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How is the Fashion Industry Affecting the Environment?

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The fashion business is a multi-billion-dollar industry which is beset with problems of sustainability and waste, ultimately causing environmental damage. Everyone enjoys buying and wearing clothes, but it is an unpalatable and undeniable truth that the fashion industry is a major contributor to world-wide waste and pollution. The fashion business is the fourth largest industrial contributor to greenhouse gases. The emissions created by the industry is caused by our current consumerist lifestyles, and fast fashion is fuelling this. The waste from our obsession with new clothes means that we create a shocking amount of unused clothing, most of which gets put into landfill. The volume of water consumed by apparel production each year is currently the equivalent to 32 million Olympic swimming pools (Hall, 2018).

Our compulsive addiction may give us a good feeling for a brief spell but in the long run, it means that the earth will become warmer. A large part of the media is trying to make us aware of the growing problems created by our wasteful habits. The fact is, we need to find ways to end the damage caused to our planet if we want future generations to live and thrive on it. By examining some of the approaches being adopted by the industry to address the growing issues caused by fast fashion, this essay will identify how the industry is affecting the environment and how it plans to become more sustainable. One approach is to use environmentally friendly materials such as vegan leather, made from mushrooms, or making bags or shoes from cork. These environmentally friendly materials are being created with specific, useful properties that can make them more water resistant or durable than the materials that are traditionally used. Figureheads in the industry such as Stella McCartney are the driving forces behind the surge of interest in alternative materials. Many fashion houses are following in her footsteps with Gucci and Versace becoming fur-free. Environmentalists express a dilemma in the use of cow leather as they believe that it is wrong to kill cows for leather, but if they are killed for meat then the leather is simply wasted and will not be used. However, we are killing more cows than we can use for food and this is to fuel our leather needs. Currently, 290 million cows are killed yearly from a global herd of 1 billion. Figures suggest that the industry will be killing 430 million cows yearly by 2025 (Seigel, 2016).

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However, vegan and alternate materials are not cheap meaning high street retailers won’t sell them as it is not cost effective. Asos, the online retailer, have now pledged to ban cashmere, silk and mohair starting in 2019. This is a huge step in the right direction for animal rights, and campaigners are working towards banning the sale of fur completely in the UK after 110,000 people signed a petition for it to be discussed in parliament (Cochrane, 2018). Animal rights campaigners are urging the fashion industry to move away from using animals for materials, citing inhumane practices such as the shearing of cashmere goats in winter exposing them to freezing temperatures. These ideological shifts in the production of materials seem to be happening largely because of a younger target market. This new generation of consumers are more interested in issues such as animal rights and are becoming more conscious of what they are buying. This could be attributed to the rise in veganism and young people being more mindful of what they eat (Hancox, 2018). The mainstream fashion industry is likely to respond with more vegan offerings into their product lines as a response to this movement. Water usage in the industry is a cause for concern. One new cotton t-shirt uses over 650 gallons of water. “The water consumed to grow India’s cotton exports in 2013 would be enough to supply 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year. Meanwhile, over 100 million people in India don’t have access to safe water” (Leahy, 2015). One of the most effective way to decrease the amount of waste produced by our fashion obsession is reusing and recycling old clothes. The MacArthur Report (2017) identified that less than 1% of materials from old clothes is reused to make new ones.

This means that the rest of the fabrics and materials are either put into landfill or sent to charity shops when they could be recycled and given a new life. The estimated cost for the UK of landfilling clothing and textiles each year is roughly £82 million. Not only is putting clothes into landfill bad for the environment but it also uses up money which could be spent on improving society, for example on the NHS or emergency services. We are becoming a lot more wasteful; the average number of times an item of clothing is worn before it becomes unused has decreased by 36% in 15 years (Laville, 2017). All these figures show the growing problems that we are creating; that we are purchasing more than we need, and instead of reusing or recycling we are simply throwing them into the rubbish, to be put into landfill. The simple fact is that there are so many benefits of recycling old clothes and so many ways to do it as well. These include selling your clothes or bringing them to stores such as Nudie Jeans for them in-store recycling schemes whereby the customer receives 20% off their next purchase if they return their used jeans. These schemes encourage people to recycle by offering financial incentives benefitting them as well as the environment. The store then resells the item at a reduced price or uses the material for repairs if the item is not in a saleable condition. Similarly, John Lewis provides a buyback scheme which offers vouchers in exchange for old clothes instead of throwing them away. Recycling is a very important part of keeping the industry sustainable. However, there are some different types of recycling which are not as advantageous as others. Down-cycling means the textiles that have been recycled have reduced quality. The way to prevent this from happening is by blending them with virgin fibres.

