In 2018, it became fashionable to calculate the ‘cost per wear’ (CPW) of a clothing item – the lower the cost, the more value the wearer was getting for their shiny new leather jacket or pair of boots.
One British women’s magazine even used an algorithm to help you calculate your CPW before splurging on an expensive addition to your wardrobe.
But the true cost of each new item of clothing we buy goes beyond its price tag. Through the energy, water, land and chemicals used to make it, every T-shirt we pull on has a hidden environmental cost too.
In the UK, where people buy more clothes than any other European country, the ‘make do and mend’ culture of World War II is long gone.
Since the 1980s, a new quick turnaround fashion business model has evolved alongside the luxury, designer labels: producing more collections of clothing at lower prices. In 2017, the entire UK fashion industry was worth £32 billion ($42 billion) to the economy.
But critics of ‘fast fashion’ say it encourages overconsumption and waste – and is having an impact on the environment.
Each year in the UK, 300,000 metric tons of textiles are binned, ending up in landfill (20%) or burnt (80%) in incinerators. The amount of material being recycled to make new clothes is less than 1%.
The UK’s House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has recently published a report on fast fashion – Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability. It recommends a penny be added to the cost of each garment to fund a £35 million ($46 million) clothes recycling scheme.
It states: “Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined, consumes lake-sized volumes of fresh water and creates chemical and plastic pollution. Synthetic fibres are being found in the deep sea, Arctic sea ice, fish and shellfish.”
The global picture
Globally, clothes consumption is predicted to rise by 63% by 2030. This means an increase from 62 million metric tons (in 2017) to 102 million metric tons in 2030 – or more than 500 billion T-shirts.
At the same time, the annual retail value of clothes and shoes is projected to reach $2.3 trillion by 2030, with much of the increased demand coming from developing nations.
The Ellen Macarthur Foundation has calculated that more than $500 billion of value is lost each year due to clothing “underutilisation and the lack of recycling”, while total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production amount to 1.2 billion metric tons annually.
By 2050, the global fashion industry could use more than a quarter of the global carbon budget associated with a 2℃ temperature rise.
Fast fashion is a drain on the world’s water resources too. An estimated 79 billion cubic metres of fresh water is consumed each year in everything from growing and producing fibres to dyeing, finishing and washing clothes.
Intensive cotton farming in Central Asia is partly responsible for the drying up of the Aral Sea – once one of the four biggest lakes in the world, but now known as the Aralkum Desert.
As the report says: “We are unwittingly wearing the fresh water supply of central Asia and destroying fragile ecosystems.”
In its Sustainable Development Goals, the UN states that in order to sustain our current lifestyles, by 2050 we could need the equivalent of almost three planets to provide the natural resources we use.
Our desire for cheap, on-trend clothes means fashion is costing the earth.
The Fixing Fashion report concludes that the UK Government must end the era of throwaway fashion by making retailers responsible for waste, and exploring how to support the sharing economy.
But there’s plenty more that individuals can do to reduce their own carbon fashion footprint.
1. Buy less and wear more
As the Fixing Fashion report says: “The most sustainable garment is the one we already own.” Extending the active life of 50% of UK clothing by nine months would save: 8% carbon, 10% water, 4% waste per metric ton of clothing, according to WRAP’s Valuing Our Clothes report.
2. Read the label
Petroleum based synthetic fibres like polyester require less water and land than cotton, but they emit more greenhouse gases per kilogram. But bio-based synthetic polymers made from renewable crops like corn and sugarcane release “up to 60% less carbon emissions, partly due to the crops creating carbon sinks”. Labels should show whether clothes are made using recycled polyester (rPET).
3. Vote with your feet
Some brands are more sustainable than others, so choose where you buy your clothes. In the UK, some sustainable and vintage brands offer lifetime repair services. Fifty-nine major retailers including IKEA and GAP have vowed to increase their use of recycled polyester by a minimum of 25% by 2020.
4. Shop and drop for charity
In 2017, the UK’s 11,000 charity shops saved 330,000 metric tons of textiles from landfill, and helped to cut carbon emissions by millions of tons a year, through reusing and recycling second-hand clothes.
5. Choose organic cotton
The Soil Association told the Environmental Audit Committee that increasing organic cotton production could minimise the environmental impact of the fashion industry, as it would reduce the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and water.
6. Rent or borrow clothes
Apps like MyWardrobeHQ allow peer-to-peer clothes sharing, based on a sharing economy model. In the US, Rent the Runway was launched in 2009 with designer clothes for special occasions, and now has 6 million members.
7. Watch your washing
A 6kg domestic wash has the potential to release as many as 700,000 fibres into the environment, which should make you think twice before you pop stuff in the laundry you’ve only worn once. Washing on a lower temperature uses less energy, and adopting simple habits, like turning clothes inside out, will increase wearability.