What is the environmental cost of a t-shirt?
For quite some time now, we have been conditioned to think that fashion should come cheap, easily available, and practically accessible at all times. With each passing season, we are influenced to purchase something new, pressed into wearing the latest trends, and are even commended for how great a bargain we were able to find, to celebrate how little we paid.
Let's do a little exercise, raise your hand if there is a t-shirt that you’ve never worn in your wardrobe right now. Now, raise your hand if the first item you were to pick out of your closet contains synthetic fibers (acetate, polyester, nylon, acrylic, and lyocell are all very common). Lastly, raise your hand if you could find anything in there that cost you less than $10.
Chances are that you’ve done a lot of hand-raising! But that is not necessarily a good sign. Whether we are aware of it or not, the relationship we tend to have with fashion is toxic and it is changing the composition of the very air we breathe which has kept the Earth’s climate habitable for us, as well as millions of other species for billions of years.
Virtually every sector of the global economy contributes to releasing gases into the atmosphere. Although fashion doesn’t have the reputation of, say, the oil industry, it still makes a substantial contribution to warming the planet, dumping billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year (UNECE, 2018). To put things in perspective, if the fashion industry was a country, it would be emitting more CO2 than all 27 countries in the European Union! (Fashion Revolution, 2019)
For those trying to make sense of it all, here is a simple explanation. At normal concentration levels, CO2 and other greenhouse gases retain just enough heat from the sun to keep the Earth’s climate optimal for life. However, by continuously burning fossil fuels, we are altering the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. The levels of CO2 in the air are now so high that solar heat can’t escape into space anymore but, rather, stays trapped close to Earth’s surface. This trapping of heat is what is warming our planet, causing climate change, air pollution, and many other environmental disruptions that we are hearing of each day (Earth Institute Columbia University, 2019).
Back to fashion. Every single stage of the production of the t-shirt on our back, from the raw material extraction stage, to the manufacturing, transporting, packaging, all the way to the selling stage, relies on the heavy burning of fossil fuels and natural gases. But fashion's climate impact doesn’t stop at the shop – what happens during our t-shirt’s lifetime of use also contributes to the emission footprint, as does the end of its life.
Let us rise above
Now, there’s no need to despair or to give in to feelings of helplessness. Like everything in life, there are choices we can make and actions we can take to make a positive impact, and the things we can not control we ought to let go.
For instance, we have no control over the fact that polyester, one of the most used synthetic fibers in the fashion industry today, is made from oil, and extracting and processing that oil discharges huge amounts of CO2. However, what we can do is choose to support fashion brands that recycle polyester and re-loop it back into the economy using elements of what is known as "circular economy". Likewise, we can choose to switch from conventional cotton clothes to organic cotton and other natural fibers that have a much lower carbon footprint.
We also cannot control the number of clothes that end up incinerated or disposed of in landfills every year, which, sadly, is the grim fate of roughly 85% of all textiles (UNECE, 2018). In turn, however, we can choose to buy a lot less and make sure that, whenever we did, it came from certified B corporations committed to the principles of sustainability and circular economy. We could also train ourselves to get better at handling the end-of-life stage of our garments. Repairing, repurposing, and donating our clothes are all wonderful options to help rid our air of harmful gases.
We, consumers, have so much power to transform the fashion industry. Now, raise your hand if you are ready to make a change in your closet!
Author: Giada Congiu
Editor: Hailey Matarese
Repost original post-date: August 12, 2020
Fashion Revolution, 2019. Fashion Transparency Index. [Online]
Available at: https://issuu.com/fashionrevolution/docs/fashion_transparency_index_2019?e=25766662/69342298
Nature Climate Change, 2018. The price of fast fashion. Nature Climate Change, 8(1), pp. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-017-0058-9.
Quantis, 2018. MEASURING FASHION Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries Study. [Online]
Available at: https://quantis-intl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/measuringfashion_globalimpactstudy_full-report_quantis_cwf_2018a.pdf
[Accessed 18 June 2020].
UNECE, 2018. UN Alliance aims to put fashion on path to sustainability. [Online]
Available at: https://www.unece.org/info/media/presscurrent-press-h/forestry-and-timber/2018/un-alliance-aims-to-put-fashion-on-path-to-sustainability/doc.html
[Accessed 18 June 2020].