How the Fashion Industry Damages our Soils
Updated: Feb 2
When thinking about how the fashion industry harms our environment, we often think about the huge amount of greenhouse gases it emits, or the vast quantity of water it wastes, but we rarely think about the impact it has on our soils. Soil is incredibly important. It plays a vital role in the Earth’s ecosystem, filtering rainwater, preventing flooding, storing carbon, providing a habitat for a myriad of microorganisms, an anchorage for roots and a source of water and nutrients for plants. It is therefore essential that we protect our soils.
The fashion industry poses a major threat to our soils due to its intensive farming of textile fibres such as cotton. Cotton is the world’s most widely used textile fibre and it accounts for roughly 40% of global textile production (1), with around 123.7 million 480-pound bales grown globally per year (2). In order to produce so much cotton, chemical herbicides and insecticides have to be used extensively. Cotton uses 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of its insecticides (3), more than any other single major crop. Pesticides have incredibly damaging effects on our soils. Extensive use of pesticides can lead to the build up of chemical compounds in the soil which can take years to break down. Many of these compounds are toxic and kill organisms living in the soil, decreasing the soil’s general biodiversity. Without high levels of biodiversity, the quality of soil decreases rapidly and it becomes incredibly difficult to grow crops. Furthermore, over 98% of sprayed insecticides and 95% of herbicides reach a destination other than their target species (4). Wind can carry them into other fields, grazing areas and human settlements, affecting soils across a much greater area than just where the insecticides and herbicides were sprayed. Runoff (water travelling over the ground) can also carry them into aquatic environments, causing eutrophication (high levels of minerals causing an excessive growth of algae, blocking out sunlight and causing oxygen depletion in the body of water, killing plants and fish). The fashion industry’s intensive farming of textile fibres also means that huge amounts of water have to be used. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, textile production uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water annually. That’s the equivalent of 37 million Olympic swimming pools. The use of so much water can lead to salinisation. Salinisation is when water-soluble salts accumulate in the soil. It is not always bad, but the build up of too many salts in the soils can poison organisms living in the soil, particularly bacteria. The result of this is a decrease in plant growth and crop productivity, and an increased risk of desertification (5). The fashion industry’s intensive farming techniques damages our soils immensely, and it is therefore vital that something changes.
So what’s the solution? One way to reduce the fashion industry’s impact on our soils is to buy clothes made from more sustainable materials such as organic cotton. Organic cotton is cotton grown from non-genetically modified plants and without the use of agricultural chemicals such as pesticides. Organic cotton has been shown to have 91% reduced blue water consumption (water taken from groundwater or surface water bodies via irrigation), 70% less acidification potential, 26% reduced eutrophication potential and 46% reduced global warming potential (6).
By using more sustainable materials, the impact on our soils can be reduced and its biodiversity protected. Another way to reduce the impact on our soils, is to buy less clothing and mend the clothes you already have. The result is that demand for raw textile fibres will decrease and the fashion industry will have to look at more sustainable ways to produce clothes. By doing this, we can help protect one of the most diverse ecosystems on our planet, our soil.