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With many shops closed due to pandemic restrictions, Black Friday 2020 might have looked different from the frantic buying sprees of years past. But one thing remained the same: the relentless pace of fast fashion. Environmentalists criticized one UK retailer for selling a dress for 8p online. What are the costs of making garments so cheap? Well, consider an item of clothing we’re all likely to wear at some point – the t-shirt. Like the 8p dress, t-shirts belong to an industry responsible for 10 percent of global CO₂ emissions. Depending on the brand of t-shirt you’re wearing, you could be contributing to these emissions and a long list of other environmental and social harms. But to really understand these impacts, we need to explore the supply chain that creates them.

Spinning a yarn

Most t-shirts are made from cotton, which is grown in 80 countries by 25 million farmers who produced a total of 25.9 million tonnes of fibre between 2018 and 2019. Conventional cotton farming consumes 6 percent of the world’s pesticides, even though it only uses 2.4 percent of the world’s land. These chemicals control pests like the pink boll worm, but they can also poison other wildlife and people. Farmers tend to use large amounts of synthetic fertiliser to maximise the amount of cotton they grow, which can degrade soil and pollute rivers.

More than 70 percent of global cotton production comes from irrigated farms and it takes one-and-a-half Olympic swimming pools of water to grow one tonne of cotton. Your t-shirt could have used 7,000 litres of water just to grow the cotton it’s made from. That’s a lot of water for one t-shirt, especially when you consider that cotton is a crop that tends to be grown in regions plagued by drought. The farmer may have only 10l to 20l of water a day for washing, cleaning and cooking.

But the negative impacts only begin with growing the fibres. The cotton has to be spun into yarn, which uses lots of energy and is the second-highest source of carbon pollution across the t-shirt’s lifecyle, after the dyeing process. The cotton yarn is then knitted into the fabric that makes the t-shirt. Globally, this process generates an estimated 394 million tonnes of CO₂ per year.

Finishing touches

Next, colour is added to the fabric. This can be done in many different ways, but all rely on fresh water, which may become contaminated with tiny fibres or chemicals harmful to animals and plants. In some cases, this water is discharged directly into the environment without treatment. In Cambodia for example, where clothing comprises 88 percent of industrial manufacturing, the fashion industry is responsible for 60 percent of water pollution.

The dyeing process uses lots of energy to heat the water, as most dye reactions occur at 60°C or higher. The coloured fabric then has to be washed and dried to prepare it for the final stage: garment making. Overall, it takes about 2.6kg of CO₂ to produce a t-shirt – the equivalent of driving 14km in a standard passenger car.

Transporting the t-shirt to your house accounts for less than 1 percent of the garment’s total emissions. But once there, it consumes energy, water and chemicals. Washing, ironing and drying clothes represents one-third of the overall climate impact of clothing. Synthetic clothes, made of materials like polyester, generate tiny plastic fibres when washed, which eventually flow into rivers and the sea. Research suggests that synthetic fabrics are responsible for up to 35 percent of all the micro-plastics polluting the ocean.

Sadly, the average number of times a garment is worn before being thrown away is falling. In the UK, more than £40 billion ($53 billion) worth of clothing sits at the back of wardrobes. When emptied, 350,000 tonnes of clothing ends up in landfill each year. Often these garments still have plenty of life in them if they are given the chance – 90 percent of donated clothes are suitable for racks in UK charity shops. But this relies on consumers saving old clothes from the bin. 

Changing clothing

It’s a myth that fast fashion clothing is necessarily poor quality. Many brands do create durable products, some lasting twice as long as designer label equivalents that are up to ten times more expensive. A growing number of businesses are trying to minimise the environmental impact of their clothes. Some UK brands have begun sourcing cotton which is less reliant on pesticides, synthetic fertilisers and consumes less water. Enough high-quality cotton can be grown to meet current demand with much less water and pesticides.

Cold pad batch dyeing uses up to 50 percent less water, energy and chemicals than standard processes and produces much less waste. Voluntary initiatives, such as the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, are trying to set minimum standards for quality across the industry.

You can make a difference too. Buying from responsible brands is a good start, and only washing the garment when it really needs it. Once you’re done with your clothes, giving them to clothing charities offers them a second life and makes fashion overall much greener. Hopefully knowing more about the vast effort and resources that go into making our clothes can help people make better choices as well. Before throwing old clothes out, remember the long and costly journey your t-shirt took from cotton to wardrobe, and think again.

Mark Sumner is a Lecturer in Sustainablity, Fashion and Retail at the University of Leeds. (This article was initially published by The Conversation).

The fashion industry has some truly major sustainability problems in its midst. By 2030, it is predicted that the industry’s water consumption will grow by 50 percent to 118 billion cubic meters (or 31.17 trillion  gallons), its carbon footprint will increase to 2,791 million tons and the amount of waste it creates will hit 148 million tons. These predictions come despite the significant progress being made by brands and retailers to minimize their impact.

