind. To understand the garment industry’s impact on our ecology, it becomes essential that we understand the industry’s carbon emissions at various levels, i.e., at the production, manufacturing and transportation level. However, it is very discouraging to note that the garment emits nearly two-third of its GHG emissions at the raw-material stage and leave adverse impacts on the global environment.

In addition to the above, polyester production accounts for nearly 55% of the total fashion industry emissions, releasing nearly 700 million tonnes of CO2 every year into the atmosphere. The polyester emission is closely followed by the cotton production emissions that account for nearly 23% of the fashion industry’s fossil fuel-based fibres.

Beyond the raw materials stage, the energy used at various levels of any garment lifecycle like manufacturing, transportation, packaging, and selling makes an enormous contribution to the GHG emissions. To understand these emissions, let us explore the contribution of the harmful gases the garment industry is making to the global ecological system:

Fashion and Water Pollution

In countries where garments are produced, untreated toxic wastewaters from the factories are dumped directly into the rivers. These wastewaters contain harmful chemicals like lead, mercury, arsenic that are highly harmful to aquatic life and the health of millions of the people living across the river bed. Such contamination reaches the sea and eventually spreads across the globe. This water contamination further happens due to the fertilizers used in the cotton production by polluting the run-off waters and evaporation waters.

After understanding the contamination of waters due to fabric production and other processes, the garment industry is expected to reduce its water consumption or to use sustainable ways of producing the garment to avoid polluting the water any further. However, in contrast to the expectations, the garment industry being the primary water consumer uses high water consumption fabrics and is highly polluting. An example of water usage is nearly 200 tons of freshwater used per ton of dyed fabric.

Another example can be cotton production that requires a considerable amount of water at the initial stages, i.e., nearly 20000 litres of water is required to produce 1kg of cotton; a massive pressure on the natural resources that is extremely scarce in the present world. If cotton is produced similarly as it is now, nearly 85% of the Indian population will drink water, reducing the almost nill. Furthermore, to reduce the water contamination and impact of garment pollution on the environment, the following measures can be adopted:

a. Choose clothes produced with strict environmental regulations adopted by the factories manufacturing them, ensuring a positive impact on the environment.

b. Adopt the usage of garments that are made from organic or natural fibres that require less or maybe no chemicals for its production.

c. Adopting a shift and focusing on more environmentally friendly fabrics like linen instead of cotton uses less water for its manufacturing.

d. Emphasize usage of recycled fabrics that helps environmental sustainability.

These initiatives can help in conserving water and emitting less hazardous gases, and achieve global environmental sustainability.

Water and Air Pollution

Gaseous emissions by the garment industry have been cited as the second-largest pollution problem after water pollution since most of the garment industry processes produce atmospheric emissions. However, little information is available, but as per the percentage data available on the garment industry’s pollution every year, the garment industry accounts for nearly 10% of carbon emissions by air. Some specific air pollutants produced by the industry are:

· At the energy production stage: nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide

· During the drying stage, volatile organic components (VOC) are produced during coating, wastewater treatment, and chemical storage.

· At the dyeing and bleach stage: aniline vapours, chlorine, chlorine dioxide

The garment industry’s primary air pollution source is boilers, thermo packs, ovens, and storage tanks. Various other sources also produce air pollution during the manufacturing stage of a garment lifecycle, but the above mentioned have been most influential. In order to curb these pollution sources that are prevalent in the garment industry, some significant steps are required:

i. Designing and manufacturing of products that do not produce toxic air pollutants

ii. Avoid fugitive air emissions from chemical spills through improved work

iii. By optimizing boiler operations to reduce the emissions of nitrous and sulphur dioxide

iv. Emphasize on use of scrubbers to collect particular matter

v. Ensure pre-screening of chemicals with the use of material safe data-sheet to ensure chemicals are not toxic

vi. Encourage the use of water-based products to decrease emissions of organic solvents

Such steps can help controlling air pollution to an extent; however, a collective effort at the global level by the textile industry to adopt sustainable ways will help achieve the objective of clear and breathable air.

Fashion and Microfibres in Oceans

Microfibres in oceans are significant concerns that the textile industry must address to achieve its commitment towards environmental sustainability. Whenever a synthetic garment such as polyester and nylon are washed, it releases nearly 1900 microfibres into the water, making its way to the oceans. Of many many observations made by the scientists, few observations explain that these microfibres are ingested by tiny aquatic organisms eaten by small fish and then by the larger fishes, eventually introducing plastic to our entire food chain.

It is estimated that nearly 1.9 million tons of microplastic fibres are released in oceans every year, making them present in every smallest part of our food chain. Additionally, 85% of human-made debris on the shoreline across the globe are microfibres.

Understanding the above facts and figures makes it mandatory that the textile industry start focusing on the semi-synthetic fibres that are less polluting and more ec0-friendly.

