Climate Change: The effect of the fashion industry

by | 16 December 2023 | Environment, Sherwood

The fashion industry accounts for about 8 – 10% of global carbon emissions, and nearly 20% of wastewater. And while the environmental impact of flying is now well known, fashion sucks up more than all international flights, maritime and shipping combined. Its water consumption statistics are even more shocking, with around 215 trillion litres of water being consumed by the industry each year.

The fashion industry has a destructive and irreversible effect on the environment: it depletes the world of non-renewable resources, releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and drains vast amounts of water and energy. Every pair of trousers or new coat creates emissions during manufacture, transportation around the globe, laundering during its lifetime and from disposal when the consumer no longer wants it.

What makes the fashion industry particularly problematic is the frenetic pace of change it encourages. With each passing season, consumers are pushed into buying the latest items to stay on trend and for special occasions like Christmas. The UN estimates that a single pair of jeans requires a kilogram of cotton. And because cotton tends to be grown in dry environments, producing this kilo requires about 7,500 to 10,000 litres of water.

Levi Strauss estimates that a pair of 501 jeans will produce the equivalent of 33.4kg of carbon dioxide across its entire lifespan. Just over a third of those emissions come from the fibre and fabric production, while another 8% is from cutting, sewing and finishing the items. Packaging, transport and retail accounts for 16% of the emissions while the remaining 40% is from consumer use – mainly from the laundry process – and disposal in landfill.

The manufacturing process uses fabric dyes which pollutes water bodies, with devastating effects on aquatic life and drinking water. Clothing often incorporates stretchy elastane material woven through which is made using synthetic materials derived from plastic. This reduces recyclability and increases the environmental impact further.

Some manufacturers are working on ways to reduce the environmental impact while others have been developing ways of recycling the material used or even using raw materials that will decompose within a few months when composted. Globally, 65% of the clothing that we wear is polymer-based.

Around 70 million barrels of oil a year are used to make polyester fibres in our clothes. Part of this stems from the convenience – polyester is easy to clean and durable. It is also lightweight and inexpensive.

But a shirt made from polyester has double the carbon footprint compared to one made from cotton. A polyester shirt produces the equivalent of 5.5kg of carbon dioxide compared to 2.1kg from a cotton shirt.

However, a great deal of innovation is going into crafting lower-impact fabrics. Bio couture, or fashion made from more environmentally sustainable materials, is increasingly big business. Companies are looking into using waste from wood, fruit and other natural materials to create their textiles; trying alternative ways of dyeing their fabrics or searching for materials that biodegrade more easily once thrown away.

What can we do to reduce the environmental impact of our clothes?

  • Buy less, which also means caring for clothes more. Websites like Love Your Clothes, set up by UK recycling charity WRAP, offer tips on repairing and extending the life of clothes.
  • Cut down on washing frequency: cuts emissions, reduces water use and the number of microfibres shed in the washing machine.
  • Dispose of them thoughtfully – landfill / incineration simply leads to more emissions. Why not pass them on to friends or take good quality clothes to charity shops? Where clothing has been worn or damaged beyond repair, the most environmentally sound way of disposing of them is to send them for recycling.
  • Buy from pre-loved, charity and vintage shops.

Investing in higher-quality clothing, wearing them more often and holding onto them for longer, is the not-so-secret weapon for combatting the carbon footprint from your garments. In the UK, continuing to actively wear a garment for just nine months longer could diminish its environmental impacts by 20–30%.

Let’s all make a difference by being more thoughtful as consumers, recycling our clothes instead of buying new.

For more information about Sherwood Forest Friends of the Earth, find Sherwood Forest FoE on Facebook or email sffofe@btinternet.com.

Pauline Meechan, Sherwood Forest Friends of the Earth