I conceived this series to be made up of life-affirming stories about discovering the fascinating secret lives of the garments that come my way. But secrets can be good and bad, and I was moved to write this episode by a news report last week based on the findings of a study at Newcastle University about the extent of plastic pollution in the oceans.
The study went into the ultra-deep trenches of the Pacific Ocean, over an area of thousands of kilometres, and all the way down to the deepest point in the Mariana Trench. They tested samples of crustaceans living there at a depth of over 10 km and found that every single specimen examined – 100% - contained fragments of plastic including microfibres such as Rayon, Nylon, and Lyocell, used in textiles among other products. The fibres could actually be seen in the stomach contents as they were being removed
The inevitable conclusion was that “it is highly likely there are no marine ecosystems left that are not impacted by anthropogenic debris.”
Depressing beyond words.
In this story I am going to share some facts about the dark side of the fashion industry and the clothes we wear. Much of it will be familiar but it’s worth reminding ourselves of the stark reality, as the statistics are shocking.
- The clothing industry is on of the most polluting industries (sources differ but most agree it's the 4th) in the world, taking into account not only obvious factors—pesticides, toxic dyes and the mountains of landfill created by discarded clothing—but also the enormous amount of natural resources used in farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing and shipping.
There's a saying that you can predict next season's hot colours by the colour of the rivers in China.
- Polyester and nylon are made from petrochemicals, and are not biodegradable, so unsustainable by their very nature. Their manufacturing uses great amounts of energy, but get this: the manufacture of nylon also emits a large amount of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. The impact of one pound of nitrous oxide on global warming is almost 300 times that of the same amount of carbon dioxide.
- Natural fibres are not the answer: it takes 2,700 litres of water - what one person drinks in two and a half years - to make a single cotton T shirt.
- The average T-shirt travels the equivalent distance of once around the globe during its production.
- In 2016 alone, it is estimated that 1,130,000 tonnes of clothing were purchased in the UK. Over the past 10 years, clothing has been the fastest growing waste stream in the UK. Fast-changing fashion trends and low prices allow – encourage - people to consume more. The average consumer is now purchasing 60 percent more items of clothing compared to 2000, but each garment is kept half as long.
"Feel amazing for £8" ... or better for free?
- A predicted 235 million items of unwanted clothing in Britain alone are expected to end up in landfill unnecessarily this year.
- There are an estimated 6 billion clothes left unworn in the nation's wardrobes - a whopping 57 items per person - with an average of 16 items only worn once and 11 still with the tags on.
- Clothes continue to impact the environment after purchase; washing them causes plastic fibres to be flushed into waterways, ending up in the stomachs of the creatures at the beginning of this story.
The clothing industry is a complicated business involving long and varied supply chains of production: raw materials, textile manufacture, design, construction, shipping, retail, use and ultimately disposal of the garment. We haven’t even started on the socio-economic issues and the appalling conditions and exploitation suffered by the poorly-paid workforce. But what is clear is that we have to act now to do whatever we can to slow down the damage. It’s a no-brainer.
Think carefully before you buy anything. Choose clothes that you won’t tire of, treat them well, wear them for years. Choose what to keep and what you can pass on: sell, give, donate, just don’t throw it away. Forget fashions - they come around so fast anyway you’re never really in or out – as Coco Chanel famously said, “Fashion fades, only style endures.”
There is a growing movement for slow fashion and a number of ways you can get involved. A great way to get you thinking and acting is Fashion Revolution's downloadable handbook, How to be a Fashion Revolutionary. It is full of resources and information about the industry, as well as events and inspiration.
Next time, I’ll write a life-affirming, fascinating story about a much-loved garment, I promise.
John Thackera How to Thrive in the Next Economy. (I urge it on you, it’s very readable, full of startling thoughts, and surprisingly optimistic.)