The True Cost of Fashion: The Environmental and Ethical Impact of the Fashion and Textile Industry

The True Cost of Fashion

At a Glance

Whether it’s from the pages of a glossy magazine or from the grid of our favourite Instagram influencer, the pressure to keep up with the latest trends is driving huge global demand for affordable fashion.

Though the cheap price may make it attractive, fast fashion is having a devastating effect on both the environment and the lives of the workers who make our clothes. From the overuse of pesticides in growing cotton to the exploitation of workers in some of the world’s poorest countries, our hunger for new clothing comes with a myriad of hidden ethical issues.

As conscious consumers, we want to avoid buying clothes that contribute to exploitation and environmental devastation. But what are the issues that we need to be aware of when choosing where to shop and what to buy? And what can we do to avoid clothing that carries this hidden cost?

In this article, we’ll explore some of the major environmental and ethical impacts of the fashion industry. We’ll also cover some of the labelling schemes available to help you choose clothes that don’t come at a cost to people or the planet.

Use of Harmful Chemicals

Issues in the fashion industry start before we even get as far as the manufacture of the clothes themselves. The production of textiles to meet the needs of garment factories is big business, but many textiles are made using harmful and polluting chemicals.

One well-publicised issue is the use of artificial pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers to grow textile crops such as cotton. According to the Pesticide Action Network UK, cotton growing is responsible for a huge 16% of global insecticide use and 6% of global pesticide use.

This is an issue for both human health and the environment: Pesticides can cause respiratory diseases and seizures, as well as polluting waterways and poisoning beneficial insects, birds, and animals.

Other harmful chemicals used to make textiles include:

  • Carbon disulfide: Used in the manufacture of viscose, this chemical is associated with several health issues, including heart disease, psychiatric disorders, and cancer. It is also toxic to aquatic life when polluting waterways.
  • Sodium hydroxide: Oherwise known as caustic lye, this chemical can cause burns and eye irritation. It is used in many textile manufacturing processes, including washing, bleaching and dyeing.
  • Heavy metals: Heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and chromium are common in textile manufacture and are often used as part of the dyeing process, or to tan leather. But they are toxic to human health and can also pollute waterways, causing issues for aquatic life.
  • Alkylphenol ethoxylates: This family of chemicals are used in textile washing and dyeing, as well as in the manufacturer of many household goods. They are highly toxic to aquatic life and can disrupt hormone production in animals, including humans. One of the chemicals in this family, NPEO, is already forbidden by the EU, but it is still used in many other countries.

How Can You Choose Clothes Manufactured With Minimal Chemicals?

Various organic labelling schemes exist that restrict the use of harmful chemicals in the manufacture of clothing that carries their logo. Chief amongst these is the Global Organic Textiles Standards (GOTS). This scheme looks right along the supply chain, from the growth of the initial crop to the manufacture of the final textile. It restricts the chemicals which can be used, puts requirements in place for waste-management, and ensures safe conditions for workers.

Another one to look out for is OEKO-TEX, which has a number of different labelling schemes. At the most basic level, this standard ensures that no harmful chemical residue is left on the final textile. But OEKO-TEX also has standards that cover the manufacturing process and workers’ welfare – look out for MADE IN GREEN, STeP, and DETOX TO ZERO.

Water Use

It isn’t just chemical usage that is a problem in the growth of textile crops and the manufacture of fabrics for clothing. Turning plants and other materials into fabric is a water-hungry process. According to one recent report, the fashion industry uses 79 billion cubic metres of water in a year.

With growing concern over global water shortages as a result of global warming, that excessive use of water is a real problem. The big offender is cotton, which has the highest water footprint of any fashion textile. This is a particular issue because cotton tends to be grown in countries where water scarcity is already a concern.

Viscose is another big user of water, accounting for 21% of water usage by the textile industry. This is mainly down to its manufacturing process, which requires a lot of water to spin woody plant fibres into soft fabrics.

How Can You Minimise Water Usage?

Choosing fabrics that don’t need as much water to produce is one option for minimising the water usage associated with your clothing. Linen and hemp, for example, are plant-based fabrics which require less water than conventional cotton. Manmade fabrics like polyester and acrylic also use less water, although there are other issues with these textiles that we will discuss later on.

