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Fashion is costing the earth

Ninoshka Alvares-Delaney

The last year has been a devastating year with so many fires taking place in California, the Amazon forest and recently the bush fires in Australia which are still burning. Multiple animal species have reached near extinction. Animals are losing their homes and dying, the polar ice caps are melting, the ozone layer is getting thinner and developing more holes. Climate change is real, and its effects are being felt everywhere around the world.

What has any of this got to do with fashion? Let me elaborate.

The energy needs of fashion are incredible. More often than not, particularly in fast fashion, these demands are shouldered by developing economies with negligible energy cover. For example, a Cambodian factory producing garments for export, needs power to iron and dye clothes. These factories burn millions of cubic feet of wood every month. To feed wood fired boilers, factories are clearing old-growth forests.

Then there are emissions. The fashion industry alone pumps out more carbon dioxide than international flights and shipping combined. There are about 7.6 to 10 cubic metres of fabric that is being dumped or burned at this very moment, contributing to 1.2 billion in greenhouse gas emissions the fashion industry releases each year during manufacturing. Textile dyeing is the second highest contributor to water pollution after agriculture. Clothing contributes to half a million tonnes of microfiber pollution into the ocean, the equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles.

In 2018, luxury fashion brand Burberry was in the news for all the wrong reasons. It was reported that the brand burned – yes burned! – close to $40 million worth of unsold merchandise in order to retain brand exclusivity while keeping stock scarcity high. The Burberry burn – #burnberry on social media – broke as a huge story in July, just two months after the brand announced it was a core signatory to Making Fashion Circular, an initiative aiming to design waste out of fashion and keep resources in circulation.

Luxury fashion isn’t solely to blame for the industry impact on the environment. Each sub-industry within fashion has its own impact on the environment, and Fast Fashion is one of them. Fast fashion contributes to huge amounts of waste due to underutilized clothing or no recycling. In 2017 it was revealed that the fashion behemoth H&M burned about 19 tons of obsolete clothing; the equivalent of 50,000 pairs of jeans; in a waste-to-energy facility run by one of Sweden’s energy giants, Mälarenergi. Nike was the subject of a New York Times article that alleged the company slashed clothing and shoes to render them unwearable before disposing of them.

To input all the resources, emit so much pollution and waste and then destroy those clothes is pure madness, given the ecological emergencies we face. Waste and fashion go hand in glove. The industry continues to pump out a swelling inventory. Each year over 100 billion new garments from virgin fibres are pushed onto the market. Due to social influencer marketing, the fashion industry has changed dramatically. Social influencers utilise the power of social media and the impact it has on the fashion industry. It has contributed to creating a market that is in need of the latest item of clothing or accessory instantly. It is not enough for customers now to shop by season, by shops or by influencers. Social media, self confidence and insecurity have left the industry in a serious battle of supply and demand. With that comes higher impacts on production.

How do we fit into this grand scheme of things?

As consumers, we hate incineration and destruction generally, but we continue to endorse low-cost, high-volume system that makes it an inevitability. It’s time we look at our own habits and demand that fashion brands produce fewer clothes.

As customers, we have a social responsibility to clean up our own act. If brands are making movements to improve their environmental impact, we have a moral obligation to do so too. This starts by using reputable brands that are sustainable.

Fashion could do with slowing down. We should go back to seasonal or classic styles, limited product lines and emphasise the importance of recycling waste and using recyclable materials.

We should reduce fashion waste by caring for our clothes to make them last longer and recycling our old clothes. We should repair and re-wear damaged items instead of discarding them in lieu of something new.

Shop your closet. Instead of buying new items every time, consider looking deep into your closet for items that have never been used, or haven’t been used in a long time.

Rent, borrow and swap your clothes. Consider second hand and consignment.

Donate unwanted or old clothes to charity.

There is no excuse for us as consumers to not do our bit to help reduce environmental impact before it’s too late. As the late George Carlin used to joke, “Everyone is running around screaming that the planet is in danger – uh, the planet is going to be just fine, thank you. It’s been around for hundreds of millions of years without a problem – it ain’t the planet that’s in danger – it’s us.”

Until next time, stay stylish!

(Writer is a fashion designer. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @ninoshkaindia)

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