Sunday, May 19, 2019

Fast Fashion Fast Pollution

Fashion is the world’s second-most polluting industry after the oil industry. According to the think tank Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), the majority of fast-fashion products are incinerated or trashed within a year. In the U.S., wasted leather, cloth, rubber and other scraps constitute over 8 percent of the total volume of solid waste. The premature trashing of clothes wastes money as well as resources, costing an estimated $460 billion in product value per year. Around the world, the number of times people wear a garment has dropped by a third over the past 15 years, while clothing production has doubled. Americans in particular “wear out” clothes at roughly four times the global rate—snatching up jeans and boots practically faster than we can break them in. And although spring and fall are the main shopping seasons, brands now compete on “micro seasons,” ranging anywhere from 50 to 100 per year—so a hot collection might rotate from the display window to the landfill within weeks.

At the current rate of pollution, the apparel sector’s carbon emissions will balloon by 60 percent by 2030, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, amounting to about a quarter of the global carbon budget. The total share of carbon emissions from the sector by 2050 would actually be equivalent to roughly 300 million tons of oil—more than tripling within a generation.

The whole clothing supply chain ravages water and soil resources. A pair of jeans and a T-shirt, which amount to roughly two pounds of cotton, represent an estimated 20,000 liters of water. In addition, conventional cotton crops absorb about 24 percent of global insecticide sales and 11 percent of pesticide sales. Non-biodegradable plastic, synthetic fibers that are shed in the laundry flush into oceans and poison marine ecosystems, contributing roughly a third of global microplastic water pollution, or half a million tons of plastics. According to the World Bank, textile processing and dyeing contribute up to an estimated 20 percent of industrial water pollution today, the impacts of which are concentrated major producing countries that are already suffering massive water stress, like China.

Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, a global campaign founded in the wake of the horrific factory collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013 points out that even the limited “ethical sourcing” programs that brands use to audit their overseas factories are often toothless and unregulated. Although consumer pressure is rising, she observes, fashion remains “a profoundly growth-driven market, rather than a quality-driven market.” And once overproduced goods hit Western retail storefronts, “brands are burning millions and millions and millions worth of product that is unsold.”

Cleaning up fast fashion would necessitate a radical re-imagining of what we wear, who makes it and what it represents. Today, rankings of fashion brands according to the environmental impact of their supply chains show that the vast majority fail to incorporate eco-friendly production methods, including controlling chemical and energy use.

According to Francois Souchet, head of EMF’s Make Fashion Circular program, “Just slowing down isn’t enough … we need to change the way the industry operates quite fundamentally.”  Souchet says, the fashion sector should adopt a fully “circular” industrial infrastructure which relies on renewable energy and recyclable fiber. The circular-economy concept advocates “designing out” waste—deliberately constructing styles for durability, using recycled materials or organic fibers, without requiring hazardous pigments and other chemicals. For brands and consumers, Souchet says, “the incentive is on using what’s been produced more, on producing better, and on ensuring that once it can’t be used anymore, it can actually be turned into something new.”

The mass dumping of secondhand clothes is hardly a sustainable form of “reuse,” critics say, because it hampers higher-quality regional manufacturing in countries like Kenya and Uganda, by distorting the potential market for locally made fashion Recycling alone would not address fast fashion’s social problems, particularly labor abuses in Global South factories. A sustainable supply chain should also support decent jobs.

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