Fashion, fashion, fashion… Why is the fashion industry currently under scrutiny? And most importantly, what are the ideas to pursue to keep the planet clean and the solutions to implement to prevent it from becoming the first casualty of fashion?
First of all, a few figures to highlight the issues:
- In Europe, a report from the European Parliament (dating from early 2019) ranks fashion as the 4th most polluting sector of industry, after housing, the food and drinks trade and the transport sector.
- Worldwide: the fashion industry is second only to the oil industry in terms of pollution.
- 100 billion: this is the number of garments sold each year worldwide.
- 20 kilos: this is the whopping weight of the clothes that we buy on average each year! Only to always wear the same few clothes, in the end.
Rankings in the polluter hit parade vary… But the figures paint a grim picture. Behind the diamanté and glitter, the fashion industry is extremely polluting. So what accounts for it? Excessive water usage linked to fabrics (not least cotton), the use of pollutants (not least in the dyeing process) and soil degradation near textile factories. Plus CO2 emissions and also the large carbon footprint of shipping out finished garments. All the more since fashion is a never-ending new beginning. What was hot last year is more or less this season’s “has been”, which only promotes overconsumption and leads to overflowing wardrobes. They are full to bursting, yet we never have anything to wear. Not to mention “unwise” purchases of clothes that will never be worn. Even so, “for that price, it’s hard to resist!”
Welcome to Fast Fashion!
Fast Fashion failings
Fast Fashion and Fast Food… Both are terms that have negative connotations. Fashion that is consumed and promptly thrown away. These days the fashion industry’s processes are coming under fire, not least its use of less sustainable fabrics that wear out quickly. Consumer attitudes also raise questions, and rightly so. Erwan Autret, Division Coordinator of the Product and Material Effectiveness Department at the French Agency for ecological transition (ADEME) states that “Half of the impact is caused by production, but it’s easy to forget the other half of the pollution that’s down to the consumer: because we buy too much, because only a third of clothing disposed of ends up in the right recycling bin and can be rendered, and because we use a lot of water to launder our clothes…”
So basically: we buy more, we do more laundry, we don’t dispose of clothing in the right bin. So some garments are only worn around 10 times before ending up in recycling centres or rubbish dumps. Worldwide, the disposal of still-wearable clothing is said to represent a loss of $460 billion per year.
So what can we do?
As part of the 2019 G7 summit in Biarritz, 32 major fashion firms (off-the-peg, sport, lifestyle and luxury) signed the Fashion Pact aimed at drastically reducing the textile industry’s environmental impact, focussing on three key concerns: global warming, restoring biodiversity and protection of the sea. A fine initiative, to be fair, but we have since barely heard anything about it. According to Ademe,”It’s up to all of us to take action to rein in the impact of fashion on the planet!”.
The important thing is not to boycott fashion (because a great deal of jobs also depend on this sector), but to use common sense and buy mindfully. It will save you from acquiring that umpteenth little black dress that you don’t need, for sure! What’s the trickiest time? Sales season, of course, with all of its temptations, each more desirable than the last. Taking advantage of the sales mindfully is like doing your grocery shopping when you’re on a diet: stick to the shopping list (of necessary or pre-selected items) and try not to succumb to… all the other temptations (a real challenge!). Another option: do a wardrobe detox regularly. This involves sorting passes from fails, putting together various outfits and rediscovering little treasures hidden in the wardrobe. Any clothing that’s now surplus to requirements will go straight into recycling bins bound for a new lease of life, if we can’t pass it straight on to someone else.
Excessive environmental impact
The textile industry has significant environmental impact… But what exactly are we talking about? As well as the product’s carbon footprint (greenhouse gas emissions caused by it), the notion of environmental impact includes other factors. These encompass the water footprint (for example it takes 7,500 litres of water to produce a single pair of jeans!), toxic waste being shed into the natural environment and the use of energy from fossil fuels.
