The Environmental Impact Of Fashion Consumption
The Environmental Impact Of Fashion Consumption
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘fashion’ as ‘a popular or the latest style of clothing, hair, decoration or behaviour’.(Oxford English Dictionary) The idea of fashion is fundamentally premised on the concept of constant change and novelty. Fashion is not a new or modern phenomenon. The existence of changing fashions dictating modes of dress and behaviour is well documented throughout the history of Europe and Japan, for instance. What, then, distinguishes current-day fashion from that of the past?
For one thing, fashion in today’s world is much more organised and widespread than it has ever been in the past. It reaches out to individuals and communities within every social and economic sphere and works as a well-coordinated industry. It operates at elite levels in the form of bespoke and haute couture and also trickles down to the average consumer in the form of prêt-a-porter. In fact, in different parts of the world, there exist well-developed industries that aim mainly to produce cheaper knock-offs of designer styles. Fashion, today, is driven by regional tastes as well as global rhythms of economics, making it truly ‘glocal’. The factors that make this possible are technology, communication, and globalisation; the three great drivers of change that have completely transformed all aspects of life in the post-industrial world.
The fashion industry sells dreams. But these dreams are rooted in the hard realities of infrastructure, manufacturing, labour, transportation, marketing, and, even exploitation. As buyers, some of us may claim that our tastes rise above the seasonal offerings of designers and retail chains, and that we set our own trends. But whether you buy designer labels or sew your own garments, you cannot escape the fact that you, too, consume fashion in some form. The fabrics you bought to create your own clothing were designed by someone who chose those colours and prints in line with the trend forecasts for that season. The retailer you bought it from chose those pieces because their market surveys indicated those were most likely to sell. So, you see, nobody is exempt from fashion consumption.
WHAT IMPACT DOES FASHION CONSUMPTION HAVE ON THE ENVIRONMENT?
As a buyer, one is often oblivious to the long supply chains involved in the fashion business. Raw material grown in one corner of the world is processed and assembled in another and finally retailed in a third; the entire process is coordinated and overseen by a company that may be headquartered in a fourth location. The main reason for this is profit. Labour is cheaper in third-world countries such as Pakistan and Thailand and this is where the cheapest clothing is produced under sweatshop conditions. Workers, often child labourers, toil in ramshackle ‘factories’ using the cheapest machines that are optimised for maximum production with little regard for safety regulations and occupational hazards.
This promotes the rapid mushrooming of entire towns full of factories, workshops, and shanties that pollute nearby water bodies, breathe toxic air, lack sanitation, sap workers of their health, and put an enormous burden on public health. These are disaster zones waiting to erupt in tragedy. Classic examples of this are the fires that broke out at factories in Bangladesh where workers were engaged in producing garments for international budget fashion brands like Primark and Walmart. (North)
The incessant demand for large quantities of raw materials is another major cause of environmental degradation in which the fashion industry is clearly implicated. Cotton is one of the main fibres preferred for apparel and more and more land has been brought under cotton cultivation in order to feed this need. Cotton is a highly water-intensive crop. In fact, growing the cotton you need to make one shirt is estimated to consume as much as 257 gallons of water! (Challa) Groundwater sources are increasingly becoming depleted as a result of indiscriminate exploitation. Cotton also requires large quantities of pesticides which contaminate the soil, water, and air and harm animals as well as humans. Synthetics like nylon and polyester are cheap to produce and incredibly easy to maintain, but this only means that more trees and petrochemicals are consumed to produce them and that they quickly end up in landfills where they either accumulate because they are non-biodegradable or degrade slowly, all the while releasing greenhouse gases.
Fur, leather, and rare raw materials such as pashmina, shahtoosh, mink, and angora fuel animal cruelty and threaten endangered animals such as the Tibetan antelope. Cosmetic brands have also repeatedly been brought under the scanner for unethical practices like animal-based testing. The demand for gemstones and precious metals creates the impetus for mining where workers often labour under subhuman conditions. It is questionable whether dislodging millions of tonnes of earth and entire forests, and destroying natural landscapes is justified for producing paltry quantities of gold, platinum, or diamonds to feed a cultural obsession.
