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How your wardrobe is causing an environmental crisis.

Author: Zero Waste Volunteers

You probably know the tagged prices of the clothes you pay for. We are aware of how much the clothes we buy cost us, however, there are hidden costs behind each item in our wardrobe that goes unnoticed, i.e., the environmental costs.

Over the past 15 years, the fashion industry has doubled its production. Almost 73% of the clothes that are discarded, are burned or buried in landfills. Contrary to popular belief, only less than 1% of the clothes recycled are actually used to make new clothing. The rest 12% is shredded and used to stuff mattresses, or made into insulation or cleaning cloths

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), it takes about 3,781 liters of water to make a pair of jeans, from the production of the cotton to the delivery of the final product to the store. That equates to the emission of around 33.4 kilograms of carbon equivalent. If that is for just one pair of jeans, imagine the environmental cost for everything in our wardrobes. The following statistics, published by the UNEP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, give us an idea:

  • Every year the fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water — enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people.
  • Around 20 % of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric dyeing and treatment.
  • Of the total fiber input used for clothing, 87 % is incinerated or disposed of in a landfill.
  • The fashion industry is responsible for 10 % of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. At this pace, the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions will surge more than 50 % by 2030.
  • Every year a half a million tons of plastic microfibers are dumped into the ocean, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. These microfibers cannot be extracted from the water and they can spread throughout the food chain and harm marine biodiversity.
  • Every year, thousands of hectares of endangered and ancient forests are cut down and replaced by plantations of trees used to make wood-based fabrics such as rayon, viscose, and modal.
  • Chemicals used during fiber production, dyeing, bleaching, and wet processing of each of our garment cause diseases and premature death among cotton farmers, along with massive freshwater and ocean water pollution and soil degradation.

The question is, how did the fashion industry become such a huge culprit of environmental degradation? The answer is quite simple. The fashion industry’s focus on a linear operating model is the chief problem causing this crisis. The Manufacturer's goal is to make as many garments as possible and get it to the customers without thinking about their disposal, thus eliminating a circular chain.

Collection launches are no longer seasonal; the replacement of clothing inventories with introduction of new trends has become much more frequent. Many low-cost clothing stores offer new designs every week. The dizzying pace of apparel manufacturing has also accelerated consumption as this disposal and trendy nature of fashion drives us as consumers to keep demanding the new changes that come along. The average person today buys 60 % more clothing than in 2000 and as a result they also discard more.

To make the garment industry more sustainable, all actors must get involved, from designers to manufacturers, critics, and consumers. This brings us to the next question, what can we as consumers do? The short answer to this lies in the basic 9-Rs theory of being zero-waste. To go into a precise answer, taking these small steps can help:

  • Rethink your fashion consumption before you buy yet another garment. Ask yourself if you are really going to wear that new piece to the extent that it was worth being made. Avoiding the introduction of new clothes into the clothing waste crisis is the key.
  • Repair clothing that has minor breaks instead of discarding and purchasing a new item. The durable nature of most of the clothing we use makes it capable of being repaired easily. It also gives you a chance to hone your sewing skills!
  • Repurpose your clothing. Take out that sewing machine and get creative. Use your existing clothes to cut them up if needed and fashion new items that are more at par with your current vision. You can also find a tailor with whom you can discuss how to repurpose your existing clothes into new items. Moreover, you can also repurpose worn out clothes by turning them into face wipes for make up or just to be used for cleaning, dusting and mopping your household items.
  • Consider quality over quantity. Every additional year a garment survives means less pollution into the landfills. Cheap clothing often doesn't survive the wash cycle, meaning that in the long run you don’t save money compared with buying better quality garments. Buying cheap fast fashion will harm your pockets as well as the environment in the longer run.
  • Rent clothing for special occasions or one-time wear items. It will give you an opportunity to wear new clothes whilst reusing present items. It is a super sustainable solution because the pieces already exist, so you are saving the entire negative impact of production. The same thing can go the other way as well. You can rent out your clothes for a profit and in the process save the environment! Moreover, you can take charge of setting up a cloth renting community virtually or physically which can act as a platform to bring renters and buyers together for achieving community wide sustainability.
  • Buy second-hand clothing or go thrift shopping. Reusing clothes that already exist in the garment cycle is the way to go when it comes to saving the environment and looking trendy while doing it. We can very easily find trends we want to follow whilst being environment friendly by looking for used clothes off thrifty racks or online used markets. This stops the addition of new clothes in the cycle and fulfills the life cycle of an existing garment.
  • Donate what you no longer use. Another solution to support the circular cycle of fashion is to donate the clothes you no longer use. Your old can be someone else’s new and trendy. It can be your small role in controlling the fashion waste crisis.
  • Check the label. Read the fabrics involved in making the garment. Check if the manufacturers used sustainable criteria to make the clothing. Choose fibers with low water consumption such as linen, recycled fibers, etc.
  • Opt for buying from sustainable brands that use recycled materials to show a growing demand from consumers for eco-conscious items to the manufacturers.
  • Discard unwearable clothes sustainably to a recycling centre. You can get in touch with local recycling shops which would be a good place to discard unusable garments.
  • Be conscious about the cleaning products you are using on your clothing. Use minimal water in the process. Avoid the usage of abrasive detergents and switch to eco-friendly alternatives like bio-enzymes, etc.

These are a few steps you can take to be a more responsible fashionista. Without consumers making a change, the efforts are in vain. We need to become aware of what we are buying. The main goal is to stop viewing material items as disposal assets, rather treat them with respect to fulfill their life cycle and reduce our carbon footprint.