Many of us will have read about the accelerating and harmful impact that the growth of ‘fast’ and ‘disposable’ fashion has had on our environment locally and abroad. Over the last couple of years, the global fashion industry has been in the hot seat as a result of issues, ranging from questionable manufacturing processes right through to an increasing contribution to a landfill that is beginning to resemble something like the world’s largest dirty laundry pile! But what exactly can we do about it? This blog post is designed to bring you the facts about the impact of some our consumption habits on the environment and empower you as a consumer with some ways you can help to improve this through your own purchase behaviour while also saving money – it’s a win-win!
The scale of the fashion industry’s impact on our planet
If you were asked to think about your eco-practices in regards to fashion consumption, where would you rate yourself? Maybe a 7 out of 10? Chances are it’s probably a little lower than you think. We know what you’re thinking … “who, me?!” Don’t worry – you’re not alone! Most of us wouldn’t even think twice when the shop assistant hands us that plastic bag and bids us farewell, and we continue our journey into the next fashion outlet. But unfortunately, there are some hidden costs in our behaviour that are worth understanding more about – particularly with respect to where all of this stuff ends up (and we’re not talking about your overfilled closet either!).
So what drives us to make this decision so lightly and not think about the impact it may have on our planet? Are we bad people because we are bombarded with slabs of marketing and want to buy nice things? Whichever way we look at it, it’s a habit – a bad habit.
In saying that, we’re not going to be able to change all of our habits overnight. We can however only hope to have a longer-term and less painful solution. So, let’s take a closer look at the problem itself and break down how we as consumers can improve things in our day to day decisions:
Did you know that Australians are the second highest consumers of textiles per capita in the world?(2)Source: The Australian Financial Review, Why the Fashion Industry is Out of Control, 23 April 2016 The average Australian purchases 27kg of clothing per year (3)Source: ABC News article: “Australia’s Obsession with New Clothes Fast Fashion textiles is Hurting the Environment”, January 2017– that’s twice the global average and second only to the United States! What is perplexing about this is that the average Australian woman only uses about a third of what’s actually in her wardrobe, (4)Source: The Australian Financial Review, Why the Fashion Industry is Out of Control, 23 April 2016 leaving the rest to be thrown away and inevitably end up in landfills. And how much does that end up being? It’s around 6 tonnes of clothing every 10 minutes! That’s the retail value of $500 million (5)Source: The Australian Financial Review, Why the Fashion Industry is Out of Control, 23 April 2016 worth thrown in the bin per year – that’s right: half a billion dollars of economic value. Wasted. That’s madness!
Ok, take a deep breath – it’s a lot, we know. But understanding that we as consumers are the gatekeepers of what does and doesn’t happen at the landfill is actually quite reassuring and empowering. And don’t worry – there are answers to improving this and making the world a better place in the process. Read on to find out what the greatest areas impacted are, then we can review how to curb our impact at these levels.
Top 3 factors contributing to the fashion industry’s impact
After the paper and oil industries, the textile industry is the third largest consumer of water in the world. This is because natural fibres such as cotton, silk and linen need water to grow, and in a climate that normalises fast fashion, water consumption is only increasing to meet consumer demands. To put this consumption into perspective, it takes 2,700 litres of water to make a single cotton top – that’s more water than one person can consume in three years! If you do the math on this you’ll quickly realise that if we continue consuming a precious and scarce resource like water in such an irresponsible way, the cost of that resource will inflate to the point that the lure of affordable, disposable fast fashion can easily become not so affordable after all – especially when you consider the costs outside of the cost at the checkout.
Fabric takes a lot of energy to produce. Globally, it is estimated that we produce 60 billion kg of fabric per year. This accumulates to just over a 1,000 billion KWh of electricity. Because of this, the textile industry has become one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, making its carbon footprint significant. This is due to the many products and processes needed to create textiles themselves and then move them to the locations where we eventually purchase them. Now we’re not saying here that we have to learn how to make clothing out of other fabrics, but we do have to be aware of just how much input has to go into a single item that we wear.
CLOTHING CARE ITSELF
As consumers, it’s important that we purchase clothes consciously and with the environment in mind. However, a lot of damage is done post-purchase. So how we care for our clothing is another factor in our garment’s full environmental footprint and another opportunity to positively influence our impact.
When we wash our clothes, we use electricity. However, only 10% of the electricity is used to power the motor that spins the machine. The remaining 90% is energy used to heat the water needed for hot water cleaning cycles. Given that hot water isn’t always needed to clean most items, you can reduce your footprint at this stage by up to 90% by pressing one button – ‘Cold Cycle’! Too easy, right?
WHAT CAN WE DO TO REDUCE FASHION WASTE OURSELVES?
