Clothing is far more than just a means to protect our bodies; it’s is an important form of cultural expression. So it is fair to say that the key factors that influence consumer decision-making when buying clothing are style and price. Yet, does it make any sense that the consumption of fashion items continues to grow while the useful life of clothing only seems to be declining? According to the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the average consumer is purchasing 60 percent more items of clothing compared to 2000, but each garment is kept half as long.
However, behind the everyday act of choosing an ordinary blouse or shirt for your wardrobe, there is a production process that has significant impacts, many of which negative, on both people’s lives and the environment. This should be taken into consideration not only when purchasing items but also when using and disposing of clothes, so as to extend their useful life as much as possible.
So what are the impacts? The production of cotton, which currently accounts for around half of the world’s textiles, is highly resource-intensive and requires the use of large quantities of fertilizers and pesticides. According to WWF, despite only 2.4% of the world’s crop land being planted with cotton, it accounts for 24% of global insecticide and 11% of pesticide sales. According to a report produced by this leading environmental organization, soil degradation, water pollution, and biodiversity loss are just some of the impacts of cotton production.
If cotton production has such a large environmental impact, wouldn’t it be better to purchase items made with synthetic fabrics? The production of polyester, one of the most commonly used fibers in the global textile industry, may have less impact on soils and in terms of water, but emits way more greenhouse gases (GHG) than cotton production. According to the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, for example, a polyester shirt has more than double the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt.
Furthermore, synthetic fabrics have other negative impacts that have yet to be widely discussed – the production of microplastics. According to a report produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), synthetic fabrics are one of the main sources of microplastic pollution in our oceans. These tiny particles, which can contain toxic substances, enter the food web when they are eaten by marine animals, thus posing a risk to human health.
Clothing manufacturing has impacts on both people and the environment. For example, several studies have concluded that the risk of cancer is between 20 and 50% greater among tannery workers. Precarious working conditions in the clothing industry are world renowned. Although a number of both multinational and smaller clothing companies have adopted more responsible practices, tackling this situation remains a major challenge in face of the global scale of production and constant pressure for lower prices, meaning that large numbers of workers are subject to terrible working conditions. Brazil is no exception – according to the NGO Repórter Brasil, 37 brands of clothing use slave labor.
Increased clothing consumption leads to a rise in clothing disposal (and all its associated impacts). While people clear their drawers and closets (and their conscience) of clothes that they have hardly used and don’t want any more, countries such as Pakistan and Malaysia receive tons of second-hand clothes. However, several countries have begun to reject imports of used clothing, seeing them as a threat to their domestic clothing industry. Ruanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan, and Burundi have all recently announced that they intend to stop importing second-hand clothes by 2019 in order to revive domestic production.
There is therefore a major opportunity for the conscious consumer to take positive attitudes to help reduce the negative impacts of the fashion supply chain. Click here to see the list and be part of this change!