Fashion industry emits more carbon than flights and shipping

Clothes shopping has roughly doubled in the last two decades. Affordable fast fashion may be a blessing to the wallet of  fashionistas, but it comes at a shockingly large environmental cost.

Image credit: Gregory Culmer via Unsplash

Much attention has lately focused on the high carbon emissions of airplane travel, giving birth to the concept of „flygskam“ (Swedish for flight shaming) and prompting some travellers to make more environmentally sound switches to trains, car pooling, and staycations.  Consumers and businesses are waking up to disposable plastics polluting our land, water, food, even the air we breathe, and choose to eliminate or replace them.

But what about the clothes we love to wear? Most of us are aware that the production of clothing requires many resources and creates some level of pollution. We clean out our closets and donate our used clothes, thereby justifying more new purchases. Little are we aware of the magnitude of the impact this has on the environment.

No longer can we downplay the tremendous detrimental effect that the fashion industry has on the environment. It produces 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The industry is also the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply, and pollutes lakes and oceans with microplastics and toxic chemicals.

Our focus and behaviour needs to shift

As consumers worldwide buy more clothes, it grows the market for cheap items and new styles. On average, people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000. However, they only kept them for half as long.

Even more alarmingly, 85% of all textiles end up in landfills each year. The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second. This amount could fill the Sydney harbour annually.

In Europe, fashion companies used to offer an average of two collections per year. In 2011 the average rose to five.  Some brands offer even more now: Zara puts out 24 collections per year, while H&M offers between 12 and 16.

Plastic pollution

Washing certain types of clothes sends millions of bits of microplastic into the streams, lakes, oceans, and eventually marine animals. 500,000 tons of microfibers are estimated to reach the ocean each year, which amounts to the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.

Many of those fibers come from polyester, a plastic found in an estimated 60% of garments. The production of  polyester releases two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton. And since it is a plastic, it doesn´t biodegrade in nature.

A 2017 report from 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.

Water consumption and pollution

The fashion industry is also the second-largest consumer of water worldwide, mainly due to most clothes being made of cotton, a highly water-intensive crop. The production of one cotton shirt requires about 700 gallons of water, enough for one person to drink at least eight cups per day for three-and-a-half years. Producing one pair of jeans takes about 2,000 gallons of water, more than enough for one person to drink eight cups per day for 10 years.

As a result, lakes and rivers are drying up, leaving nearby inhabitiants without water they deperately need for everyday life. In Uzbekistan, for example, cotton farming used up so much water from the Aral Sea, once one of the world’s four largest lakes, that it dried up after about 50 years. What now remains is little more than desert and a few small ponds.

Not only is high water consumption a problem, but also water pollution. Water left over from the dyeing process is often dumped into ditches, streams, or rivers, making textile dyeing the world’s second-largest polluter of water. This process consumes enough water to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools annually.

All in all, the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.

What can be done?

A 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation concludes that the carbon budget share could jump from 10% to 26% by 2050 if the fashion sector continues on its current trajectory. This issue clearly needs to be taken seriously and be addressed by industry and consumers.

A few clothing companies are starting to put the breaks on these trends by joining initiatives to cut back on textile pollution and grow cotton more sustainably. In March of 2019, the UN launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. The aim is to coordinate efforts across agencies to make the industry less harmful.

More importantly, we as consumers must change our attitude towards fashion. We need to adopt the notion that less is more, quality outplays quantity, and take more care of our possessions to make them last longer.

One easy place to start is where we shop. Choosing quality second hand fashion, for example at prelovedREVOLUTION, gives each garment an extended life. The less we buy fleeting fast fashion, the more we will play an important part in reducing this disastrous trend.

As Vivienne Westwood says, “ Buy less. Choose well. Make it last.“

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