Clothes that take round-the-world trips
“If you want to know what colour will be fashionable in Europe next season, go and check what colour the river is”. This joke out of Asia highlights a sad reality – direct impact on natural resources. The textile industry does use a great deal of polluting clothes dyes: nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE) for colour bonding, azoic dyes, phthalates for plastic trim, formaldehyde (said to be carcinogenic) for non-iron clothes…
Designed on the other side of the world (for obvious financial reasons), clothes then spend a long time in transit before arriving in your wardrobe. Raw materials produced in one country, finished garments produced in another. During freight shipping, clothing items rack up greenhouse gas miles. According to French magazine Science et Vie, “the fashion industry emits 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases, versus for example 0.532 billion tons for international flights.“ This production method is nothing new, but in recent times the prevailing ecological epiphany has been rejecting this way of working and its excessive environmental impact.
So what can we do?
Start off by changing the way in which you consume jeans… And favour environmentally-responsible brands like Fairblue Jeans, or domestic brands (for France: 1083 Jeans, Les Ateliers de Nîmes, Atelier Tufery or Le Gaulois Jean). It’s always baby steps that get us moving forward. According to a statement released by Fairblue Jeans, less than 5% of jeans produced worldwide in 2020 were designed in an environmentally-responsible way… There’s a long way to go!
Clothes with a water footprint that’s way too big
Looking at water footprints has us diving straight into production methods. For example, again according to Science et Vie “textile production (including cotton cultivation) requires around 93 billion m3 of water per year.” Or, to picture it better, a T-shirt equates to around 70 showers (one shower = 38.6 litres of water). But that almost overshadows the amount of water used to launder clothes at home. Which is significant, because clothes, not least those made from synthetic fabrics or with polluting components, shed plastic microfibres that end up in the sea.
So how can we take action?
According to the very edifying report from WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), worldwide clothing consumption has no plans to dial itself down (not least because of population growth). The WWF foundation has identified three fashion industry action levers:
- Ecological efficiency: reducing impact on the environment throughout the fashion and textile industry production chain, starting for example with water usage savings.
- Innovation and transformation: seeking out technologies that make it possible to rein in the exploitation of resources.
- Sustainable consumption: consuming less but better, and counting on consumer engagement to recognise the value in brands involved in this process of change. Consuming less but better. And putting a stop to this overconsumption, overproduction and overpollution.
Is recycling THE solution?
It’s not so easy to answer with a yes… Even if at first glance you might think it’s obvious. In fact, there are two different types of recycling. The first gives old textile items a new lease of life by turning them into a brand new cloth, insulation material for buildings or thread. A smart way to rein in cotton production, which uses a lot of pesticides and water… On paper it’s perfect, but in practice it’s trickier, since the garments to be recycled can contain non-recyclable trim (like rivets on jeans for example). Not to mention that the garments also have to be transported before they can be processed. Lastly, the unintentional side effect is that of letting the consumer off the hook to carry on buying unnecessary items with the excuse that, in the worst case scenario, they get sent off for recycling. The best way to rein in the footprint is still to buy less, even if we still like fashion and all that goes with it. You have to change your behaviour as a consumer. Consider also second-hand shops, thrift shops and sales on Instagram via specialised vintage fashion accounts (@odael_vintage, @biquette_market, @la_pagaille_friperie…).
Paving the way towards energy labelling?
Like with appliance purchasing, in the near future we can picture the obligation for each garment to bear an “energy label”, with a simple, universal (A – B – C – D – E…) rating system). This would show the consumer the environmental impact of that T-shirt that they are about to buy. Lastly, clarification of the labelling would also help consumers to understand what’s what. In the responsible clothing section, it’s not easy to find your way through without considerable hitches. What with the Oeko-Tex label (which certifies products free from substances that are toxic to humans and the environment), the Fair Wear Foundation label (which certifies fair working conditions for textile industry workers in member companies), the Max Havelaar (fairtrade) label and the Origine France Garantie designation of origin label…
Hervé Gardette is the star presenter of the radio programme “La transition” on French station France Culture, and the author of the recently-published book Ma Transition écologique, Comment je me suis radicalisé [My ecological Transition: How I got radicalised] (éditions Novice/France Culture). In it, he underlines that these days “in the marketing approach, as well as an item’s price and visual appeal, features like being sustainable, ethically sound and ethically responsible have become USPs.” This is good news, if fashion becomes more considerate of the environment and obviously if it is not simply greenwashing. Because some brands go right ahead and clear their consciences by launching product lines that are green through and through, whereas the rest of their offerings fall short.
In summary, think twice before giving in to that little dress that’s beckoning you from the shop window!