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How the fashion industry is destroying our planet, one cheap garment at a time


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I had never really considered the link between the fashion industry and the environment until I watched Stacey Dooley’s Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, broadcast in October last year, which explored the devastating environmental impact of our limitless hunger for fast fashion.

Most of us are aware of the disturbing human cost of the fashion industry – notably the fast fashion industry – in terms of sweatshops and child labour, for example. Yet, when it comes down to the environmental cost, many of us remain clueless.

To the uninformed, it may come as a surprise that the fashion industry is the second largest polluter worldwide, after the oil industry.

So, what do we mean by ‘fast fashion’?

Fast fashion refers to how clothing stores produce new clothing lines on a regular basis – often weekly – rather than on a traditional, seasonal basis. Because of this, people are buying far more clothes than needed, at relatively cheap prices, in order to keep up with trends. It’s a worldwide addiction.


Image Credit: on pexels

Lucy Seigle, a journalist specialising in environmental issues, confirmed this to the BBC, adding, “it’s a production system that brings us clothes at intense volume.

“Globally, we’re producing over 100 billion new garments from new fibres every single year, and the planet cannot sustain that.”

It’s not only the sheer volume of clothes being produced that the planet cannot withstand. It suffers from the higher likelihood of environmentally-friendly options being ignored, with corners being cut, due to the “pressure to reduce cost and the time it takes to get a product from design to shop floor”.

So, what is the environmental cost of fast fashion exactly?

Heavily Polluted Waters

One of the major environmental issues surrounding the cheap garment industry is water pollution, as it is common practice for textile factories to discard untreated toxic wastewater directly into rivers.

This wastewater contains an abundance of toxic substances such as lead, mercury, and arsenic, which is detrimental to the flora and fauna living in and around the rivers, as well as local people in certain countries who rely on river water for bathing, clothes washing, drinking water and cooking water.

Would you want to be consuming food cooked in the same substance found in car batteries?

The Citarum River in Indonesia is one of the most heavily polluted rivers in the world, mostly due to the 440 factories established along its banks. According to Jakarta Globe, of the 440 registered textile producers "only 380 of them [are] equipped with wastewater treatment plants, as required by law."

In her documentary, Stacey Dooley visited the river herself and was shown the factories’ neglect of eco-friendly wastewater management. The companies’ lack of care was no secret; you could see them directly dumping industrial waste into the waterways.


Citarum RIver 

Citarum River Indonesia/ Image Credit: Wikipedia from MNN Galleries

While this catastrophe may seem a world away from the UK, the fact that many of these factories are linked to popular UK high street stores might come as a shock.

Microfibres in our oceans

Inevitably, the more clothes that we own, the more clothes we wash.

The issue here is that with every synthetic garment that we wash (for example, a polyester or nylon top), 'around 1,900 individual microfibres are released into the water, making their way into our oceans'.

All together, this equates to '190,000 tonnes of textile microplastic fibres end[ing] up in the sea each year', which consequently contributes to 85% of the human-made debris found on shorelines worldwide.

What’s more, microfibres are ingested by small aquatic organisms, which are then eaten by fish and so on, meaning that plastic enters the food chain.

Disturbingly, research has found that a significant number of the fish and shellfish that we consume contain these microplastic fibres.

Water consumption

Another environmental issue linked with the fashion industry is the obscene amount of water consumption involved.

Each year, the fashion industry uses an enormous 1.5 trillion litres of water, 'for fabric dyeing alone'.

Not only does the dyeing and finishing process require a huge quantity of water, but growing the cotton that many of our clothes comprise of requires an implausible amount of it too.

In Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, Stacey shocks a passer-by on the high street by revealing that his new 100% cotton jacket would have required 10,330 litres of water to simply grow the cotton. That is equal to 24 years of drinking water for one person.

This is happening at a time when around 750 million people do not have access to drinking water.

But there isn’t only the human side to consider. A shocking environmental consequence of this mass water consumption came to light when Stacey visited Kazakhstan – a country hugely affected by cotton production.

Just over half a century ago, the 68,000 km² Aral Sea could be found in the country. It was once the fourth largest lake in the world, home to a wealth of fish species and other wildlife.

Yet, with the rise of fast fashion, intense cotton production has sucked the lake dry, leaving what looks like nothing more than a dusty, barren desert.

What was once the Aral Sea. Image: United Nations Development Programme in Europe and Central Asia on Flickr.

According to The Telegraph, the previous UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, said it is “one of the worst disasters, environmental disasters of the world”

This environmental disaster has unravelled in a mere six decades.

It doesn’t end there

On top of the fast fashion industry being responsible for appalling levels of water pollution, microfibres infiltrating our oceans and off-the-scale water consumption, it is also linked to landfills filling up at an unprecedented rate, soil degradation, and 10% of global carbon emissions.

It is clear that something needs to be done to tackle this catastrophe. However, the fact that representatives from big brands such as Zara, Asos, M&S, Monsoon, Next and River Island all refused to speak to the BBC on the matter suggests that we, the consumers, need to take serious action ourselves, before it's too late. We need to ditch fast fashion now. 

Read more from the Environment Section

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