Writing for Rebel, Rena Niamh Smith outlines 9 ways the fashion industry is killing the planet.
1] Textile farming and fabric production uses vast quantities of water. It takes 2,700 litres to make a cotton tee shirt—that’s three years’ drinking water for a single person. The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan was the world’s fourth largest lake. Since the 1960s, the lake has shrivelled to 15 percent of its original size, as water from a lush landscape has been used to irrigate the country’s 1.47 million hectares of cotton fields. Saline levels have increased by 600 percent in the water that is left, while the 25,000 square miles of former sea bed forms an arid desert of carcinogenic dust from generations of agricultural run-off from the same cotton fields. Decimated fishing villages and lakeside tourist retreats leave an unemployed population facing poverty-related diseases such as malnutrition and TB. Not only is a particular form of oesophagus cancer abnormally high from an air pregnant with death, in 2004, the BBC reported that scientists had found damage in the very DNA of local people: “This means not only that people are more likely to get cancer but also that their children and grandchildren are too.” Cotton is now Uzbekistan’s biggest earner.
2] The decentralised nature of the fashion industry means single companies wash their hands of responsibility, as from field to factory, brands use third-party suppliers. Greenpeace has found that many fashion brands rely on factories using toxic chemicals in their manufacture which are banned in Western countries. Nike, Reebok and Tommy Hilfiger were all clients of a company accused of installing secret water pipes in China in order to dispose of highly toxic waste water into a main river. Disease is rife for nearby inhabitants robbed of clean water.
3] Fashion has a long and bloody history of appropriating the world’s resources for the few and not the many. In Empire of Cotton, Sven Beckert describes imperial expansion beginning in the 16th century as “war capitalism”. Cotton was an artisanal specialism in Mexico, China and India, but was appropriated by European entrepreneurs. “As the modern world came of age, cotton came to dominate world trade. It was in cottons that new modes of manufacturing first came about. The factory itself was an invention of the cotton industry. So was the connection between slave agriculture in the Americas and manufacturing across Europe.”
4] Typically, textiles and garments are mass-produced in the Global South and shipped to Western countries for consumption. Huge quantities of what is displayed on rails at the beginning of the season is never sold—destroyed or dumped in landfill instead—because it is more costly to dispose of it any more cheaply.
5] Charity shops and thrift stores have become something of a sticking plaster for Western material guilt. In fact, little of what is donated is sold and reworn as one might think; charities sell huge portions of the clothes they receive to the second hand market, where these mountains of cheap cast-offs has suffocated local textile and clothing production.
6] Consumer pressure for ecologically friendly fashion has given rise to the concept of “green-washing”, where brands like H&M and ASOS market a few ranges of organic garments while maintaining a scorched earth strategy in wider business practice. The fast fashion model is built on selling products so low in quality that disposability is stitched into their very fabric. This Halloween, high street retailers will be marketing millions of must-have single-use lacy black dresses and cat’s ears headbands almost identical to the ones they were selling last year.
7] While problematic, fast fashion is not singular in destroying the planet. The snobbery in vilifying fast fashion implies that the problem is greedy consumers who can’t afford to consume properly. As Tansy Hoskins argues in Stitched Up, “fast fashion must be critiqued as a product of corporations’ drive for profit, not the fault of the poor”. Designer labels use the same polluting factory conditions for much of what they sell. Many specialise in products particularly exhaustive to resources, such as crocodile skin handbags using animals raised in cruel farming conditions in one part of the world and skins treated with viciously toxic chemicals in another. And really, for all the column inches written on the “investment” of a good handbag or coat, all fashion is made to be disposable no matter the price tag.
8] There is a growing trend for eco-fashion, but ethical integrity has not proved enough of an incentive to bring about radical change. Issues such as pesticides, organic fabric, animal welfare and recycling are being taken on by labels like Stella McCartney or People Tree, whose founders wish to see a better world. While these businesses undoubtedly have an impact on the lives they touch, they do not address the system as a whole. Many of these garments are expensive, because producing with ethical standards is costly under capitalism. Not everyone has the means to buy them. In providing a niche market for the few with means who care about planet and people, arguably, there is less scrutiny and pressure on the rest, who not only go unchecked, some even relish in an unethical standpoint, as with furriers who deliberately use endangered animals.
9] Alternatives are being explored, but will they be found quickly enough? Fashion luxury conglomerate Kering sponsors the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Design research. Kering is certainly interested in sustainability, but only if it means guaranteeing the profit line into the future. Owners of Balenciaga, Gucci and Alexander McQueen, they are unlikely to back any research which proposes a radical economic overhaul of the system so corrosive to planet and people that is creating a time bomb for future generations.