The clothes sector is responsible for about 10 per cent of greenhouse emissions and 20 per cent of waste water worldwide. Producing fewer garments, facilitating the repairing or recycling of clothes, acquiring materials from sustainably managed forests, and growing organically would put far less strain on the planet. Galvanising people from all walks of life around this issue is key to bringing about seismic cultural and political change.
The fact that the environmental footprint of the clothing industry is too big shouldn’t overshadow the fact that clothes are an integral and glorious part of our societies. Individuals can feel like they have reinvented themselves by buying and wearing a new garment. Thoughtfully designed clothes add visual ingredients to artistic productions, signal pride in career and add poignancy to displays of political activism. Clothes often have floral and animal motifs which often signal an admiration for nature, but if more species die out there will be fewer sources of inspiration for clothes designers. Ultimately, clothes are part of our individual and cultural story, a story we should take control of once again.
Two-thirds of our clothing is made from synthetic materials that are derived from fossil fuels. Polyester is the most common synthetic material used in modern clothes. About 70 million barrels of oil are used per year to make polyester fibres for clothes. When these garments have been used, they usually end up being incinerated or going to landfill sites, where they take hundreds of years to decompose. Synthetic fabrics, which are derived from fossil fuels, shed numerous microplastics when they are washed, which pollute the environment. Indeed, it is estimated that 35 per cent of the microplastic in the ocean comes from textiles. Steps can be made to mitigate the number of microplastics emitted during the washing process, for instance, washing full loads or line-drying clothes, but considerable microplastic pollution from the washing process is still inevitable.
Used clothing from western nations often ends up in Africa. A significant proportion of the clothes that are sent are deemed to be unsellable upon arrival, so they are sent to landfill sites, which often overflow, or they are burnt. Garments often make their way into the sea, endangering fishermen as they need to go further out from the shore to catch fish, which is more dangerous. In effect, many western nations are offshoring their waste management responsibilities. The key reason why this waste accumulation is so unpleasant is that most garments contain synthetic fibres derived from fossil fuels, so they are unbiodegradable.
The answer: natural fibres?
Natural fibres such as cotton, hemp, wool and linen can be used to make clothes – these materials are biodegradable. Organic farming methods can be used to produce these materials in an environmentally friendly way and a way that is safer for farm workers. Natural fibres can also be obtained from plants through chemical processes to make man-made natural fibres. Lyocell is a highly durable, long-lasting fabric which is made from the fibres of eucalyptus trees and sometimes oak or birch trees. It is a notably good material to use for clothing from an environmental point of view – eucalyptus trees grow quickly and can be grown on land that is no longer suitable for crops. Sustainable forestry techniques can be used to acquire wood fibres from forests while keeping them intact. Lyocell is manufactured using an organic solution – low amounts of water and energy are needed and 99.5 per cent of the organic solution used during production is re-used using a closed loop system. Viscose and modal are also man-made natural fibres, but they are produced using sodium hydroxide, which dramatically lowers their eco-friendly credentials.
The environmental benefits of using natural fibres and man-made natural fibres to make garments are substantially negated if they are dyed with synthetic dyes. In fact, textile dying is the second largest polluter of water. Those who want more environmentally friendly clothing should opt for items that are dyed with natural dyes or left undyed. It should be noted that natural dyes can be used on natural fabrics or man-made natural fabrics, but they don’t work on synthetic fibres derived from fossil fuels. Some may be concerned that moving from using fossil fuel-based materials to bio-based materials for fashion will result in more wild land being cleared for planting monoculture textile crops, and put extra pressure on increasingly limited arable land. Sourcing natural fibres from responsible sources, and buying fewer clothes are two ways we can help to preserve land for nature.
The Forests4Fashion Initiative was launched in 2014 by UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). Many clothing businesses source natural fibres from recently deforested areas, but Forests4Fashion aims to make it fashionable to buy garments from businesses which obtain natural fibres from sustainably managed forests, where forests are managed so that they remain healthy and continue to thrive. This initiative also works to encourage sustainable production and consumption, as the UN realises that too many clothes are being produced and bought. Indeed, action is needed rather than staunch optimism that the environment will be fine, regardless of how people act.
The inspiring Forests4Fashion Sports Challenge 2021 aims to draw people from different levels of the sporting world, from organisers to consumers, together to encourage more sustainable fashion choices, by, for instance, reusing clothes or buying garments that contain renewable fibres. Lyocell is antibacterial and less smelly after sporting activities than polyester. The Challenge is a great idea – people at every level of society need to play their part to address the environmental problems created by the clothing industry. Seeing respected athletes taking on board the message that fashion should become entirely sustainable by, for instance, wearing garments produced from recycled natural fibres and dyed with natural pigments, could mark a powerful sea change in attitudes.
At present, people in the UK are estimated to purchase five times more clothing than they did in the 1980s. Globally, there is a healthy second-hand clothes market, but unfortunately, less than one per cent of materials used in clothing are recycled into new garments. Recycling and repairing garments is often difficult because clothes don’t tend to be manufactured with recycling or repairing in mind. The easiest garments to recycle are those that are made from single fibres (rather than blends), especially natural fibres. The Environmental Audit Committee (which scrutinises what the Government does on the environment) has proposed that the Government should adopt various measures to reform the clothing industry – one good recommendation is that VAT should be lowered for repair shops, as they have done in Sweden. Another good proposal is that an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme for textiles should be introduced. A well-written scheme would bring in revenues to the recycling sector and incentivise businesses to make fashion items that can be repaired with ease and recycled with ease at end-of-life.
Fabrics sourced from sustainably managed forests and organically produced fabrics stand out as being better for the environment than other fabrics, but ultimately fewer clothes should be made and bought and more clothes should be repaired and recycled so that pressures on the natural world are reduced. Clothes are a key part of the way we express ourselves as individuals, groups and communities, and designs that are inspired from rare flora and fauna can only appear in the future if our wild lands and oceans are protected, so it’s high time responsible members of the fashion business sector, influential figures, and others, took hold of the fashion narrative and steered us towards a better future. Introducing an Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme is a good idea because it would force all clothing businesses to think beyond immediate profits, and act accordingly.