New tehnologies and changing attitudes are making sustainable fashion a lot more affordable and accessible these days. When it comes to the environmental impact, fashion is still very much a dirty word in the apparel industry and they are desperate to keep consumers in the dark for as long as possible! So strap yourself in and get ready. We’ll unleash the ugly truths and take you on a rollercoaster ride of the 5 dirty secrets the fashion industry doesn’t want you to know.
Fashion to dye for?
Sustainable fashion should include an industry free from the use of poisonous chemicals! We are all aware of the toxic chemicals present in insecticides that make their way onto our dinner plates, but toxins in our clothing, footwear and handbags are a major cause for concern. This is a clear and present danger and something we should all know about before we buy apparel for ourselves and our children.
The danger of these chemical hazards is not only of concern to us as consumers through direct exposure to these products when wearing and handling them, but also indirectly through the bioaccumulation of heavy metals and other toxins entering the food chain and ending up in our lunch boxes. That’s not even to mention the ethical dilemma we as consumers must all face up to when factory workers who manufacture these items fall ill and die in their thousands each year through exposure to these chemicals in the workplace.
Thousands of chemicals; many of them un-tested; are used in different phases and processes in the textile and leather processing industry. Most chemicals in this toxic soup are dangerous to human health and the environment but a few stand out from the crowd holding red flags and frothing at the mouth – stay clear!
A known carcinogen and used extensively in the leather tanning industry.
Another known carcinogen is used to achieve crease resistance.
These function as azo compounds and give super bright colours to dyes and are considered dangerous as scientists have found a link between these aromatic amines and cancers.
These exhibit Hormone (endocrine) disruption, skin and eye irritation and reproductive harm. These have been banned; however, they are still widely and illegally used in many parts of the world as there is still no strict global regulation on the use of these toxic chemicals in the textile industry.
Dimethyl fumarate (DMF)
Used to prevent mould and moisture in leather and can be found in all kinds of leather goods – from furniture to school shoes – usually in the form of a small sachet. DMF is an allergic sensitiser at very low concentrations, causing extensive, pronounced eczema which can be difficult to treat.
Don’t be a fossil Fool!
Sustainable fashion should be carbon neutral! The word fashion is certainly not the first thing you associate with melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels now is it? However, according to a report by Mckinsey, the apparel industry is responsible for 2.1 billion metric tons of manmade Carbon Dioxide in 2018 which is second only to the oil industry.
So let me paint you a picture of what this looks like – 1 metric tonne of CO2 takes up a physical area of H1m (metre) x L1m x W1m. Now if you stack these solid blocks of CO2 one on top of each other, they would stretch to the moon and back more than 5 times!
To put the severity of this into perspective, by 2030, the climate impact of the apparel industry alone is set to reach 2.7 billion metric tons of CO2. Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Nearly all textiles have a carbon footprint, but some man-made synthetic textiles like polyester and nylon are less sustainable. These synthetics use nearly 70 million barrels of oil each year to make the fibre, which is now the most used fibre in the apparel industry, and once in a landfill, takes hundreds of years to decompose.
When examining the entire lifecycle of the apparel industry from animal feeding, planting/harvesting, production, design, quality, freight, retail to end of use landfill/incineration, it becomes clear just how much fossil fuel is used and the shockingly enormous impact the fashion industry is having on the environment. Add on top of that the fast fashion culture we buy into at a whim and discard without a thought.
Impact on the global environment is not only limited to CO2 emissions from burning dirty fossil fuels during this lifecycle, but also through pollution caused by toxic chemicals and pesticides, which poisons drinking wells and kills plants and wildlife through inefficient or non-existent wastewater treatment processes.
What’s all the fuzz about?
Cotton is not sustainable fashion! More than half of all textiles produced in the world today are made from cotton, and together with polyester and leather are the 2 most detrimental products to the environment in terms of carbon footprint, toxic pollutants, and water usage.
For example, to produce just 1 kg of cotton, the crop uses an estimated 20 000 litres of water, which is about the same amount needed for 1 T-shirt and a pair of jeans!
Cotton also requires massive amounts of synthetic pesticides and insecticides all made from fossil fuels and which contribute to over 25% of global insecticide use. Not the most sustainable fashion choice we thought it was!
A recent UN report estimates that globally, over 200,000 people die each year due to toxic exposure to pesticides and insecticides. Organic cotton is a better choice, but the amount of land and water consumption required to grow organic cotton is still of major concern and only makes up a measly 1% of all cotton produced.
Beat the meat!
You may be surprised to learn that 70% of all cattle end up in industrial-scale factory-farmed feedlots and while leather is often described as a byproduct of the meat industry, there is no doubt that it’s a lucrative side earner for every cow butchered.
Factory farming raises serious ethical questions and is a major public relations disaster for the industry.
On top of this, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation conservatively estimates that livestock production is responsible for 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions, while some studies put this figure closer to 50%.