Fashion and Wastes

Clothes are disposable, and with the emergence of fast fashion, this has become a dark reality that impacts the global environment drastically. In terms of statistical figures, a family of four people throws away nearly 30 kgs of clothes every year, and of the 30 kgs, just 15% is recycled, and the rest gets wasted. These are startling figures that explain the harsh reality of the amount of pollution the textile world adds to already exhausted global GHG emissions.

In continuation with the above 30kgs disposal of clothes by an average household, then of the 30 kgs of the clothes disposed of, 5.2% are dumped in the landfills exhuming the flames creating global warming.

These wastes have been disturbing our ecological balance to a great extent and adding to the troubled ecology; another disturbing fact is that 72% of our clothes are made of synthetic fibres such as polyester, which again takes nearly 200 years to decompose. At this rate, the textiles will only be exhuming gases making the environment worst and non-livable.

The obvious question is, what can be done about it?

· Choose semi-synthetic fibres

· Recycle clothes

· Increase the lifecycle of clothes from three years to at least five years

· Environmentally friendly use fabric

Fashion and Chemicals

Trivia: 1 kg of chemicals are required to produce 1 kg of textiles

Chemicals are essential components of our clothes and are used in almost every stage of the garment manufacturing life cycle; starting from fibre production to dyeing or even wet processing; chemicals are available everywhere, adding to the already disturbed ecosystem’s woes.

The massive usage of chemicals in cotton farming adds to the devastation already existing in soil erosion and freshwater and even ocean water pollution. The chemical usage further takes away many cotton-producing farmers’ lives due to harmful effects on human health. Though cotton is considered an extremely breathable and excellent option for the severe heat facing nations, manufacturing and production are harmful to the people concerned. The obvious options are to shift to more organic fabrics and brands that are more sustainable.

Another option is to look for garments available with certification label controlling chemical content, such as OREO-TEX®, GOTS, BLUESIGN® and more. To shift to a more environmentally friendly garment is essential since 27% of the weight of any “100% natural” fabric is made of chemicals.


Fashion and GHG Emissions

It is a well-known fact that the fashion industry accounts for 10% of global GHG emissions. It is even more shocking to know that 23% of these GHG emissions of the 10% GHG mentioned are generated for each kilo of fabric produced. The contribution to the global GHG emissions comes from the entire lifecycle of the garment purchased. Apart from the manufacturing phase, it is the production of raw materials (used at the manufacturing phase) that generate massive harmful gases.

Furthermore, it is even more discouraging to know that 400% more carbon emissions are produced if a garment is just worn five times instead of 50 times and is discarded instead of donating or recycling it. Cotton, synthetic fibres used in the manufacturing of any garment, are all made from fossil fuels adding to the already suffering ecosystem’s vows. A simple fact can understand that nearly 700 barrels are used every year to produce polyester, which is the raw material for a finished garment. Facts like these explain how much GHG emissions are happening due to cheap or substandard apparel and drastically disturbing the global ecosystem.

Fashion and Soil Degradation

Soil: a fundamental element of our ecosystem, is facing a severe threat, and if soil conservation is not taken up seriously, it will have serious consequence on both humans and the ecological system. Because healthy soil is essential for food to grow, degraded soil will not help food production, adding to humankind’s worries. On the ecological system, healthy soil helps in absorbing CO2, which will help control global warming.

The apparel industry’s contribution to soil degradation has been in different ways: one of which is overgrazing of pastures through cashmere goats and sheeps raised for wool. (TRIVIA: 90% of Mongolia’s surface is facing the threat of desertification, principally due to the breeding of cashmere goats).

Another reason is that degradation can happen due to the massive use of chemicals used to grow cotton. If the soil is degrading at this rate, it will decrease by 30% in food production over the next 30-40 years. Lastly, degradation can happen due to deforestation caused by wool-based fibres like rayon.

Fashion and Rain Forest Destruction

TREES: a lifeline for the planet

Trees are being cut at a very rapid pace for humankind’s usage, and if this continues, there will not be any trees left on earth, and humankind will be doomed. It is saddening to note that nearly 70 million trees are being cut down each year to make our clothes.

There is one question that I want to ask everyone. Do we plant trees at the same pace? If yes, then we indeed contribute to our planet’s health, and if no, where are we heading then?

Thousands of hectares of endangered species and forests are cut and are being replaced by plantations used in making wool-based fabrics like rayon, viscose, and modal to meet the demands of the textile industry. It is, however, estimated that 30% of these fabrics come from endangered forests; conserving those should be of utmost priority to prevent the ecological balance and protect some rare and endangered plants and other species. As already discussed, the loss of forests is not only a loss of ancient and diverse ecology, and it is about destroying what we have received as a gift of nature.

