The fashion industry’s environmental impact is multifaceted and complex due to the lack of transparency in the industry. This historically unregulated industry is rapidly encroaching on planetary boundaries and certainly has a lot to answer for when it comes to the climate crisis.
“The fashion industry currently operates on a model which relies on the exploitation of people and the environment — and it will take a deep systemic change to reverse this”, explains the Extinction Rebellion (XR) Fashion team.
First, What Are Planetary Boundaries?
The planetary boundary concept, introduced in 2009, aimed to identify nine boundaries that define the environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate on Earth.
According to EcoMatcher, planetary boundaries are, “thresholds within which humanity can survive, develop and thrive for generations to come.” If these boundaries are crossed, it will lead to abrupt or irreversible planetary changes with widespread impacts (which, we are already witnessing).
Climate change is but one of these nine boundaries. Others include land-system change, freshwater use, and ozone depletion.
“We shouldn’t be talking about the climate crisis in isolation. We are hitting or exceeding planetary boundaries of which climate is just one. We must consider that we are facing a climate and ecological crisis and this is because we are overshooting our use of the planet’s biocapacity,” says Sarah Arnold of Fashion Act Now.
This framework is useful for understanding and affirming that there are definite limits to growth – a concept that the fashion industry has yet to take on board. So, the fashion industry needs to shift its functions in a way that honors the inherent resource limits of the Earth.
The Fashion Industry’s Environmental Impact
The fashion industry lacks transparency, which makes measuring the environmental impact of fashion challenging. Still, many of its impacts are clear.
Here are a few ways that the fashion industry is contributing to the climate crisis and encroaching on planetary boundaries:
Fashion’s emissions problem
It’s difficult to pinpoint the fashion industry’s exact carbon footprint due to a lack of reputable data. But, it is estimated that the industry is responsible for between 2-8% of global carbon emissions.
In 2018, the global apparel and footwear industry produced more greenhouse gasses than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined, totaling 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.
Why this matters: The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report affirmed that the effects of this climate crisis are already being felt across the globe, from unprecedented heat waves to deadly flash floods and rising sea levels to biodiversity loss.
Reliance on plastic fibers
Over two thirds (69%) of materials used in textiles are synthetic. Synthetic fibers, mainly polyester and nylon, are non-renewable and are derived from fossil fuels. (Specifically, crude oil.) An estimated 342 million barrels of oil are used each year in the production of these fibers.
“Synthetic fibers are manufactured from oil and fracked gas. If we want to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees we must leave all fossil fuels in the ground,” explains the XR Fashion team.
Microfibers are the tiny plastic fibers that synthetic garments shed when washed.
Approximately 35% of microplastics released to oceans globally originate from washing synthetic textiles.
On the topic of fossil fuels and fibers derived from plastic, the more synthetic materials are produced, the greater fashion’s contribution to microfiber pollution of global bodies of water.
Water use and chemical pollution
The fashion industry is not water-wise.
On top of this, waste disposal is often unregulated, which means that water containing toxic chemicals and heavy metals is often dumped into waterways surrounding garment factories, putting the health of garment workers and local ecosystems at risk.
Cellulosic fibers, like viscose and rayon, are made from the pulp of logged trees. Often ancient and old-growth forests are still being destroyed for the sake of fashion while harming Indigenous communities, native plants, natural ecosystems, and the climate.
A recent study also found that several large fashion brands are at risk of contributing to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, because of their use of tanneries and production of leather goods.
From harmful industrial agricultural practices to deforestation, the fashion industry is responsible for significant degradation of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity all over the world.
Loss of soil fertility
Industrial agricultural practices that are used to produce natural fibers often use multiple pesticides and herbicides that leach into the soil, reduce soil fertility, and affect the health of people that work on the farm.
From mountains of clothes dumped in Chile’s Atacama desert, to millions of garments arriving in the Kantamanto Market every week – it is undeniable that fashion has a waste crisis that is fueled by the global secondhand trade and waste colonialism.
This complex combination of issues clearly illustrates the fashion industry’s environmental impact. While we are all vulnerable to the consequences of big fashion’s addiction to growth and environmental ruin, communities in the Global South and the most vulnerable workers in the fashion system are often at disproportionate risk of experiencing these impacts first-hand.
Why We Need To Focus On People When Creating Planetary Solutions
We cannot think about social systems as separate from nature, because social inequality is inseparable from the climate crisis.
“Communities in the Global South, who have contributed the least to global warming, have been the first to feel the deadly effects of climate change and will continue to be the hardest hit.
Factories, where garments are produced for consumption by the Global North, pollute rivers and waterways that are sources of drinking water to local populations,” explains the XR Fashion team.
