The gloomy sky overhead Haslemere made it seem darker and colder than it was. A depressing midweek afternoon, with both Christmas and the New Year landmarks disappearing over the rear horizon.
Costa Coffee was almost empty, and I shared the place with just one barista and the branch manager, both of whom were courteously ignoring me, and conducting a desultory, spasmodic conversation related to their respective family Christmases.
As always these days, Christmas was a mixed bag of news, but one item did catch my attention. A lot of media coverage was being dedicated to criticising the time-honoured Christmas jumper.
It seems that such jumpers are environmental disasters, and the bombardment of negativity made it almost feel as if the green lobby were deliberately greenwashing Christmas. In some cases, this leads to “green fatigue”, and I heard a lot of comments that bemoaned the continual media attention focused on environmental issues. I must admit, that I too “switched off”.
The net result is that, as usual, my interest was piqued, and I immediately fired up the laptop, and started researching the environmental impact of the garment industry.
What I discovered is interesting, yet shocking.
The fashion and garment industry is simply huge. It is worth US$ 1.3 trillion, and employs about 300 million people. It greedily consumes 60% of all textiles produced.
Approximately 5% of all EU household expenditure is for clothing and footwear, (80% clothing, 20% footwear) about 12.6kg per person.
EU research also revealed that more than 30% of the clothes hiding in European wardrobes had not been used for at least a year.
According to a report published by Worldbank the garment industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions! That is more than the combined annual Global Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) for Aviation and International Shipping, yet the media focus is nearly always focused on the transport sector.
Consider this; annually the garment industry uses 93 billion cubic metres of water – that is enough to satisfy the annual consumption needs of about five million people!
This is not just the water used for manufacturing garments, but also includes the irrigation requirements of the cotton and fibre crops.
Dyeing material and treatments during manufacturing contributes to 20% of worldwide wastewater generation.
Polyester, one of the most popular fibres for clothing, is made from fossil fuels, and is totally non-biodegradable. It does have the benefits of being tolerant of washing at lower temperatures, has a low water footprint, dries quickly, needs virtually no ironing, and it can be recycled into new fibres.
Now the downside. Recent studies have shown that just one domestic washing load of polyester clothing can discharge in the region of 700,000 microplastic fibres in the waste water, which subsequently release toxins into the marine environment, which eventually contaminate the human food chain.
This in itself is an appalling situation!
To put this into perspective, it takes about 3,800 litres of water to make a pair of jeans. This equates to CO2 emissions of about 34kg!
Photo Credit to © Jrstock
Garment production is resource-greedy, and materials used all have an impact on our world. For example, we are exhorted to wear natural products rather than synthetic, but perversely, natural products are the most un-eco-friendly – cotton contributes to excessive water consumption. The production of wool also adds significantly to methane emissions.
So, manufacturing clothing currently has a high environmental cost.
You may buy that pretty dress, or that cool shirt, or yet another pair of denim jeans. Do you think of the hidden environmental costs when you buy it?
Globally, clothing is massively under-utilised – and usage of clothing has slumped by about 36% compared with just fifteen years ago. Some items are discarded after just seven to ten wears. This is appalling!
An article in the Daily Mail reported that many women had adopted a throw away “wear it once” mentality related to clothing. The report suggested that much of this was due to the peer pressure exerted through social media in not wanting to be photographed or “tagged” wearing the same item more than once.
Photo Credit to © Zoran Kompar
The associated costs are high and that’s not just from an ecological perspective. Globally, customers are squandering an estimated US$ 460 billion per year on waste and unneeded replacement.
Less that 1% of textile materials recovered from clothing is reused for clothing. Most of what is recovered is simply shredded and then used for lower purposes such as furniture stuffing, insulation, and cleaning cloths.
Unused clothing is often just dumped into landfill as refuse. There are high costs associated with the disposal of clothing, and to put this into perspective, the UK spends approximately £86 million per year to process and dispose of it.
This is also driven by the relatively new fast fashion culture. In the past, most clothing designers would launch their collections on a seasonal basis, but now many lower cost clothing stores offer new designs far more frequently, sometimes as often as weekly!
The fashion chain Zara offers 24 new clothing collections each year, and H&M between 12 and 16.
Fast fashion is frequently made from very cheap materials – almost planned obsolescence and is likely to fail quite quickly.
The consumer is almost led to believe that items of clothing are perishable goods and outfits are seen as disposable in the same way as a cigarette lighter.
The pressure on consumers, both from social media and commercial retailers to refresh their wardrobes has led to a state where the average person buys 60% more clothing today than they did in 2000.
In 2000, 50 billion new garments were made globally. In just twenty years, this has doubled, according to research conducted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Significant environmental impact occurs during consumer use. Throughout the lifecycle of the clothes, they will be laundered many times, using water, chemicals and energy. Each time they will shed microplastics into the water system. They will then, in many cases, be tumble dried, and then ironed and pressed, using yet more energy.
So, what can be done?
Firstly, the old linear manufacturing system has to change. Linear systems simply take raw products, and through subsequent processes, manufacture a garment. The garment is sold, used, washed, used and then discarded.
A new circular economy needs to be created, where the discarded garment is collected, processed, recycled and remanufactured.
Clothing designers need to embrace a new concept of reducing waste at every stage of production. Products should be designed to have multiple life cycles using materials that are tailored to their intended subsequent uses.
Manufacturers should be considering materials such as bio-based polyesters (which use starches and lipids sourced from corn, sugar beet and plant oils) and man-made Cellulosic (MMCs) made from dissolved wood pulp. New products such as Lyocell (Tencel) made of cellulose from Eucalyptus which grow quickly and require no irrigation or pesticides must be rapidly incorporated into the manufacturing chain.
Retailers should also introduce much more effective labelling with tags clearly stating the item’s sustainability and emissions information, and better and more intuitive washing and care instructions.
Secondly, consumers need to make a significant change in mindset.
They need to be encouraged to make small behavioural changes such as reducing the temperatures at which they wash clothing, always washing a full load wherever possible, avoiding tumble drying, and buying clothes made from ecologically friendly fibres.
Unwanted clothes should always be donated to charities rather than discarding them into landfill.
Dare I also say that clothes should be washed less frequently, airing them instead, and avoid any unnecessary ironing.
Instead of fast fashion, “Slow Fashion” should be adopted – buy fewer clothes of better quality, and keep those for longer.
New ideas such as a clothes sharing economy. Why buy clothes, when you could lease them, or rent them for a pre-determined time?
High Tech solutions may be just around the corner – with Artificial Intelligence working with advanced three-dimensional printers that would simply produce a custom item of clothing instantly and on the spot. No overproduction or distribution and warehousing costs there, eh?
So – maybe you should make a cup of coffee, and go and check your wardrobe.
I just checked mine, and I seem to have quite a lot of clothes cluttering up my life which haven’t been used for a year.
I only own 8 items of footwear – and that includes 2 pairs of hiking boots, a pair of motorcycle boots and a pair of dress cowboy boots. Two pairs of deck shoes, and two pairs of work Chelsea boots. All of them are regularly cleaned and maintained, so replacement is rare.
I now have to fill a number of bin bags to take a trip to the charity shop.
So – Buy cheap, buy twice!
Together all of us making a small difference, makes a big difference.
© 2020 Mark Charlwood
 2.5% International Shipping; 2% Aviation
 European Parliament Briefing “Environmental Impact of the Textile and Clothing Industry©2019
 European Parliamentary Research Service