The problem is that most cotton-based materials will be a polycotton mix. It is not possible to separate the polyester from the cotton and therefore it cannot be recycled. So even a t-shirt with 99% cotton and 1% spandex will most likely find its way into landfill (Gould, 2015). One solution to this problem is in the way we treat recycling. Consumers could be encouraged to wear clothes for longer and only buy clothes they need instead of to just ‘fuel an addiction’. Perhaps the way to make people keep clothes for longer is to have high street retailers make bespoke items such as jeans that are measured to fit or jackets with embroidery (Cartner-Morley, 2018). “Britain alone is expected to send 235 million items of clothing to landfill this spring, the majority of which could have been re-worn, reused or recycled” (Gould, 2017). Many major retailers are finding new and inventive ways to tackle the growing problems. For example, Marks and Spencer, H&M and Zara have introduced in-store recycling schemes allowing customers to return unwanted clothes (that were previously purchased from them) to be recycled. Meanwhile, companies such as Adidas and Kering (the owners of brands such as Gucci and Alexander McQueen) have agreed to set targets for 2020 for garment collection. Nike has introduced an innovative scheme to recycle used trainers into surfaces for sports and playgrounds. By 2017, 1.5 million used trainers per year were returned to their Reuse-A-Shoe scheme (Gould, 2017). Initiatives like this help to raise recycling rates and reduce unnecessary use of landfill. But surely, if the same fast fashion companies keep producing far too many items that they can sell, aren’t these counter-intuitive gestures? Retailers are working towards making recycling easier and more convenient for consumers.

However, our old habits need to change; a recent survey conducted by Sainsbury’s suggests that three-quarters of homeowners in Britain throw out old clothes with their rubbish (Sainsbury’s, 2017). By raising the profile of recycling initiatives, major companies hope to encourage the public to recycle and increase their brand’s profile. One of the major pitfalls of the recycling industry is its vulnerability to unscrupulous activity. A report in the Daily Mail in 2018 revealed that in the UK 300,000 tons of clothing are sent to landfill every year and internationally, 73% of clothing produced will eventually end up there (Sturgis, 2018). The so-called ‘rag-traders’ pay for used clothing destined for recycling and instead resell the items in Eastern Europe and Africa for a profit. The collection, shipping and distribution of these items creates environmental problems of their own, and adversely affects the manufacturing and distribution of new clothing produced locally as the second-hand market undercuts the local economy. The journalist Cartner-Morley (2018) hypothesises that the computer programs that predict what the next trend will be for fast fashion companies will become more accurate. When a company discontinues an item, instead of a long process involving lots of communication with the factories, they will have a supply and demand system which will reduce the possibility of excess, unneeded clothes. Technology in fashion is always developing and people are finding new materials to use. One major development in fashion technology is artificial intelligence (AI). This will play a large part in reducing the amount of waste we create. AI is a huge market, estimated to reach £30 billion by 2020 (Chitrakorn, 2018). It will help brands and retailers to predict the next trend, to calculate the quantity of items to produce and to design the merchandising. This means it could truly help with supply and demand order chains that will be crucial to stop unneeded clothes being made and ultimately wasted. AI can be used in other ways as well, such as personalisation on websites that you have to log in to. The use of 3D printing is ground-breaking, this is because the materials that are often used are recyclable. Soon the cotton and polyester we use for most of our clothes will be replaced by natural ‘fruity’ fibres. Cotton needs lots of water while growing and polyester is derived from petroleum. Their replacements will include ‘banana sylk’ which is from the stems of banana plants and fruit ‘leathers’ mainly from pineapple (Siegle, 2018). A Spanish brand Piñatex is already using pineapple leather and it is very cost effective; “a square metre of pineapple leather uses 480 waste pineapple leaves and is half the cost of traditional cow leather… (and it) comes at a fraction of the environmental cost of raising livestock” (Siegle, 2018). New clothing dyes have been gaining popularity, made from siphon pigments from plants; the use of these replaces the use of conventional dyes from acids and solvents. These new dyes use a 10th of the water of the old dyeing systems. Soon, silk will not be a rare and valuable fabric, but a fabric that could be used for exercising in as a new process of creating silk protein in water has been shown to alter silk from water repellent into water wicking, meaning the material will pull the water or sweat from your body (Siegle, 2018). This process can be used to coat nylon or cashmere to make them shrink resistant. Researchers from Penn State University in America have been using squid teeth proteins to analyse whether their self-mending properties can be used in clothing. They turn them into a liquid that coats materials. If torn, the edges of the clothes can be repaired by placing the two ripped edges together (Siegle, 2018). Another exciting new innovation in the fashion world is fashion hire. These ‘libraries’ of clothes allow the individual to take out a piece of clothing for a limited amount of time to prevent people having to buy clothes which they rarely use. The customer requires a membership for their chosen company and then they can borrow as and when they require the clothes. The Dutch start-up company Lena believes that if customers try out the clothes for a week before buying, it will reduce the waste as they will then know if they will use it or not (Boztas, 2018).

