The fashion industry: one of the most polluting industries in the world, second only to oil. When we think of pollution, we generally envision oil rigs, gas exhaust fumes and coal. Not often do we think of clothing articles, where 70 million barrels of oil are used only to produce the polyester used in fabrics each year.
Fashion is a complex business that involves long supply chains of production. After Henry Ford invented the assembly line in 1913, increased productivityThe resulting productivity gains and price cuts led manufacturers of every type to adopt Ford’s innovative production methodstth and price cuts led manufacturers of every industry to adopt Ford’s methods. The fashion supply chain has fully indulged in its benefits, but sustainability has not been the same since.
More than 60 percent of clothing in the world is manufactured in developing countries. Asia is the major clothing exporter today, with more than 32 percent of the world’s supply. China is the world’s leading producer and supplier of textiles, providing nearly 13 percent of the entire world’s exports. However, labour costs are drastically rising in China; therefore the move smartest for businesses is to shift towards companies in countries where manufacturing is even cheaper. This is also a humanitarian crisis.
According to ThisTailoredLife, cotton is the most versatile and commonly used natural fiber worldwide. However, it is also infamous as the most pesticide intensive crop in the world, and needs over 20,000 litres of water to be able to produce 1kg of cotton. That is equivalent to a T-shirt and a single pair of jeans. It also takes up a great portion of agricultural land, much of which is needed by local people to grow their food. Herbicides, and chemical defoliants are used to aid mechanical cotton harvesting as well. These chemicals generally remain in the fabric after finishing, and are released during the lifetime of the garments.
Up to 8,000 different chemicals are used to transform any raw material into clothing, including dyes. Synthetic, man-made textiles, while not as water-intensive, often have issues with pollution and sustainability. It’s also easy to forget about the clothing that doesn’t sell, and the future of those garments. According to China Energy Group, China’s textile industry went through an estimate of 41.3 million tonnes of fibre, and in 2010, 234 tonnes of textiles went into landfills in Hong Kong alone. Meanwhile, consumers in the United Kingdom have an estimated $46.7 billion worth of unworn clothes simply hanging in their closets and we must ask ourselves: How can the fashion industry become more sustainable?
Unless the largest, most affordable fashion supply chains change their ways, consumers can only help by changing where they purchase their clothing. Some clothing designers, such as Stella McCartney and Ralph Lauren are on the path to reform the fashion industry. There are also companies that choose to re-purpose and upcycle clothing. The process requires a certain amount of creativity and environmental consciousness, but the end result is a one-of-a-kind, sustainable product. Online, there are also many resources to help consumers choose a more sustainable wardrobe. For those interested, several links are below.
(Photo credits: http://www.coclear.co/blog/the-environmental-challenges-facing-the-fashion-industry)