You can also opt for organic cotton over conventional cotton. Not only does this avoid the use of harmful pesticides, but the labelling standards usually require growers to manage their water usage more carefully.

Carbon Footprint

Unless you’ve spent the last few years living in a bunker, you’ll be well-aware of the urgent need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in order to slow climate change. Unfortunately, the fashion industry is a key contributor to global emissions.

This is partly down to the complicated supply chains, which often see materials transported numerous times before finally arriving on the shelves of our shops. But the manufacturing process itself is also a concern – the energy requirements of transforming raw materials to beautiful fabrics are high.

The exact carbon footprint of our clothes is hard to estimate since there are several factors to consider here. Clothes manufactured in China, for example, typically depend on coal-based energy and have a carbon footprint that is 40% higher than clothing made in Turkey or Europe.

The fabric used matters too. Synthetic fibres, like polyester, have a larger carbon footprint than natural fibres like linen and hemp.

How Can You Choose Clothing With a Smaller Carbon Footprint?

Choosing organic clothing is one way to reduce the impact of your wardrobe, as organic labelling schemes like GOTS include requirements for managing energy usage to help manufacturers minimise their impact. The use of synthetic fertilisers can significantly contribute to carbon emissions too, so choosing organic avoids this issue.

You can also opt for natural fibres over synthetic ones to reduce the carbon footprint of your clothing. Fabrics like polyester and acrylic are derived from petroleum and are more energy intensive to produce than natural fabrics. Even if this energy could be obtained from renewable sources, petroleum itself is a fossil fuel meaning it’s always locked into these fabrics in some way.

Buying from brands that are trying to source their fabrics from factories that emit less carbon is another way to reduce the carbon footprint of your clothes. As we’ve seen, fabrics manufactured in Europe or Turkey typically have a smaller carbon footprint than those made in China.

By supporting retailers that are tackling the issue of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon usage in their clothing lines, we can encourage other brands to do the same.

Textile Waste

The rise of fast fashion means that many clothes are made cheaply and are only intended to last a short amount of time. Following fast-changing trends also means that many clothes are discarded even before they reach the end of their useful life.

In the UK, for example, we discard an average of 30kg of textiles per person every year. With a population of around 6.7 million, that’s around 2 million tonnes of textiles annually. And 73% of that will end up in landfill.

It isn’t just consumer waste that’s an issue here either. A lot of fabric is discarded as part of the manufacturing process, with offcuts from patterns equaling around 10% of the finished garment. And retailers are also culpable, with unsold stock sent to incinerators without ever getting as far as our wardrobes.

How Can You Cut Down on Textile Waste?

Very simply, choosing to buy fewer clothes is a good first step in reducing textile waste. By choosing better brands that focus on making quality clothing in styles that will suit your lifestyle for years to come, you can reduce the amount of clothing you end up discarding.

When you do come to let your clothes go, making use of the thriving second-hand market might mean they can find a new home. If your clothes have reached the end of their lives, finding a way to repurpose the fabric (as cleaning cloths, for example, or maybe an alternative to wrapping paper) can keep them useful for a while longer. When it is time to discard them for good, send them to textile recycling instead of landfill.

Some brands are also taking steps to address waste by partnering with recycling schemes to create a circular fashion system. Customers are encouraged to return their clothing to the brands to be recycled into new products. Making use of these take-back programmes can keep your clothes out of landfill and encourage other brands to get on board.

Finally, close the loop by looking out for clothing made from recycled textile waste so that those discarded clothes can find a second life as fabulous new garments.

Plastic Waste

Many countries now have a ban on plastic bags, but plastic packaging is still used by plenty of clothing retailers for online orders. Plastic packaging is also used by many distributors to protect clothes while en-route to our shops. Plus, plastic embellishments, zippers, and buttons are common and often end up in landfill.

But it isn’t only the use of visible plastic we need to worry about. Microplastics are also a serious concern. Clothes made from synthetic fibres such as acrylic, polyester, and nylon can shed microfibres when they are washed. These end up polluting our waterways and washing into our oceans, where they can cause significant issues for marine life.

How Can You Avoid Plastics?

