Today’s clothing industry is worth £1.34 trillion in annual global retail sales – that’s equivalent to the combined GDP of the world’s 126 poorest countries. By 2021, this is predicted to reach $1.4 trillion, an increase of around $106 billion or 8.1% since 2016. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise to discover an industry this size, has an equally large carbon footprint.
The fashion industry is responsible for around 10% of global carbon build-up, producing 5 times more CO2 than the aviation industry. But carbon emissions are by no means the only environmental threat within the industry.
In this guide we highlight some of the critical, global issues surrounding the fashion industry, and what you can do as an individual to support the slow movement and become a more ethical shopper.
Today’s society beckons us to consume at a faster rate than ever before. Thanks to mass production, we can afford to simply discard products we no longer want, and replace them instantly with minimal impact on our wallets. As a result, products are designed with a shorter life expectancy and are poorer quality. The fashion industry is one of the worst of its kind, with mass production occurring on a scale that is no longer sustainable.
The clothing and textile industry is estimated to produce around 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 each year; contributing heavily towards global heating. Excessive volumes of water are required to grow the necessary raw materials, and the use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals such as fabric dyes, are damaging soil, biodiversity, and the water sources for local communities.
While around 80 billion new garments are produced globally each year, currently 80 per cent of all clothing produced eventually ends up in incinerators landfill sites. Urgent action is clearly required to improve sustainability, but how do you tackle an industry with annual, global retail sales worth more than the Russian economy?
Slow fashion is a movement focused on improving sustainability by challenging social cultures surrounding the industry and encouraging both retailers and consumers to take a more ethical approach to fashion. As the industry continues to accelerate, and with it – its carbon footprint, there’s never been a more important time to consider your purchase choices.
is the average amount of clothes purchased per year in Europe and the USA
Of all microplastics in the ocean come from Clothes and Textiles
Tonnes of CO2 annually is emitted by the Clothes and Textiles industry
Fast-fashion is a process adopted by the majority of leading retailers that relies on mass production to generate cheap clothing at a rapid rate in response to the latest styles and trends. Because the cost of garments is so low, consumers are tempted into purchasing new clothes with each new trend, meanwhile, their old, unwanted clothes are discarded.
Slow fashion is the alternative to fast fashion, and promotes a slower, more sustainable approach.It supports buying vintage or second hand clothes, redesigning old clothes, shopping from smaller producers, and buying quality garments with a longer lifespan.
Spend some time researching your favourite brands to find out more about their impact on the planet. Are they doing anything to actively improve the sustainability of their manufacturing process? Adidas for example, are producing shoes from recycled plastic waste, while Hugo Boss recently released a vegan sneaker collection made from Pinatex, a by-product of pineapple leaves. Also try to look out for certifications and badges which signify the retailer has met certain ethical standards.
For example, the STANDARD 100 label certified by OEKO-TEX®️, tests garments to ensure each thread, button and other accessories used are free from harmful dyes or chemicals. Other certifications to look out for include; Greenpeace-Approved Detox to Zero, WFTO, FSC, EU Ecolabel, GCC Brandmark, B Corp, GOTS, Made-by, USDA Organic, PETA-Approved Vegan.
We vote with our wallets, so make your vote count by supporting a retailer dedicated to giving something back. Social enterprises are a perfect example, as their profits are put towards supporting the good of the people and the planet. Some may even have a buy/give model similar SLO active’s Earth To Ocean Model, where they make a special donation for every purchase made.
You should also look for businesses with B Corp Certification, as this represents the highest standard of verified social and environmental performance, alongside public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. Many retailers, including SLO active, have also adopted 1% for the planet, a business model that connects members with non-profit partners, in order to give 1% of their sales back to the environment.
The amount of a retailer is willing to disclose about their much environmental and social policies, can help you identify those who are working to improve their practices, and those who have something to hide. The Fashion Transparency Index, produced by Fashion Revolution is a great resource to use, scoring 200 of the biggest retailers out of a possible 250, based on 5 key areas; Policies & Commitments; Governance; Tracebility; Know, Show and Fix, and Spotlight Issues.
Some fabrics are much more eco-friendly than others. While completely avoiding certain materials may be tricky, it’s important to understand the origins of your fabrics to help you make better choices for the planet – and your wardrobe.
Below we have provided information on all major textiles used in clothing production:
Silk has a relatively low carbon foot-print, with little soil and land impact. Mulberry trees are farmed for their leaves, which are fed to the silkworms.
This requires a fair amount of water, but the growing of mulberry trees is considered to reasonably sustainable. Mulberry trees also help to store carbon for the atmosphere, helping to reduce global heating from trapped CO2 emissions.
Made from Cotton, Denim is just as draining on water resources and is heavily dependent on the use of pesticides. Levi’s calculated it takes a massive 3781 litres of water to produce just one pair of jeans.
Distressed denim produced by Sandblasting, raises even more concerns. A common technique that’s used to create that much-loved ‘worn’ effect – it involves blasting sand at the denim to soften it. When inhaled, these particles can cause serious health risks to workers.
One of the most common fabrics out there, yet possibly one of the most unethical in terms of its production. It requires approximately 2,700 litres of water to produce a single t-shirt, – almost enough for one person to drink for 900 days. Cotton also relies heavily on the use of chemicals, using approximately 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of insecticides, more than any other single major crop. Grown in mostly developing countries, many cotton farmers are heavily exploited, with many earning less than 2 dollars a day.