This is also a good reminder that ethics should always be at the center of conversations about sustainability and creating just solutions to the fashion industry’s environmental impact. As Ayesha Barenblat, CEO and Founder of Remake, told Sourcing Journal, “If chemical-free cotton is picked by people who essentially have no rights, then that’s not sustainable. If you’re only going to look at the environmental standards without looking at them, then it’s a complete myth.”
In fact, environmental scientist Roland Geyer has a theory – termed the Green Theory of Labor by Elizabeth Cline – that suggests that investing in labor is part of the solution to our climate breakdown. In his recent book, The Business of Less: The Role of Companies and Businesss on a Planet in Peril, Geyer argues that “labor rather than green products or materials hold the key to social and environmental sustainability.”
Geyer calculates that raising the world’s 35 million garment workers’ wages just an extra $100 a week (about what’s needed to reach a living wage in Bangladesh and India) would immediately cut 65.3 million metric tons of CO2 out of the global economy. This is a significant statement given the urgent need for decarbonization.
Beyond living wages, this theory of labor also has important parallels with the oft-cited slow fashion ethos, “the most sustainable garment is the one you already own.” This ethos is an acknowledgment of the urgent need for the fashion industry to slow down how fast and how much it produces, and work with what we already have. Several alternative fashion business models that offer services, such as mending, tailoring, customizing, altering, and upcycling, are already championing this.
In these service-oriented business models, no new clothes are created, but labor and artisan handwork are necessary to make your loved clothes last. So, these inherently labor-intensive business models are one example of how an investment in labor can contribute to slowing down the fashion industry.
While the keyword here is ‘theory’, Geyer’s focus on labor, instead of materials, as a key solution to systems change in the fashion industry should not be overlooked. This is because it is an acknowledgment that, while fashion brands race toward material innovations, the fundamentals of the fashion industry will not change without an investment in the people that make our clothing and the people that are affected by the fashion industry’s ills.
“The very fact that the direct impacts of the fashion industry’s manufacturing processes are affecting vulnerable people in the Global South rather than fashion consumers in the Global North is largely what enables the practices to continue,” says the XR Fashion team.
No major clothing brand pays its garment makers in Asia, Africa, Central America, or Eastern Europe enough to climb out of poverty. I do not doubt that the world will be a better place if more people earned living wages and can break cycles of poverty – especially those who are the least responsible for the climate crisis yet face the greatest threats.
How Do I Find My Role In The Movement For Change?
When it comes to these multifaceted global crises, it is easy to feel hopeless and overwhelmed. But, there have been many global efforts to attempt to get fashion to clean up its act by advocacy organizations and intergovernmental organizations alike. Three examples are Remake’s Fashion Accountability Report, Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index, and the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action.
While this could be seen as a hinderance, we could also see it as an opportunity to create solutions for a better fashion industry that are layered, contextualized, and can include all of us.
And, our most meaningful contributions to the movement for change in the fashion industry will be ones that are firmly rooted in each of our unique skill sets, circles of influence, and ideas that spark joy.
With this in mind, Co-founder of The All We Can Save Project, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s climate action framework is useful for figuring out how your unique positioning can contribute to a collective movement. You will start by drawing three circles that overlap in a Venn diagram.
Fill one with what brings you joy (what excites you and drives you), one with what you’re good at (your skills, network, and resources), and the final with the work that needs doing (solutions that you can identify and empathize with). The intersections of these circles determine your role in this movement for change.
To add further nuance, academic activist Joycelyn Longdon, created a resource that unpacks different roles that can exist within the movement in response to the realization that there valid reasons as to why not everybody’s activism can take the same form.
The resources include roles like ‘The Insiders’ (such as lawyers, researchers, and policymakers), ‘The Nurturers’ (such as spiritual leaders, therapists, and mothers), ‘The Rooters’ (such as farmers and growers), and ‘The Storytellers’ (such as fashion designers, musicians, artists, and writers).
“The fashion industry needs a paradigm shift. It will require more than conscious consumerism. We need systemic changes. We need to shift from thinking about efficiency to sufficiency,” says Arnold. This will require us to refine our roles as citizen activists, as well as incorporate slow fashion practices into our lives.
We all have different roles to play and you’ll have to reflect on your own journey to figure out where your energy is best spent. When it comes to fashion, it’s sometimes the simplest actions that can be the most transformative.
Ultimately, it is the business models of fashion that are based on a destructive philosophy of endless growth at the expense of the planet and people that continue to perpetuate fashion’s link to the climate crisis.
The good news is that we can all be a part of an alternative narrative. While Earth Day should be every day, we hope you can find one accessible thing that helps you to embed yourself in the collective movement for change in the fashion industry and beyond!
For more on the environmental impact of fashion and the connections to social systems, check out these 15 sustainable fashion books to add to your reading list.
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About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.
Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a PGDip in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.