Avoiding plastics altogether can be tricky but a good step when shopping online is to choose eco-friendly clothing brands that don’t use plastic packaging for their deliveries. You can also try to minimise the plastic on the clothes themselves by choosing styles without lots of plastic embellishments.

When it comes to microfibres, choosing natural fabrics is the best way to avoid these tiny pieces of plastic. Even polyester made from recycled plastic bottles will shed microfibres, so avoiding these petroleum-based materials altogether is best. For those that you already own, put clothes into a special washing bag when you do the laundry to reduce the number of fibres that escape into the water.

Human Rights Violations

The impact of the fashion industry on the environment can be severe. But the demand for cheap clothes also has implications for workers all along the supply chain. The need to produce high volumes of clothing at a low cost has unsurprisingly led to a number of human rights issues associated with the fashion industry.

Low Wages

Many of our clothes are manufactured in poorer countries, where wages are low and the legal minimum wage falls a long way short of the actual living wage.  Despite commitments by many fashion brands to ensure the workers who make their clothes are paid a fair wage, a 2020 report from the Clean Clothes Campaign and Fashion Checker surveyed 490 workers in 19 different factories and found that none were being paid a living wage.

When they spoke with the brands who source their clothes from these factories, 100 out of 108 scored a rating of E on the living wage scale, meaning that none of the workers in their supply chains were paid enough to live on. None of the brands scored higher than a C, which indicates that 50% of workers are paid a living wage.

Long Working Hours

Low wages are often associated with long working hours since workers must do more hours in order to take home enough money to live. According to Common Objective, a networking organisation for the fashion industry, an average day for a garment worker might be 14.6 hours in China or 17.4 hours in Bangladesh. Workers are also forced to work overtime to fulfil contracts, or risk losing their jobs.

Unsafe Working Conditions

In 2013, a factory collapse in Bangladesh brought global attention to the unsafe working conditions in many garment factories. Over a thousand people died and another 2000 were injured. Fires the year before in two factories in Pakistan and Bangladesh also highlighted the unsafe buildings that many clothes are made in.

But the lack of safety doesn’t stop with the buildings themselves. The Clean Clothes Campaign highlight the overcrowded conditions, lack of proper light and ventilation, and exposure to harmful chemicals experienced by many garment workers.

Issues can start earlier in the supply chain too. Cotton pickers, for example, are regularly exposed to unsafe levels of pesticides and other harmful chemicals.

Child Labour

The demand for cheap labour doesn’t only affect the wellbeing of adult workers. Lack of regulation and transparency in supply chains has led to illegal child labour being used in all the steps of clothing production, from the harvesting of raw materials to the finishing of garments.

Children working in the garment industry are often exposed to harmful chemicals, made to work long hours for low pay, and miss out on an education due to being at work instead of at school.

Gender Discrimination

The workers involved in making our clothes are disproportionately female – approximately 80% of those employed by clothing factories are women. The Clean Clothes Campaign say this is a deliberate policy on the behalf of factory owners, who take advantage of cultural norms in countries where women are still seen as being subordinate to men.

As well as working long hours for low pay, female garment workers are often denied maternity leave and can be subjected to gender-based harassment and violence. They are also more likely than men to shoulder the burden of childcare and other unpaid domestic labour on top of their long working hours.

What Can You Do To Avoid Buying Clothes Associated With Human Rights Violations?

The complicated supply chains and lack of transparency involved in the fashion industry makes it difficult to be certain that the people who make our clothing have been fairly treated. Even brands struggle to know exactly where their clothes are made.

Labelling schemes that include independent audits are the best way to know whether your clothes were made in working conditions that comply with the standards laid out by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Look out for clothes carrying the following labels:

Conclusion

The fashion industry is a complex beast. The long supply chains make it a truly global enterprise and it can sometimes feel like there isn’t much we, as consumers, can do to encourage the sustainable and responsible manufacture of our clothes.

Fortunately, things are beginning to change. More brands than ever understand the importance of how they source their clothes for people and the planet. And conscious consumers like you have a huge role to play in holding brands accountable. By choosing to buy your clothes from retailers who commit to producing ethical and sustainable clothing, you can encourage other companies to follow suit.

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