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Fast Fashion’s Carbon Footprint

August 2021 by Rebekah Clarke

Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

With constant new trends at seemingly affordable prices, the temptation to buy the latest goods can be overwhelming. But what impact is this having on our carbon footprint?

The fashion industry is the second-largest industrial polluter, accounting for 10% of global pollution, ranking higher than emissions from air travel! When factoring in the entire lifecycle of a garment, from manufacturing to transportation to, ultimately, ending up in landfill, in total, 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions are released by the fashion industry every year. The perception that wearing an item only a handful of times, is okay, has resulted in an increase of discarded items, fuelling overconsumption and overproduction. This perception needs to be eliminated in order to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. Within the first decade and a half of the 21st century, clothing production doubled; and since 2000, most European brands went from releasing 2 collections per year, for the summer and winter seasons, to releasing as many as 24 collections per year! As a result, clothing utilisation decreased by 36% between 2003 and 2018, with a third of young women believing that a garment is considered ‘old’ after it’s been worn once or twice.

This change in values has worsened through the use of cheap materials in clothing which shorten their lifespan and make them harder to repair. On average the UK spends £59.3 million on clothes per year and exports £8.2 billion worth of clothing. The combination of cheap prices and low quality leads many to feel that clothing is disposable. As a consequence, the UK sends 300,000 tonnes of clothes to landfill each year, making it the fastest growing waste industry, although it is believed 95% of garments sent to landfill could be re-worn or upcycled.

Not only is the carbon footprint of the fashion industry influenced by the amount of waste sent to landfill, CO2 emissions during the manufacturing and transportation processes, as well as water pollution from dyeing processes and microfibre pollution, also contribute to the industry’s huge carbon and environmental footprint, highlighting the drastic need for change within the industry. Some garments may travel around the world several times during the manufacturing process, contributing to increased emissions through air travel. Similarly, clothes are often produced in developing countries where there is less regulation around pollution. Changes such as switching to renewable energy in factories and reducing the use of polyester will all make a positive impact towards reducing the carbon footprint of the fashion industry. However, if nothing changes, research has predicted the fashion industry could account for 26% of carbon emissions by 2050.

In order to decrease this industry’s massive carbon footprint, both individual and group action is needed to change the behaviours of the big brands – so how can we do this?

Buy less

Research shows that only 20% of clothes owned are worn on a regular basis, therefore the demand for new clothes should not be as high as it is. However, the fast fashion industry plays a huge role in making us feel we need to stay on trend to remain relevant, so a large part in changing behaviour involves changing our mindset and shopping behaviours when we do need something new. Ultimately, brands must reduce the number of collections they release, however by buying less, we as consumers reduce, and therefore reduce the excuses for brands to produce more clothes.

Buy second hand

Shopping second hand is becoming more popular as online sites such as Depop, Vinted and eBay are becoming easier to use and allow people to make money from items they no longer need. By selling clothes on, the lifecycle of a garment is extended, helping to further reduce their carbon footprint. Research has shown that extending the lifecycle of an item of clothing by 9 months can drastically reduce its carbon footprint.

Choose natural materials

Although materials such as organic cotton, linen and hemp can be expensive (and not without their own environmental footprints), they last longer if looked after properly and can be repaired easily compared to cheaper materials such as nylon and polyester, which are poor quality and contribute to water pollution. Buying slightly more expensive, higher quality materials extends the lifecycle of garments as they are less likely to become damaged easily, enabling them to be used for longer, reducing the carbon footprint associated with landfill pollution.

Look after clothes properly

Washing clothes at the right temperature and looking after them properly can increase an item’s lifespan. Washing clothes on 30-degree heat, not only reduces our carbon footprint, (as the most energy-intensive part of clothes washing is water-heating) but minimises wear and tear on clothes, so that we can wear them for longer without damage.

Do your Research

Before you purchase from your favourite brands, take a minute to research their environmental impact or what they are actively doing to reduce their carbon footprint. If what you’ve found is negative or doesn’t align with your values, try to find a more sustainable alternative, or ask yourself: “Do I really need this?” Apps such as Good on You, provide sustainable and ethical ratings of top fashion brands, as well as providing alternative options, in order to make necessary shopping, easier.

Behaviour change, though not the complete solution, will go a long way in helping to tackle the ever-growing footprint of the fashion industry.  How, how much, and what we consume, has a massive impact, so making positive, informed choices, is key to unlocking these carbon savings.

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