The Environmental Impact of Our Clothes - Who is to Blame, Consumer or Corporation?
Updated: Feb 2
The environmental repercussions of fast fashion's rise are undeniable.
In the past 10 years, the UK has consumed on average more than a million tonnes of clothing per year. In fact, we are 7th in the world in terms of the total number of clothing items bought each year…and 21st in terms of population.
This unavoidably leads to environmental catastrophe; our landfills are full and our total clothing carbon footprint exceeds 20 million tonnes each year. This is the result of the environmentally unsustainable relationship between British consumers and fast fashion companies.
But who is really to blame?
The fault of major fashion brands cannot be under-emphasised. Thousands of reports have detailed the cost-cutting methods that fast fashion brands use to sell their items at such cheap prices.
As you have likely assumed, these tricks of the trade are often environmentally unsustainable. The processing of cotton is one of the best examples of this. Its production costs are high, and in the face of a cutthroat market there is pressure to maximise yields. It is therefore common practice to use a surplus of cheaper pesticides and fertilisers to ensure enough cotton is produced to make the process worthwhile. These chemical substances eventually run off into streams and rivers, where they will go on to pollute water sources for thousands of communities, both human and animal. This is on top of the enormous water usage of the farming process. The global mean water used to manufacture a kilogram of cotton is ten to twenty thousand litres.
But what can be done with all this water once it has been used in production lines, contaminated with chemicals and made unfit for consumption?
Unsurprisingly, a remarkably low number of fast fashion companies choose to share this information with the public. All we do know is that it is estimated the clothing industry produces more than 20% of freshwater pollution, although the real figure in unknown (and likely to be much larger). And that is just the farming of raw materials.
The facts for the fabric preparation stages of clothing production are equally as grim.
A further 440,000 tonnes of waste go on to be produced in the fabric preparation stage each year. A large proportion of this is generated from the processing of raw materials like flax. While low in water and energy requirements, flax produces about 50kg of fibre and dust waste per kilogram. Fortunately, this waste is fairly easy to manage and care can be taken to drastically reduce the waste produced.
Unfortunately, for many companies this treatment process is another easy cost to cut.
But what part does the consumer play in this vicious cycle? Our primary fault lies in the level of consumption. The average UK consumer will purchase 20 items of clothing per year. 30% of that same cohort will end up in landfill. There is a clear pattern of over-purchasing here.
How many clothes do you purchase each year that you will never wear again?
This is exacerbated by a social culture that promotes comfort splurging and impulse buys. Harmless enough in their separate circumstances, but they bring devastating impacts in their masses. A mass the size of a 66.8 million strong adult UK population, to be precise.
Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, there is the consumer’s role in the unsustainable care of garments once purchased. In particular, the use of washing machines accounts for a third of the total carbon footprint for clothing. That total figure includes the carbon released by the entire production and transportation process of clothing, as well as the fumes released from incinerating items in landfills.
This disproportionately high share of the footprint can be easily reduced through consumer cooperation.
Washing your clothes at a slightly lower temperature like 30 degrees Celsius is one easy way to do your bit.
Ultimately, looking at the facts, it is the fashion corporations responsible for more than half of UK fashion’s CO2 footprint. At the same time, this is no cause for the British consumer to slacken in their environmental efforts. By voicing your support for sustainable practices and continuing to properly care for the clothes that you own, you can play a vital and urgent role in taking action against pollution.
All figures were sourced from The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP)’s 2017 Report “Valuing Our Clothes: the cost of UK fashion.” Read more here.