The processing and finishing of raw materials is a major problem area, too. Hazardous chemicals are used to scour, bleach, dye, and print fibres and fabrics, and large quantities of water are expended. Some chemicals, such as azo dyes, are well-documented as carcinogens but continue to be used indiscriminately in certain parts of the world. Chemical-laden wastes produced by textile factories are dumped into rivers and lakes, making the water unfit for human consumption and absolutely toxic for aquatic life.
Then there is the question of the carbon footprint created by the shipping and transport of raw materials and finished products from one node in the supply chain to the other. Fast fashion relies on the shipment of freight in the form of air cargo. This is enormously wasteful and polluting. In fact, any form of shipping, whether road transport, sea transport, or air freight is detrimental to the environment because large corporations tend to cut costs by using cheap fuels. In fact, the shipping industry which transports about 90% of the world’s cargo is found to be responsible for 3% of all greenhouse gas emissions. (Scott)
Another aspect to consider is the laundry industry. Detergents are one of the main components of household effluent and these end up contaminating natural water bodies. Washing machines are often wasteful and consume large quantities of water even for smaller loads. Dry cleaning is one of the most polluting industries as it uses chemical solvents. Microfibres from synthetic fabrics, especially fleeces, are not visible to the eye but every time such garments are washed, these fibres are released and eventually find their way into water bodies where they cause great harm to aquatic life. (Messinger)
The fashion industry has already woken up to its role in environmental degradation. This awareness has been driven by consumer activism, and in some cases, reform from within the industry led by concerned practitioners. Some countries have even introduced legislation to ban the use of toxic raw materials.
‘Sustainable fashion’ is making slow but steady progress and more brands are being held accountable for supporting unethical production practices and using hazardous materials. An initiative called Detox Catwalk launched by the NGO Greenpeace identifies fashion brands and companies that are committed to the cause of sustainable business practices and preventing environmental damage. It also names and shames those that fail to live up to promises of sustainability and transparency.(“How Green Is Your Favorite Clothing Brand?”)
The cause of sustainable fashion can be furthered by educating customers to consume judiciously. Avoiding the temptation to discard perfectly usable clothes in favour of the season’s latest trends is a practical approach and also easier on the pocket. Discriminating consumers can put pressure on brands to review their policies and force change. Supporting small and local fashion businesses cuts out the costs and pollution incurred through shipping.
When we buy clothes from high-street brands or designer boutiques, we may notice the label saying ‘made in Taiwan’ or ‘made in Pakistan’, but we rarely give a thought to what this really means. We do not realise the complexity of the operation that makes it possible for cotton grown in Egypt to make its way to the USA after having passed through a succession of factories somewhere in the third world.
It is important to recognise that fashion consumption is driven by consumer demand. At the end of the day, the fashion industry operates on the scale it does with the speed it does because of consumer demand. When consumers begin to demand sustainability and environment-friendly practices, the industry will be forced to respond. As a society, we must fight to battle not only pollution but also destructive social norms that push us toward conspicuous consumption.
Challa, Lakshmi. “Impact Of Textiles And Clothing Industry On Environment: Approach Towards Eco-Friendly Textiles”. Fibre2fashion.Com, 2017,
“Fashion”. Oxford English Dictionary, 1st ed., 2017.
“How Green Is Your Favorite Clothing Brand?”. Ecowatch, 2017
Messinger, Leah. “How Your Clothes Are Poisoning Our Oceans And Food Supply”. The Guardian, 2016
North, Andrew. “The Dark Underworld Of Bangladesh’s Clothes Industry”. BBC News, 2013.
Scott, Mike. “Sustainable Shipping Is Making Waves”. The Guardian, 2014.