• Rosa Burgoyne

Let's talk about fashion pollution...

Source: The Guardian. Photo depicts a landfill site.

In the UK, the fashion industry is incredibly important - we have the third largest clothing industry in Europe and it makes up 3.1% of our GDP. Unfortunately, this means we also have a massive problem with fashion pollution. While the average British consumer spends £1042 on new clothes every year, they also throw away 3.1kg of textiles during the same time. Only 0.3kg of that amount are recycled. In a study ranking textile pollution in Europe, we ranked fourth. Fashion pollution is increasingly being recognised as a serious contributor to climate change. The UN states that the fashion industry consumes more energy than the shipping and aviation industries combined and in 2015 it was responsible for 1,715 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. It’s obvious that change needs to happen and fast. But can the fashion industry ever disentangle itself from its toxic history and find a new way forwards?

Source: University of Cambridge. Photo shows the amount of pollution released into the air during the Industrial Revolution

The UK’s involvement with fashion pollution is not new. During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, new technologies coupled with a rise in the middle class and more disposable incomes meant that people began to buy more and more. As consumption rose, pollution of water and the air did too. Although the smog filled streets of Victorian London are no longer with us in the UK, arguably we’ve just exported them to other countries. Toxic chemicals used in dyes were a serious problem in the 19th century. In fact, the expression ‘mad as a hatter’ is widely believed to be linked to the mercury used in the felt hatting industry, which could cause long-term anxiety and irritation. The dangers of toxic chemicals are still a problem in many other countries, as the fashion industry outsources production to countries with low labour costs. In 2011, Greenpeace launched its Detox campaign which challenged big brands to commit to achieving zero hazardous discharge by 2020. So far 80 companies have signed up- representing 15% of the global industry.

Source: Green Diary. The model is wearing clothes from H&M's Conscious collection.

So far, so dispiriting. However, the overwhelming scale of the problem doesn’t mean that there aren’t individual people and companies trying to combat it. In 2019, 32 of the biggest global brands including Burberry and Chanel signed a fashion pact, promising to reduce their environmental impact. They pledged to cut the use of single-use fabrics by 2020 and to embrace recycling. Whether these promises come to fruition remains to be seen but it’s good to see major companies taking such a big step. Specific brands are also taking their own steps: for example, Levi’s have released a new denim collection called Water<Less which uses up to 96% less water. H&M have also come out with the Conscious range, made from materials like organic cotton and recycled polyester. Their goal is to only use sustainably sourced materials by 2030. (It should be noted that sustainable fashion campaigners have accused H&M of 'greenwashing' and have doubted whether the manufacture of the clothes is indeed as environmentally friendly as claimed.)

As the old saying goes, the personal is political and there is plenty we can do in our own lives to reduce fashion pollution. Instead of throwing away the clothes you no longer want, you can donate them to charity shops and organisations to help vulnerable people or simply resell them online. Instead of buying new clothes from high street chains, consider using thrift shops to find that new look. You might be surprised by the treasures you can uncover! Another great alternative is renting clothes - have access to the latest fashion while cutting out the waste. When you do buy something, try and make sure it’s good quality and will last a long time or purchase it from a sustainable brand. Following these steps drastically reduces waste but it also helps companies outside the traditional high street survive and thrive. There’s still a long way to go but the more people are aware of the problem and take small steps in their own lives to solve it, the closer we come to a solution! The future of fashion could still be bright.