The huge toll of 'fast fashion' on the planet – and why the answer could be circular

A lorry-load of used clothing is incinerated or buried in landfill every single second. Here's why the fashion industry – the second biggest polluter after petroleum – must change.

By Dominic Bliss
Published 4 Jul 2019, 09:56 BST
High street 'fast fashion' is taking its toll on the planet as well as workers rights. ...
High street 'fast fashion' is taking its toll on the planet as well as workers rights. Fashion has been identified as the second most polluting industry in the world after oil.
Photograph by Ryan Morrison, Alamy

“Mass industrial homicide” is how it was described. When the eight-storey Rana Plaza garment complex, in the suburbs of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, collapsed in 2013, over 1,100 factory workers were killed beneath the rubble. A further 2,500 injured people were rescued from the ruins. For anyone worried about the human cost of the modern fashion industry, and our voracious appetite for cheap clothing, here was the proof they needed that things must change.

The use of sweatshops by the world’s major fashion brands has been well documented. According to the European Parliamentary Research Service, many garment factory workers face long hours, often without rest days or contracts. Buildings might be badly modified for commercial use, with no fire extinguishers, poor electrical wiring, blocked fire exits and barred windows. Attempts to form trade unions are suppressed, sometimes violently. Workers who are injured, and the families of those who are killed, receive little compensation. 

But it’s not just human beings being damaged by the demand for cheap garments; there’s an enormous toll on the environment too.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTD) considers fashion to be the second most polluting industry in the world, after oil. Estimates are that its greenhouse gas emissions overtake those of the international marine and aviation industries combined – 1.2 billion tonnes annually, according to British charity the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. It consumes 93 billion cubic metres of water every year – as much a 7,500 litres are required to make a single pair of jeans. Annually it dumps around half a million tons of plastic microfibre into the oceans. The pesticides used in cotton farming and the toxic dyes in factories have a huge impact too. 

Cotton farming requires huge amounts of water, with many regions of the planet suffering terribly from drought, caused in part by the diversion of water from lakes and rivers to farmland. The Aral Sea in Central Asia, the Indus River in Pakistan, the Murray-Darling basin in Australia, and the Rio Grande, between Mexico and USA, are all distressing examples.

The textile industry’s biggest culprit of all is what’s known as fast fashion – where consumers are encouraged to buy myriad items of cheap clothing, wear them just a few times, and then throw them away, a demand exacerbated by major high street chains. According to industry estimates, between 80 and 100 billion new items of clothing are produced every year globally, while a lorry-load of used clothing is incinerated or buried in landfill every single second. 

Photograph by Mamunur Rashid, Alamy

Impactful too are the environmental costs of transporting all these garments from the developing nations where they are manufactured to the first-world nations where they are purchased. 

Fast fashion isn’t slowing down; not by any means: UNCTD claims that between 2000 and 2014, global clothing production doubled. Projections suggest it will more than triple current production by 2050.

Many brands are recycling their clothing or using recycled items in their manufacturing processes. But in the grand scheme of things, their efforts are merely tokenistic. And since different garments feature buttons, zippers and a huge range of different fabrics – some natural, others synthetic – recycling is a costly, labour-intensive operation.

Photograph by WALTER ZERLA, Alamy

Much of the environmental impact stems from consumers’ constant desire for new clothes. Add this to the fashion brands’ planned obsolescence – whereby poor manufacturing quality ensures garments wear out more quickly – and you have a business model that is manifestly wasteful. According to market researchers Euromonitor International, the number of times a garment is worn before it is discarded has decreased by over a third compared to 15 years ago. A UK Parliament Environmental Audit Committee report claims British citizens alone throw away a million tonnes of textiles every year, and estimates that the consumption of new clothing is higher in the UK than in any other European country – 26.7kg per capita.

Photograph by Charles, Unsplash

Granted, brands are trying to alleviate some of these environmental and societal problems through more efficient manufacturing and greener raw materials. But, as the Ellen Macarthur Foundation explains, this is simply a stopgap. What is needed is an entirely new textiles economy where “clothes, textiles, and fibres are kept at their highest value during use and re-enter the economy afterwards, never ending up as waste”. In its report entitled A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future, it says it’s vital to “tackle the root cause of the system’s wasteful nature directly; in particular, low clothing utilisation and low rates of recycling after use”.

British clothing brand Teemill believes it has come up with an answer. This Isle of Wight-based company sources organic cotton from Gujurat, in northern India, and turns it into T-shirts using a sustainable spinning, dyeing and weaving process in factories powered by renewable energy. It then ships the T-shirts to its Isle of Wight premises where it prints them up to customers’ own specifications. 

Photograph by Teemill

Around 40,000 individuals and companies – including World Wide Fund for Nature, Greenpeace, War Child, The Ocean Clean Up, BBC Earth, designers Katharine Hamnett and Bella Freud, as well as your very own National Geographic – have already designed and sold their own versions of Teemill T-shirts through the company’s system of customisation. The garments are printed just seconds after they are ordered, meaning there is never any unsold stock.

But here’s the really clever bit. Once customers have worn out or tired of their T-shirt they can mail it back to Teemill for free, who will then recycle it into new T-shirts, rewarding the customer with credit for future purchases. 

Brothers Mart and Rob Drake-Knight founded the business in 2010 from a shed in the back garden of the family home. “It's a circular fashion economy where everybody wins,” explains Mart.

He estimates there are over a million of his T-shirts in circulation at any one time, and tens of thousands waiting to be recycled. A disruptor in the fashion industry is how he views himself. 

Photograph by Teemill

“When these paradigm shifts happen, sometimes the big companies get replaced. We’ve shown that two guys with a laptop and a bit of code can redesign the clothing industry.”

Mart Drake-Knight

“When these paradigm shifts happen, sometimes the big companies get replaced,” he says boldly. “One potential future is that we replace inefficient fast-fashion businesses. I don't feel bad about that because they've had their 25 years. We’ve shown that there’s a different way of operating within the system. We’ve shown that two guys with a laptop and a bit of code can redesign the clothing industry.”

Teemill and its sister brand Rapanui manufacture other garments such as hoodies, shirts, jumpers, towels and underwear. They’ve even managed to use the offcuts from their T-shirt manufacture, which are normally discarded, to make notebooks and packaging. Drake-Knight says business is so good that the company is doubling in size every year. “On full throttle our Isle of Wight factory makes a T-shirt every second,” he says.

Despite the horrendous track record of fast fashion, he remains upbeat about the future of his industry. “I’m just a nobody on the Isle of Wight. I’m just someone who believes technology and design can solve the problem,” he says. “We don’t have to wait any more. Rather than be frustrated at the [fashion] industry, we should be excited about the next generation of brands coming through.”

Many brands including National Geographic have stores with Teemill that utilise the circular economy print-on-demand model using sustainable textiles.
Photograph by Teemill

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