Many brands are using sustainable cotton initiatives to reduce water, energy and chemical use, new dyeing technology to reduce water consumption by up to 50 percent, as well as numerous energy and chemical saving schemes throughout the supply chain. In the UK, the result of this work is percolating through to retailers, with a reduction in the carbon and water footprints per ton of clothing of 8 percent and 7 percent respectively since 2012.

Yes, the industry is working to reduce the environmental footprint of its products. But the problem has now shifted to the consumption side: the insatiable appetite for fashion means people are buying more and more clothes. Since 2012, there has been a 10 percent increase in the amount of clothing purchased in the UK alone. And not only are consumers buying more; the rate at which their clothing gets discarded is becoming increasingly quicker as they chase the latest fashion trends. It is estimated there is over £30 billion ($38 billion) of clothing sitting in wardrobes across the UK that has not been worn for over 12 months.

Fast fashion is seen by many as the fundamental cause of many of the sustainability issues the industry faces. And so it has been suggested by numerous commentators, academics and NGOs that ethical consumption can and will lead to a paradigm shift in behavior. Over time, it is thought that slow fashion may become the norm, with consumers wearing classically styled garments that last for years instead of months or weeks.

This might serve to minimize the need to make new purchases of the latest fashion fad, therefore reducing impacts. The logic of this argument is predicated on the idea that consumers are rational animals with behavior that is controlled and predictable. But the growth of ethical consumption has not materialized in mainstream fashion. Ethically-minded brands believe the single biggest issue stopping them becoming more sustainable is the consumer; either through their lack of awareness of the issues faced by the industry or through an unwillingness to pay the premium for sustainable products. 

Can ethical consumption really exist in the mainstream fashion market? Psychology and behavioral science may suggest that ethical fashion consumption is a pipe dream. We believe our purchasing decisions are based on rational, conscious and well thought out deliberations, but in reality, the complexity of human behavior and the fundamental nature of fashion implies that ethical consumption may not be an attainable goal.

Fashion and ego

Why is this the case? First, it is important to explain that marketing tools such as the questionnaires and surveys used to predict the growth of ethical consumption are problematic. They are good for identifying purchasing intentions but poor predictors of actual behavior. Surveys tend to illicit a response that presents the participant in a positive light: non-ethical shoppers tend to state they are ethical to protect their external image. And surveys are reliant on the participant being truthful and knowledgeable about their behavior. How truthful we are is debatable and research shows we are not as knowledgeable as we think we are about the drivers for our behavior.

Our behavior is far more selfish than we might like to believe. Rational models of consumption are based on the idea that individuals make choices that balance costs and benefits. An ethical consumer will make rational judgements about purchases on the best outcome in terms of costs and benefits for them and the environment. 

But consumption, and in particular fashion consumption, is quite irrational. Purchase decisions are more likely to be driven by desires linked to pleasure and excitement. Fashion is a social activity for setting our status (the egoistical drivers) but it is also an activity that is driven by emotional desires such as the fantasy, excitement and aspirations of living a better, more fulfilling life. These hedonistic subconscious forces are what make shopping for clothes exciting and pleasurable. They create a less rational approach to consumption which ultimately reduces the influence of rational thoughts about ethics and the environmental consequences of our purchases.

Fast and ethical fashion

Ethical campaigners, journalists and even some brands have argued that consumers would be able overcome these subconscious forces of fun and excitement if they had more information about the ethical issues. But evidence shows that this does little to increase ethical behavior. In fact, more information tends to reduce the influence of ethical issues due to the complexity of the issues. This complexity is doubled by the amount of conflicting information produced by NGOs, the media and brands themselves: cotton is bad for the environment; microfibers are poisoning the oceans; bamboo is ethical (it’s not). When the experts can’t agree on the big issues for fashion, it’s that much easier for the consumer to turn a blind eye and buy that new shirt.

An alternative, radical approach may be to recognize that humans have always used fashion to satisfy emotional, egoistical desires. So, the challenge should be shifted from trying to control these primeval, irrational behaviors to finding a systemic and ethical approach to embrace them. 

Can we find sustainable solutions that actually move ever closer to a disposable fashion industry? The desire for new clothes is something that may be impossible to change. So instead of trying to appeal to the consumer’s supposed ethical streak, perhaps brands should aim instead to use new technology and business models to design products that can be recycled or re-engineered into new styles with minimal use of virgin materials, water, energy and chemicals. 

In this model, we would not aim to change thousands of years of evolution in the space of a generation, but use innovation and creativity to make industry bend to our inherent needs. It is a major technical and commercial challenge, but shifting to such a consumer-driven model may open up new opportunities for business, as well as becoming more sustainable.

Mark Sumner is a lecturer in Sustainablity, Fashion and Retail at the University of Leeds. (This article was initially published by The Conversation)