Organic cotton on the other hand, offers a much more sustainable alternative – avoiding the use of pesticides and nasty chemicals. Look out for organic cotton with the Global Organic Textile Standard trademark, to ensure the cotton you buy is sustainable.
Another natural fibre – wool requires minimal energy to produce compared to synthetic fabrics, and it’s biodegradable, which is of course good news for the planet. But unfortunately, where demand has grown, intensive sheep farming methods are becoming more widespread and are damaging the environment.
To be sure your wool is farmed sustainably, look for standards and certifications that ensure the fair treatment of animals and the respect of the environment, for example Responsible Wool Standard, ZQ Merino Standardand the Soil Association Organic Standards.
It may crease easily and be a pain to iron, but when it comes to protecting the environment, linen is a good choice for your wardrobe. It’s made from flax plant fibres, which means without the use of dye – linen is fully biodegradable.
Flax can grow in versatile conditions and requires much less water than cotton, and according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, flax uses 13 times less pesticides than potatoes.
Derived partly from petroleum, polyester is a product linked to the oil manufacturing industry – one of the world’s largest polluters. The process for creating polyester is costly in resources, involving an energy-intensive heating process that requires large quantities of water for cooling. Microfibres are also a big problem.
Microfibres are a large contributor to plastic pollution. It’s estimated that more than 4,500 fibres can be released per gram of clothing per wash, and when these fibres are filtered into our oceans, it creates devastating impacts for marine species.
Nylon is a fabric derived from crude oil. The production of nylon creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Large amounts of water and energy are used throughout the production process too, contributing heavily towards environmental degradation and global warming.
But not all nylon is bad. Econyl has developed an eco-friendly nylon made from recycled plastics, significantly reducing waste and emissions. Many brands including Stella McCartney, Finisterre, Outerknown and allSister have adopted the use of Econyl.
It may seem slightly ‘hippy dippy’ to consider wearing clothes made from hemp, but as far as fabrics go, hemp is one of the most environmentally friendly.
It doesn’t require the use of pesticides thanks to its ability to choke out any competing plants, and it returns 60-70% of the nutrients it takes from the soil. The chemicals used to dye the hemp are more of an issue, so if possible try to stick to natural hemp clothing that avoids harmful chemicals.
Yulex is a natural neoprene made from the rubber harvested from rubber trees and is the material SLO active use for our luxury swimwear range. It’s properties match synthetic neoprene in terms of tensile strength, tear strength, and elasticity, yet unlike synthetic neoprene it is chlorine free.
Yulex neoprene generates much less CO2 during manufacturing compared to synthetic neoprene, and like the cotton plantations, these rubber plantations are sustainably managed with the help and support of local communities.
A great alternative to cotton with almost identical properties, but this semi-synthetic fibre is made from Eucalyptus Trees, and is far more sustainable. Unlike cotton,TENCEL is grown without the use of pesticides or insecticides, and it uses around 80% less water. It requires approximately half an acre to grow enough trees for one ton of TENCEL™ fiber, while cotton needs at least five times more land.
Finally, TENCEL has a closed loop production process, which means 99% of the non-toxic solvent is recycled back into the system, eliminating water waste.
The fashion industry is the second largest contributor to global landfills, and most of this is waste from our wardrobes. According to The Waste and Resources Action Programme, WRAP, the value of unused clothing in wardrobes has been estimated at around £30 billion, with a predicted £140 million worth of clothing entering landfills each year.
So, instead of reaching for the bin bag when it’s time for your next wardrobe clear out, why not take them to your local charity shop instead? Your clothes will be passed on to a new owner, and the money they spend will go towards a good cause. Alternatively, if you’re looking to make some extra money yourself you can always try depop – a mobile app designed for fashion lovers looking to buy and sell garments.
When it comes to buying clothes we’re often restricted by budget. But buying quality items that last longer is often a more cost-effective solution than buying clothing that breaks after a few uses. By investing in a few quality items, you’ll not only spend less but you’ll waste less too.
As consumers, we are responsible for our actions, but manufacturers must also change their behaviour if things are to improve for the fashion industry. To off-set carbon emissions SLO active commit to planting one tree for each piece of clothing made – but what are other manufacturers doing to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint?
In July 2018, 10 different UN organizations established a UN Alliance on Sustainable Fashion, which focuses on promoting projects and policies to ensure the fashion industry contributes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. As a result, manufacturers are now turning their attention towards how they can improve the sustainability of their production processes.
The fast-fashion retailer Zara has announced that all of its collections will be made from 100% sustainable fabrics before 2025, while the fast fashion retailer H&M has shared their strategy to be 100% run on renewable energy by 2040 with a fully circular production model. Rental services like Rent The Runway, are also emerging, offering members access to “the world’s largest closet” in exchange for a monthly subscription, in an attempt to reduce the amount of textile waste that ends up in landfills.
This guide was written by SLO active.
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Unfccc.int. (2018). UN Helps Fashion Industry Shift to Low Carbon | UNFCCC.
WWF Switzerland (2017). Changing fashion The clothing and textile industry at the brink of radical transformation.