A couple of weeks ago saw the return of the annual Fashion Revolution campaign, designed to raise awareness of the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry. One of the questions they are encouraging consumers to think about is ‘What’s in my clothes?’ and we’re here to take a curious look into that very topic… 

Shaken not stirred 

Fabric processing and clothing production uses a cocktail of toxic chemicals – it is estimated that around 8,000 synthetic chemicals (including toxic dyes, formaldehyde, and ammonia) are used in the fashion industry, all of which end up leaking into our soil and river systems. Cotton farming alone is responsible for 24% of all insecticide and 11% of all pesticide use. 

Globally, around 20% of all water pollution comes from the textile industry, second only to agriculture. In China, the textile and dye industries produce 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater, which has contaminated 70% of rivers and lakes. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom – the industry is getting greener. In 2011, Greenpeace launched their ‘Fashion Detox’ campaign asking brands to commit to reducing hazardous chemicals throughout their supply chain. As of 2018, 80 brands, representing 15% of the fashion industry, had made significant progress, particularly in eliminating PFC’s. These chemicals, heavily used in outdoor clothing, are damaging to the environment, contaminating water and air and harming wildlife. In 2021, Gore Fabrics (the makers of Goretex waterproof membrane) announced they would be launching a completely PFC-free membrane in 2022. However, Greenpeace is calling for regulation to speed up progress across the entire fashion industry. 

So should we all just be wearing hemp shirts? 

We’ve written before about the problems with plastics – synthetic fibres require heavy processing and they shed microfibres which end up polluting our oceans. However natural fibres aren’t entirely guilt-free either…

Conversion of habitats into monoculture plantations for crops such as cotton has resulted in deforestation and loss of biodiversity. At current levels of production, the fashion industry could require 35% more land (115 million additional hectares) by 2030, destroying even more precious habitats and forests which are vital for carbon storage. 

On top of this, the heavy water use required for cotton (it takes 2700 litres of water to make just one t-shirt; the amount required to sustain a person for three years), has caused damage to vital water sources like the Aral Sea in Central Asia. This used to be one of the four largest lakes in the world but due to intensive irrigation has now been reduced to a near desert. If that wasn’t bad enough, remaining water sources are being heavily polluted by the impacts of the industry

Don’t panic, this doesn’t mean it’s time to move to your local nudist colony!

There is hope on the horizon; a combination of increased awareness and materials innovation is helping to green the industry. 

“A fresh generation are marching for revolution and they want to wear clothes that tell a new story. Let’s give it to them.”

– Naomi Klein (author, social activist, and filmmaker)

Organic cotton uses 71% less water and requires 62% less energy than conventional cotton, and as it doesn’t allow the use of pesticides and fertilisers, water pollution is reduced by a staggering 98%. Whilst organic cotton currently only accounts for around 1% of all cotton grown, this amount is increasing year on year. In addition, new fabrics are being created using recycled or waste materials to try and improve their environmental impact. 

In 2021, a group of researchers at MIT developed a new type of cloth made from recycled polythene – plastic bags to you and me! The study claims that the new fabric, made from polythene fibres which are ‘dry-dyed’ before processing and then woven on industrial looms, is more environmentally-friendly than conventional natural and synthetic fibres and as it is made from a single type of plastic could potentially be recycled and reused again and again. 

Plant-based, eco-friendly alternatives to leather are also proving to be big business. Leather processing is particularly damaging to the environment, and coupled with the rise in veganism there is a growing market for these new fabrics made from materials like mushrooms, palm leaves, and even waste coffee grounds! The most popular of these, Pinatex, is made from waste pineapple leaves, and is already being used by a number of major brands from H&M to Hugo Boss. 

Be Curious! 

  • Check out the Greenpeace Detox my Fashion website and read their campaign reports to learn more about which brands are making progress and which to avoid. 
  • Watch The True Cost documentary all about the damage being done by the fast fashion industry, and RiverBlue, a film about the impact of fashion on our water systems. 
  • When you’re buying new clothes, try and look out for organic natural fabrics, or recycled materials. Or better yet, set yourself a challenge to avoid buying new and opt for second-hand instead! 
  • Edinburgh-based SHRUB Coop have published a “Fabric Awareness book” which is a great quick resource to find out about the pros and cons of various fabrics and what to look out for when shopping.
  • Delve into the curious archives and read some of our previous pieces on the impacts of the fashion industry and the things you can do to green your wardrobe. 
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