There is a climate crisis and our wardrobes are part of the causes.
There is no doubt that the current climate changes have been affected by impacts derived from rapid production and high global demands. And the fashion industry corresponds to one of the many worldwide that accelerates these changes.
The promise to produce tons of garments on a low-cost allows to meet global demands for clothing but does not consider social and environmental rights in its processes. This boom in the well-known fast fashion was not only intended to propose the “create-use-discard” model, but it also results in a series of environmental impacts that promote a climate crisis. A crisis that according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is very close to reaching the point of no return. For this reason, the link between fashion and climate change is becoming closer.
A piece of clothing is translated into a series of processes, materials and stages that are related in different ways to climate change. Although it is true, several studies and investigations have suggested that there is an environmental impact from the fashion industry, therefore it is important to know and connect how our wardrobes influence these climatic changes.
Every year, tons of plastic reaches the sea and microplastics are part of this amount, threatening the great climate regulator: the ocean. 85% of these small plastic particles represent textile microfibers that come off not only from fishing nets but also from synthetic garments that exist worldwide.
It is not surprising that these microfibers are very common. Since the appearance of nylon, the first patented synthetic fiber in 1938, the production of “plastic” garments has increased and currently represent 60% of world production. Like all products made from this material, pieces made from fibers such as polyester, fragment and release microfibers that eventually impact the main function of our oceans.
Every time we wash our synthetic garments, microfibers are released. They are so small that it is impossible to retain them and stop them from reaching the ocean through the sewage. Once in the oceans, they threaten many species, including phytoplankton. These tiny organisms are the first link in the food chain and they are responsible for absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide and supplying almost 50% of the oxygen we breathe. The main concern about the existence of microfibers in the oceans falls on the evidence of these small particles within the digestive system of phytoplankton. Thus, it makes it impossible for them to fulfil their functions in marine ecosystems.
The stage of wearing synthetic garments is not the only one that influences the release of microfibers. Post-consumption and textile waste also reflect an impact on the climate crisis. In landfills, synthetic garments also fragment and reach the oceans through groundwater or through runoff.
We have transformed fashion into a disposable product that is renewed rapidly thanks to globalization and the presentation of new trends. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if the industry continues to apply a linear model in its production processes, more than 150 million tons of clothing will end up in a landfill or burned by 2050.
Landfills are one of the many sources of GHG emissions that contribute to global warming and, in turn, promote the acceleration of climate change. Every time a garment is thrown away, it breaks down and releases methane, a polluting gas that potentially doubles carbon dioxide and helps retain heat in the atmosphere.
This impact is not only attributed to the garments that we stop wearing and are no longer a trend. According to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2018 report, three-quarters of the material used in the production chain ends up in a landfill. Therefore, these wastes are the result of a production chain that challenges the capacity of the Earth to restore the resources used and supports an extractive model of work.
The production of a garment
The processes of creating a piece of clothing start from the raw material until they end in our wardrobes. Regardless of the origin of these fibres, natural or synthetic, when they are produced under the current model, they represent a percentage of contamination. This is the case of conventional cotton production. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe estimates that 4% of the world’s insecticides and 10 per cent of pesticides are applied to cotton crops. In addition, it causes the loss, degradation and fragmentation of natural habitats.
But cotton and synthetic fibres are not the only threats to the balance of the planet. Materials such as viscose and rayon are semi-synthetic fibres that come from the pulp of plants and trees that must be deforested for extraction. Studies by the Chasing Markets Foundation establish that 53% of this fibre is used in the manufacture of clothing and home textiles. This only means that to cover this percentage, it is necessary to extract and deforest forest areas in North and South America that represent key pieces to mitigate climate change and are home to communities highly vulnerable to its effects.
This is only an important, but partial, a sample of how the fashion industry is linked to climate change. An industry that according to the United Nation Alliance for Sustainable Fashion contributes almost 10% with the emissions of polluting gases and that impacts the balance of the world’s ecosystems. Even fashion as we know it will have to adapt its processes, materials and designs to changes in temperatures and meteorological events if we do not change the way our garments are being produced.
The last call to avoid the climate crisis demands urgent actions by all those involved. Companies, brands, governments, scientists and consumers must work together to transform the fashion industry into one that promises respect for environmental and social rights in order to create strategies that mitigate climate change. From our wardrobes we can bet on a circular consumption of the garments, but we can also demand ethical and transparent policies within the production processes. Brands could apply traceability measures to evaluate the stages of a garment, introduce circularity and regenerative strategies and work hand in hand with the science to achieve optimal solutions that ensure the well-being of our planet.