The impact of the clothing industry on the environment is massive and not in a good way. In fact, it’s one of the most polluting industries. Sustaining the creativity, beauty, and glamour typically associated with the industry are huge amounts of water, pesticides, chemicals, and fossil fuels. Globalisation and consumerism have further exacerbated the ecological impact resulting from the production process and transport of clothing.
To give an example, a simple cotton T-shirt requires some 2000 litres of water and a huge amount of pesticides just for the cotton it is made from to be produced. Add to that the hazardous chemicals required to dye the fabric, that can end up (untreated) in rivers and/or the sea, as well as the amount of fossil fuels needed to transport fabrics and clothing from different points around the globe – and that’s not all. Washing and disposal of clothing further contributes, in no minor way, to the degradation of the environment.
What can we do about it? Like all other industries, the clothing industry is driven by demand, at times a demand it creates itself but nonetheless, consumers, together, have the power to turn the industry into a more environmentally sustainable one. Here are a few ways how we can contribute.
Quality over quantity
Fast fashion is all about disposable clothing. Poor quality and mass-production make it possible to sell clothes very cheaply promoting a culture whereby clothes, being easily replaceable, are worn once or twice and then thrown away. As more clothes need to be produced and disposed of, more resources are required causing ever more pollution. Although not buying any clothes is as unrealistic an option as not using your car, buying less pieces but which are more durable (and inevitably costlier) will help reduce the pressure on the environment both as a result of a lower production and less clothes to be disposed of.
Natural rather than synthetic fabrics
All fabrics pose environmental challenges in their production. The most widely available fabric, cotton, even if organic, uses a disproportionately huge amount of water for its yield – the second after corn. However, despite the pressure on water resources and the pesticides used to increase production, unlike synthetic fabrics, such as polyester and nylon which are made from plastics, natural fabrics are biodegradable causing less damage when disposed of. Opting for organic fabrics will also help in reducing the amount of pesticides used.
Clothes that are made closer to home
The ease with which fabric and clothing can be transported from one part of the world to the other for the next process to take place is one of the major contributors to pollution. Cotton from Mali can be transported to Indonesia, where it is dyed, then onto the Philippines where the actual garment is sewn together, then to a location in Europe for distribution to the actual retail location. By opting for clothes that are actually produced closer to home, we can help in cutting on the distances that the clothing travels, at least from the point of production to distribution.
Wash clothes less frequently
That’s a tough one, especially with summer approaching. However, considering the toxic chemicals found in the detergents we use, the energy used in running the washing machine, ironing, and the amount of fine fabric threads that end up in the sea, every cycle is damaging on the environment. So is dry cleaning. Using lower temperatures and eco-friendly detergents will help reduce the environmental impact of your washing, as well as help preserve the clothes’ original quality. However, even more effective is not washing clothes if they can afford to be worn another time or just hanging them by the shower. Steam is a great cleaning agent.
Don’t just throw away clothes you no longer want to wear. Depending on their condition, they could be donated to charity. The SPCA will also be happy to receive old towels and bed linen. Use old T-Shirts as pyjamas or dusters. The disposal of clothes has a huge impact on the environment and should therefore, be minimised as much as possible.