So given we’ve more deeply understood all of the reasons for our fashion-related environmental impact, let’s address the most important question: what can we do to help? The good news is, there’s a lot we can do! All these things are easy to implement, and in most instances, better than your current alternatives:
REDUCE AND RECYCLE
Reusing and recycling our clothes is a great place to start in reducing fashion waste. Not only does recycling help in pollution and waste management, but it also helps to put clothes back into circulation that otherwise might be collecting dust in our wardrobes. Thrifting and recycling clothing is also a cost-effective, environmentally-friendly way for us to add unique pieces to our wardrobes.
Key factors to consider when recycling garments:
Only donate items in good condition: donating poor quality or damaged items can end up costing more for charities and potentially wasting thousands of dollars each year.
Give & receive: Recycling organisations such as All-Round Recycling are a great resource that incentivises recycling by giving rewards. They collect unwanted clothing and donate it to developing countries in exchange for access to exclusive discounts and cash back rewards. As All-Round Recycling explains, “through diverting unwanted clothes from landfill we also aid third world countries by providing them with an affordable clothing solution that they otherwise might not have. The sale and distribution of the pre-loved clothing creates employment in these developing countries, as well as here in Australia.”(6)Source: www.allroundrecycling.com.au
Be creative & repurpose: instead of throwing out old items that can’t be donated, get creative! Old t-shirts can be cut up and used as cleaning rags or even make unique fashion pieces.
Who said helping out can’t be fun. Make it social by organising to attend clothes swapping events. This is a fantastic way to recycle fashion and help fight the war against fashion waste.
The reality is that most clothing is built to last – not just in terms of time, but also in ‘number of wears’ per item. Think about your best pair of jeans or your favourite hoodie: just how many times have you actually worn this? It’s probably a lot and this is why the tradition of ‘hand me downs’ has existed for so long. So by exploring ‘swapping’ your clothing more frequently, you have the opportunity to swap one piece of economic value (and spend!) for another without having to make a purchase – awesome! Start by doing it just with close family and friends first if you’re unsure just how easy it really is. We’re sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
The proliferation of the sharing economy has improved many parts of our lives – from ride sharing to house sharing. But why not our wardrobes? It just so happens that the sharing economy for women’s clothing is actually one of the oldest sharing economies there is! Women have been sharing clothing for a very long time – think of the number of times you’ve borrowed an outfit from your best friend or sister: sharing clothing is nothing new for us girls, particularly for one-off events and occasions. So the great news is that we have the opportunity to utilise a well-known behaviour to reduce our impact on the environment: sharing fashion!
The reason why this makes sense to do is because our clothing has actually always been built to be worn many, many times. That’s not a surprise to anyone right? But it seems like somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten this, perhaps in part due to the accessibility and cheap price point of disposable fashion items. The great irony here is that disposable fashion items are a horrible investment when compared on a cost-per-wear basis, so your costs add up pretty quick if you have an active social life. Let’s ask the question: just how many ‘wears’ should a good piece of clothing give you? As it turns out, it’s a lot more than you think:
Online fashion rental websites like GlamCorner allow you to borrow high-end, high-quality designer items and pay for them on a per-use basis. Because these platforms allow you to Rent an item, Wear it once, and then Return it you’re effectively only paying for what you use by sharing the item with many other women to collectively drive the cost-per-wear way, way down! Given that a typical designer item can be worn up to 20-30x times before they no longer look ‘as-new’, by sharing a designer item with 20-30 other women who would have otherwise purchased a single item to use once and dispose of, you can help to reduce the environmental impact of such a wear by up to 95%! This is due to the fact that instead of 20 to 30 items being manufactured, purchased, worn and disposed of there is only one (yes, one!) item being manufactured and purchased once while still being worn by up to 20 to 30 other people before the end of its life. And of course, the items are thoroughly cleaned, preened and pressed to as-new after every rental.
The really exciting part about renting designer fashion is not only that it provides access to designer quality at a disposable price point, but it significantly reduces the amount of clothing that needs to be manufactured, worn and disposed of through the benefits of ‘collaborative consumption’ and thus significantly reduces the environmental impact of the fashion industry.
The most important part of the equation – Us
Hopefully, by reading this we have all learned a bit more about the impact that the fashion and apparel industry can have on our environment if not kept in check. The costs are real today and when we include this cost then the lure of ‘fast’ ‘affordable’ disposable fashion tends not to be so affordable after all. Given all of us are the primary drivers of demand for these products, we can all collectively make a big difference by making improvements to our consumption habits while doing good for the environment and saving money at the same time.
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References [ + ]
1. ↑ Source: The ABC’s ‘War on Waste’ 2, 4, 5. ↑ Source: The Australian Financial Review, Why the Fashion Industry is Out of Control, 23 April 2016 3. ↑ Source: ABC News article: “Australia’s Obsession with New Clothes Fast Fashion textiles is Hurting the Environment”, January 2017 6. ↑ Source: www.allroundrecycling.com.au