Laura Foster-Devaney reveals the environmental implications behind your wardrobe.

Usually when one thinks about climate change induced by air pollution, images of huge power plants spewing out gargantuan clouds of polluting smoke and lone polar bears leaping from sparse iceberg to sparse iceberg spring to mind; situations that are far removed from our daily lives. What doesn’t occur to us is that an integral part of our everyday appearance impacts the future of the environment on a monumental scale.

As noted by Professor Dilys Williams from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion: “Fashion holds up a mirror to society, showing what’s going on in economic, cultural, social and environmental terms.” A recent report on the environmental effect of Levi’s clothing brand proved shocking, revealing a pattern of negligence towards climate change awareness throughout the fashion industry, and comprehensive policies to prevent it. The report made by claims that the internationally renowned denim company has “dragged its feet” on making any changes to clothing production within the supply chain, resulting in a factory pollution output equalling that of 1.1 million cars. Such laxity from a leading figure in the world of fashion reflects an issue which is troubling industry-wide.

The fashion industry in general is responsible for approximately8% of air pollution, which in itself does not seem representative of a huge percentage, yet when compared to the 9% produced by the entire continent of Europe, it is particularly shocking. Not only that, but countries where the textile industry is at its most prolific – with large fashion companies typically situating their factories in Asia – are also the countries that suffer most from the effects of toxic levels of air pollution and are directly impacted by climate change. In this way, a melee of environmental issues produced by the fashion industry results in approximately 38,000 deaths per year. Such fatal repercussions from the energy usage of just one popular industry puts a significant death toll on each item of clothing that is bought, bringing this rapidly worsening issue into shocking relevance.

The textile industry in China is the largest in the world, and is therefore the main contributor to emissions within the fashion industry’s polluting output. As the location of 150 Levi’s factories, it is worrying that 70% of the country’s electrical grid is powered by coal, the combustion of which, according to Tsinghua University and Health Effects Institute, is “the single largest source of air pollutionrelated health impact”. Within China alone, 1.6 million people die per year from air pollution; this, paired with other climate change-induced factors creates dangerous surroundings for fashion’s most prolific contributors.

Air pollution and change in weather and sea conditions are not the only noticeable impacts from the fashion industry’s environmental negligence. The production of cotton, as perhaps the most widely used natural fabric, involves a surprisingly wasteful farming process, where a yield of 1kg of cotton requires 20,000 litres of water.

Furthermore, the increasingly disposable nature of garments made from synthetic materials such as nylon and viscose pose a threat to the biodegradability of clothing when disposed of. A prevalent example of clothing pollution is the world’s most popular summer footwear: flip-flops. Huge swathes of rubber sandals end up in oceans worldwide, contributing to shoreline waste, which is detrimental to wildlife and seaside ecosystems. A solution to this problem has been postulated by Algenesis Materials, a start-up that has managed to create a foam-like material derived from algae. It is perfect for making flip-flops and will biodegrade far more rapidly than the traditional rubber formation.

Though the largest fashion brands are, according to standfashion, “dragging [their] feet” concerning environmental sustainability, smaller labels are picking up the slack. Lines such as Raven & Lily’s create hand-loomed cotton clothes made in Africa’s only carbon-neutral fair trade factory, meaning their pollution output is at an absolute minimum.

Nae is a Portugese footwear brand that uses sustainable materials for the linings of shoes, where the manufacturing system is carbon neutral, again reducing the brand’s carbon footprint significantly. These are just two small examples of an increasingly widening market which hopes to counteract the heavily detrimental effects of the popular fashion industry, which, if it continues to neglect its environmental responsibilities, could be a key player in the rapidly approaching climate catastrophe.

All statistics via “Levi’s Too Deadly To Wear” report by Fashion Stand Earth
Laura’s Twitter handle: @DevaneyFoster


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