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Climate change and the fashion industry

The fashion industry is one of the real environmental sinners. You can read here why this is the case and what clothing and the climate crisis have to do with...

We are in the midst of a climate crisis and the decisions we make today will inevitably impact the future. We all want to help and contribute to protecting our earth. The topic of clothing plays a very important role here. What we wear and how we consume clothing can have a huge impact on our planet. We can achieve a lot if we start to rethink and change something, because the fashion industry is one of the most environmentally harmful industries in the world.

Water consumption in the fashion industry 

Water is a much-used commodity in the fashion industry. Incredible amounts of raw materials are required just to grow the raw materials. For example, almost half of our clothing is made from cotton. For one kilogram of cotton, which ultimately results in approximately one pair of jeans, 10,000 liters of cotton are used. An adult person could drink this for 13 1/2 years. After harvesting, the cotton is cleaned, spun and dyed. Each of these work steps also requires a lot of water, and the water is often disposed of unfiltered and unpurified in the wastewater. In 2015, the fashion industry required almost 79 billion liters of water. Given the ever-increasing production figures, this is likely to increase in the next few years. 

Even after production is complete, our clothes still need water: a washing machine load uses around 49 liters per load, which equates to almost 3,000 liters of water per person per year. 

The use of pesticides, chemicals and microplastics 

As I said: half of our clothing is made from cotton. Due to the high demand, it requires a lot of pesticides and fertilizers because, despite its high water consumption, it is grown in places that are very dry and whose soil is often depleted and no longer nutritious due to monocultures. These chemicals account for almost 2% of all pesticides used worldwide. 

Colors, prints and finishes make clothes interesting and cool, but many of them also require the use of dangerous chemicals. Dyeing not only uses a lot of water but also many substances that ensure that the color is intense and lasts as long as possible.

In Asia, where much of our textiles are made and dyed, there are entire rivers that change color depending on the trend season because the chemicals and dyes are added to the water unfiltered. Rivers here are “too dangerous for any human contact.” 

A lot of our clothing is also made of plastic: polyester, acrylic, elastane. Every time they are washed, they release microplastic particles that are so small that they can hardly be filtered out and end up directly in the sea. For every kilogram of washing load, around 68mg of microplastics end up in the wastewater and thus in the sea. 

Is this still a trend or can it go away? Garbage and fast fashion

Despite the impact on the environment and the people who make our textiles, we are consuming more and more clothing. Fashion trends are constantly changing and the world population is increasing every year. In the last 20 years our consumption of clothing has increased by 400% and in Germany we buy an average of 27kg of new clothing clothing every year. Due to the fast fashion phenomenon, our textiles have become disposable goods and we usually don't think they're worth repairing, which is why we simply throw clothes away when they are no longer needed or no longer correspond to current trends. Our textile waste is mostly exported to Africa, for example Morocco, where it is sold very cheaply and destroys the local textile industry. 

Most of the time they end up in huge landfills where our discarded clothing piles up and takes centuries to decompose. 

The solution to recycling our clothes turns out to be difficult: most of our textiles are made of mixed fabrics, for example 75% cotton, 25% polyester. These raw materials can no longer be separated, which means they can no longer be recycled and reused. 

Making fashion consumes energy and resources

It's no longer a secret that our clothes often travel around the world before they end up in our store. The probability that our jeans have traveled to more countries than us is very high. This is done to ensure the cheapest possible production. Many steps are necessary before a garment is ready to hang in the store: raw material extraction, cleaning, dyeing, weaving, cutting, sewing, ironing, washing, sale in the store or delivery via the online shop. Each of these steps requires a lot of energy. 

The fashion industry emits 2.1 billion tons of greenhouse gases every year, and the trend is rising. This makes it responsible for 4% of global emissions. The aviation industry “only” produces 2.1%. It is practically impossible for the fashion industry to meet the 1.5 degree target, because emissions would have to fall from 2.1 billion tons to 1.1 billion tons by 2030, i.e. almost half. 

What can I pay attention to as a fashion consumer?

  • You can buy clothing made from raw materials that are sustainably grown such as lyocell, organic cotton or linen 
  • It is also better for later recycling if you avoid clothing made from blended fabrics, especially blended fabrics made from natural raw materials (cotton, silk, wool, linen, lyocell) and synthetic fibers (polyester, polyacrylic, elastane).
  • There are special washing bags that collect the microplastics from clothing when it is washed. This means that it can no longer easily get into the wastewater and thus into the sea. 
  • In recent years, clothing has become more and more disposable. Think carefully about whether you really need a piece of clothing, for example by giving yourself one to two weeks to think about it. 
  • The longer clothing is worn, the more it gains value, making up for the energy and effort that went into producing it. So invest in the clothes you already own through repairs or professional cleaning. 
  • Find out where your clothing was made. There is a lot of clothing that is produced within the EU/Europe, from raw material extraction to production and sales. Many companies also describe where a piece of clothing was made on their websites. Otherwise, there is always the option of contacting customer service and asking for information. 

Author: Thekla Weißkopf

Sources: 

https://www.theconsciouschallenge.org/ecologicalfootprintbibleoverview/water-clothing
https://truecostmovie.com/learn-more/environmental-impact/
https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/fashion-on-climate
https://www.dhanatribe.com/the-true-cost/energy
Fast fashion exhibition from the Museum of Arts and Crafts Hamburg 
https://science.orf.at/v2/stories/2986672/

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