Lena intend to extend the company from renting out clothes to toys and tools and whatever else people need. They believe that it is the best way of being sustainable as it encourages people to try things out before they buy them, so they do not end up wasting their money and having to either throw the garment away or just have it lying in their wardrobe. Companies like these are helping to tackle the estimated $500 billion value that is lost yearly due to clothing that is hardly worn and barely recycled. However, a clear problem with these subscription services for clothes is that clothes can be damaged beyond repair, meaning that they must be repaired or replaced making it not very sustainable. A possible way for clothing to be made more sustainable is it being made with recycling in mind. Even if the consumers decided that they don’t want to have clothes that have a polyester blend in them it would be swapping one environmental problem for another. Cotton production generally uses 20,000 litres of water to produce just one kilogram of cotton. Polyester, however, is a synthetic polymer made from crude oils. It is mostly non-biodegradable plastic and is used in 60% of all our clothing (Sturgis, 2018). Looking at its properties it is a very good material to use; it’s cheap, light and easy to blend with other fabrics. However, polyester is a plastic, meaning it is very hard to recycle making it a burden to take care of once thrown away. The fashion industry faces a great number of issues regarding sustainability and how it affects the environment. However, these problems can be viewed as falling into two distinct areas; the way that consumers are using the clothes and the way that they are produced. Consumers have become reliant on fast fashion, creating a cycle of throwing away unwanted clothing instead of going through channels that allow for upcycling, or simply recycling the clothes to stop them from ending up in landfill. If more high street companies invested in the technology to create bespoke or personalised items this would create an environment in which individual items of clothing became less disposable and also more desirable (Cartner-Morley, 2018).

The fashion industry itself is affecting the environment negatively through the scale of production that results in a large proportion of items ending up in a landfill. If every company had a supply and demand order chain, it would prevent this from happening as they would only have in stock as much as they can sell. Animal welfare issues are seen as key to the environmental credentials of fashion houses, and investment in new technology to find affordable replacements for leather and fur are high on their agenda. Whilst new commercial ideas such as clothes libraries and alternative business models could create a new consumer attitude towards purchasing and replacing clothing, there is still an unavoidable burden on the industry to invest in developing technologies that address what to do with old, used or unwanted clothing, such as turning cotton items into biomass energy or using it for compost to grow plants. words: 2553 Bibliography Boztas, S. (2018) Check me out: the library where you can borrow clothes instead of books.

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