With so many harmful effects of the textile industry on nature and its resources, the industry must innovate and adopt eco-friendly ways to maintain the ecological balance and minimize the damage caused to the environment caused due to the emission of GHG because of its activities. The ultimate aim must to minimize these emissions and create a cleaner and greener environment.

To minimize the harmful effects, some measures that the textile industry can adopt are:

1. A Green Supply Chain is something that every textile manufacturing and retail company must aim at achieving. A green supply chain that involves the use of renewables and fabrics that are eco-friendly and organic must be adopted. Additionally, the above said supply chain must be green and short that at every stage is eco-friendly.

To achieve this, brands must ensure that they eliminate coal from their supply chain and aim to form partnerships with those who embrace sharing of capital costs. It is also essential that these textile brands further adopt green energy policies like green energy grids and transportation infrastructure.

2. Adopting a rental closet is another crucial way the clothes are available for rent in all price ranges and all occasions. Designers and brands must encourage the feature to create a sustainable wardrobe to lessen our environment’s burden. Encouraging the consumers to rent an outfit will reduce dumping the clothes, thus ensuring a green environment.

To encourage the “rent an outfit” culture, brands must work on factors like affordable prices, maintaining a high quality of the product, adopting sustainable clothes to create green brand awareness can be highlighted to achieve environment neutrality.

3. One other way is to adopt a consignment and resale strategy where the designers aim at producing garments with a future goal to extend the life of luxury goods with the quality and craftsmanship that makes it possible for the garments to stay in circulation for a relatively long period. Promoting the brand in association with sustainability will motivate the consumers to shift to this alternative medium. This will prove to be environmentally friendly, but it will be cost-effective for the brands as well.

4. Minimizing the impact of GHG emissions by manufacturing the textile industry is by shifting focus to more plant-based textiles such as organic cotton or pure viscose that can significantly reduce emissions and dependence on fossil fuels. These fabrics can be further helpful in resolving the ecological balance and natural resources to a great extent.

In addition to these initiatives, the textile industry, in association with the United Nations on December 10, 2018, fashion stakeholders worked during 2018 to identify ways in which the broader textile, clothing and fashion industry can move towards a holistic commitment to climate action. They created the Fashion Industry Charter on Climate Action, which contains the vision to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The Fashion Industry Charter was launched at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, in December 2018.

The Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action goes beyond previous industry-wide commitments. Work under Fashion Charter for Climate Action is guided by its mission to drive the fashion industry to net-zero GHG emissions no later than 2050, in line with keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees. It also includes a target of 30% GHG emission reductions by 2030 and a commitment to analyze and set a decarbonization pathway for the fashion industry, drawing on methodologies from the Science-Based Targets Initiative. This target – which is one of many goals enshrined in the Charter – is a clear demonstration that the fashion industry is serious about urgently acting on climate change and is keen to set an example to other sectors around the level of commitment required to meet the scale of the climate challenge.

Under UN climate change, the Signatories and Supporting Organizations of the Charter will work collaboratively to deliver on the principles enshrined in the document. This will be done through Working Groups, which will bring together relevant stakeholders, experts, and initiatives in the fashion and border textile sector. The Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, with its Working Groups, will identify and amplify best practices, strengthen existing efforts, identify and address gaps, facilitate and strengthen the collaboration among stakeholders, and join resources and share tools to enable the sector to achieve its climate targets.

The industry charter specifies the following overarching areas of work to be further developed by specific Working Groups:

· Decarbonization pathway and GHG emission reductions

· Raw material

· Manufacturing/Energy

· Logistics

· Policy engagement

· Leveraging existing tools and initiatives

· Promoting broader climate action

· Brand/Retailer Owned or Operated Emissions

Forty-three leaders, including Adidas, Burberry, Esprit, Guess, Gap Inc., Hugo Boss, H&M Group, Inditex, Kering, Levi Strauss & Co., Puma SE, PVH Corp., Target; leading membership organizations, including Business for Social Responsibility, Sustainable Apparel Coalition, China National Textile and Apparel Council, Outdoor Industry Association and Textile Exchange; global logistics company Maersk; and global NGO WWF International have committed to implementing or supporting the 16 principles and targets that underpin the Fashion Climate Charter. The Charter, which is open for other companies and organizations to join, recognizes the crucial role that fashion plays on both sides of the climate equation: contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and as a sector with multiple opportunities to reduce emissions while contributing to sustainable development.

With this Charter, one can only hope to achieve climate sustainability by the textile industry and reduce its emissions to nill. Change within the fashion industry needs to happen, and it seems that there is progress. Personal choices have a role in mitigation- there needs to be action at all levels from individuals to big corporations, and from local to international governance, as only by working together and changing behaviours will see results. However, the individual actions of consumers and businesses can send a strong message and spark change. Just need to know….


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