Either way, livestock production contributes a larger share of greenhouse gas emissions than the entire global transport sector combined! That’s a lot of methane and C02 being released and most of us don’t even know farm animals are the cause!
According to WWF, 33% of agricultural land worldwide is used solely for livestock feed production. That’s vast continental sized areas of rainforest and grassland biodiversity lost, just to grow crops to feed animals.
When you combine that with the amount of land used for grazing and housing animals and the fact that these crops could be used directly to feed the worlds 820 million starving people, it’s easy to see just how unsustainable and unethical this industry is. The short is that leather or any other animal products are not sustainable fashion.
Who put the sin in synthetic?
If polyester is your hero, think again! It’s one of the most unsustainable fabrics around. Why? The rising tide of plastic pollution in our rivers and oceans is causing increasing worldwide concern. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon are a type of plastic made from chemicals processed from fossil fuels.
Every time a synthetic product is washed, tiny microplastics are released which ends up in – well pretty much everything from our drinking water to the fish we eat. While all plastic debris is dangerous to the environment, the threat escalates as plastic fragments into increasingly smaller pieces and enters the marine food chain – and, in turn, our diet.
Microplastics are often invisible to the naked eye and the largest are around 5mm in diameter. These tiny microplastic particles are often mistaken as food, and the latest research suggests that they are being ingested at very high levels from plankton and coral at the bottom of the food chain to humans at the top. The prevalence of microplastics being ingested by sea life is massive and has become one of the major threats to marine biodiversity. Not only does this plastic cause starvation and poison species with the toxic chemicals contained within the plastic itself, but microplastics are also known to act as a kind of toxic sponge; sucking up and concentrating any dangerous chemicals found in the surrounding ocean. In 2001, a study by Japanese researchers found that plastic pellets collected from coastal Japanese waters had accumulated toxins at concentrations up to a million times that found in the surrounding seawater. It’s also important to remember that synthetics continue to contaminate the soil and groundwater when disposed of in a landfill.
People power, purchasing power. A win for sustainable fashion.
Ultimately, for the fashion industry to make a positive impact on climate change, the culture of fashion needs to change. Here are a few suggestions that will have a massive impact:
Firstly, our addiction to fast fashion trends, which are fundamentally unsustainable for the environment, needs to end.
Reducing the problems associated with global warming will not be possible unless we buy a lot less and get much better at handling the end-of-life stage of apparel. We must stop thinking of clothes as disposable and adopt circular fashion principles that treat the lifecycle of a garment as a closed-loop.
Secondly, choose the type of apparel wisely. The types of apparel we choose to use every day can have an enormous impact on the planet and people. Apparel can either continue to be a major part of the problem, or we can choose products that give a helping hand to people and the planet. The choice is ultimately ours. We can vote at the ballot box for action on strong environmental measures and vote at the cash register for ethical and sustainable fashion.
As consumers, we have a powerful ability to encourage change by the products we choose to purchase. So, let’s choose textiles in the apparel industry which are known to have the smallest carbon footprint.
The uncontested number one most sustainable natural fibre with the lowest carbon footprint is Hemp.
It is one of the most environmentally friendly materials, woven from the inner bark fibres of the stalk of the hemp plant.
Lightweight and durable, hemp is one of the world’s oldest textiles. Not only is it strong, but it also well known for holding its shape.
Its combination of ruggedness and comfort were utilised by Levi Strauss for the very first pair of jeans made in California. Furthermore, hemp has the best ratio of heat capacity of all fibres, giving it superior insulation properties.
As a fabric, hemp provides all the warmth and softness of other natural textiles but with a superior durability seldom found in other materials.
Organic hemp ‘breathes’, is biodegradable, gentle on the environment and requires the least energy, water, pesticides, or other resources to produce, relative to other fibres.
Hemp is also high yielding and the root system of the plant is healthy for the soil profile (thanks to a process called phytoremediation)
Certifications & Standards: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
Linen is made from the cellulose fibres derived from the flax plant. It is strong and absorbent and dries faster than cotton.
These properties make linen comfortable to wear in warm weather climates and are therefore highly valued for use in garments.
Its growth requires very little fertiliser, pesticide, and irrigation.
The one drawback of linen is that it has a tendency to wrinkle easily and is less high yielding than hemp.
Certifications & Standards: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
3. Recycled or Pre Loved
Recycled natural fabric can be generally defined as converting scraps or second-hand fabric back into textile fibre that can then be re-used and made into textile products.
Recycled natural fabrics can find new life in a range of products from insulation to mop heads and if blended with other fibres can be made into new yarn to improve strength and durability.
The process of recycling can divert many products from landfills.
As the material has already been processed, the amount of energy, water, and dye used is reduced.
Looking good, feeling good and doing good are no longer mutually exclusive. And these days, it’s all the fashion!