Clothing chaos

Elisa Pike explores the clothing industry and the shocking damage our clothing demands are wrecking on vulnerable people and the environment.

We’re almost a week into Plastic Free July, a Story of Stuff initiative where participants pledge to refuse all single-use plastic for the month of July. It’s a great practical way to avoid producing excessive plastic waste whilst also making a public statement through the act of refusing. It’s not too late to join us in making the pledge.

But did you know there is plastic even in our clothes?

I’m not talking about the plastic bags some clothes shops still offer for free, the plastic packaging online clothes arrive in, or the plastic tag that gets cut off and thrown away. Plastic’s persistence means it’s made its way into the very fibres of our clothes.

Even when single-use plastic bottles are recycled and used to make polyester, a seemingly positive use of waste, when polyester clothes are washed, plastic microfibres end up in our oceans. That means not only are we destroying the planet, we’re also inflicting damage on our own bodies as we eat fish which ingest the microfibres polluting their habitat.

Going beyond plastic, deeper into the world of fashion, we find an industry which is in fact the world’s second biggest polluter after oil.

Environmental destruction occurs at every stage of the supply chain, and once clothes reach consumers, a throw-away attitude means they often end up in landfill – where man-made fibres give off harmful chemicals and can’t biodegrade.

In Europe, of the 5.8 million tonnes of fabric thrown away every year, only 25% are recycled.

While much of the environmental damage inflicted by the clothing industry happens at the later stages of the supply chain – including the dying of fabric, assembly of garments, transportation to shops around the globe, and the washing and disposal once in our hands – the destruction occurring at the earliest stages of the supply chain is becoming more and more urgent.

Cotton, which makes up almost half of the world’s clothes, is notoriously damaging. In Central American cotton-growing areas, only 2% of original forestry remains. Cotton growing accounts for approximately 2.4% of global agricultural land, yet represents a disproportionate 24% of insecticides and 11% of pesticides. This has disastrous effects not only on the labourers exposed to chemicals, but also on surrounding ecosystems which absorb excess chemicals running off from farms.

The soil degradation caused means that traditional methods of growing are unsustainable.

Cotton is also highly water-intensive, demanding an astonishing 11,000 litres of water for every kg of cotton grown, picked, produced, packed and shipped, which is enough to produce only one t-shirt and one pair of jeans. It is often produced in environments where water-shortage is already a harsh reality.

We need to call into question our  relationship with our global neighbour as overconsumption in our richer countries threatens precious water resources in the poorer ones which produce much of the world’s raw products – often under labour conditions which leave much to desire.

It’s no accident that where there’s environmental destruction, there’s often labour exploitation too, and vice versa.

Climate change generates exploitation by worsening the lives of the most vulnerable people, and as exploitation often involves environmental destruction, a vicious cycle begins. Kevin Bales explores this more in his book, Blood and Earth.

This is not only the case with the cotton grown to make our clothes – slavery a key driving force behind the masses of cotton grown in Uzbekistan – but also in later stages of the supply chain. It’s impossible to separate the plight of people and planet, and our responsibility as Christians extends to both.

So, what can we do to make our fashion footprint smaller?

Choose brands using sustainable cotton, and tell them you’ve done so. Know the Origin is a great ethical brand, tracing their cotton from seed to garment.

Mainstream brands are also taking action, H&M with their ‘Conscious’ collection and a pledge along with others including Nike, Tesco, M&S and ASOS, to use 100% sustainable cotton by 2025. Fat Face has also recently joined the Better Cotton Initiative. We can hold those brands to account, social media putting them at our fingertips.

Choosing natural fibres like cotton is the best way to avoid polluting the ocean with microfibres, but simple ways of washing your clothes more responsibly include: 

  1. Turning down the temperature
  2. Using a liquid detergent instead of powder to reduce ‘scrubbing’ of clothes and therefore the shedding of microfibres
  3. Only washing clothes in full loads to reduce the friction between items of clothing

Check out The True Cost, a brilliant documentary on the impact of our clothes, for more information.