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Pretty clothes, ugly truth

It’s only early spring but the adverts are already filled with upcoming branded lawn prints that are dime a dozen. No doubt these vibrant colourful prints are irresistible. But, before you deep dive into multiple volumes of lawn prints this spring/summer, spare a thought about the impact of this fast fashion on our environment.

A recent survey by Pew Research Centre, identified Climate Change as the biggest international threat. But when we think of climate change and pollution, the mind wanders to power plants, mining, plastic dumps and burning forests etc. However, fashion industry has started to play an enormous role in climate change with tremendous carbon footprint making it one of the dirtiest industries in the world. Recent rise of fast fashion trends is criticised for negative environmental effects majorly through water pollution, use of toxic chemicals in production process and increasing level of textile waste.

First step to understand the severity of this problem is to measure the environmental impact and identify areas that can be improved. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water as according to the World Bank report, garment manufacturing is responsible for 20% of global industrial water pollution. New Textiles Economy Report highlights that washing clothes releases half a million tonnes of plastic micro fibres into ocean, annually. This contributes to the issue of plastic entering the ocean that has adverse environmental and health implications. Similarly, textile is also one of the biggest water consumers as it uses almost 5 trillion litres of water annually. According to WWF report, cotton accounts for one-third of total fibres in textile industry and to make one cotton shirt, 2700 litres of water is required that’s how much a person drinks in 2.5 years, on average.

Globally, UNFCCC reports that fashion industry causes almost 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions that is more emissions than from shipping and flights combined. Synthetic garment is not as water intensive as cotton and thus, man-made fibres like polyester and nylon are considered to have relatively less negative environmental effect. However, their production process results in much higher pollution, as recorded in a report in 2015 by the World Resources Institute, the carbon footprint of polyester production was 1.5 trillion pounds in terms of greenhouse gasses, which is equivalent to how much 185 coal-fired power plants emit in a year.

Moreover, a research report by Circular Fibres Initiative found that every second in the world, one garbage truck of textile waste is either land-filled or burned that is almost 85% of textile industry production, thanks to the changing trends under fast fashion. In the case of Pakistan, UNEP reports that 2% of the solid waste is generated from the textile industry. And since Pakistan lacks proper waste management facilities, textile waste is usually dumped in open grounds leading to groundwater pollution through chemical absorption and the natural textile composition releases high levels of methane while synthetic types are unsustainable by their very nature as they are non-biodegradable.

Fast fashion is distressing both the human health and environment. Thus, this is the time to re-think our fashion habits under the Sustainable Development Goal 12 of Responsible Production and Consumption where both the manufacturers and customers have a role to play.


On the supply side, the manufacturers need to take responsibility for the use of toxic chemicals in production process, management of textile waste and find a balance between the use of synthetic and natural fabrics to enhance decomposition. They need to develop and adopt more sustainable and innovative production techniques such as waterless dyeing and recycling waste to be used as raw material. Many big fashion retailers around the globe, such as H&M and Zara are taking this impact into consideration and taking responsibility by adopting environmentally conscious business models.

Government policies and industry regulations in terms of mandatory certifications can help ensure the accountability of manufacturers. However, the underlying fundamental problem is profit based approach and commercial interests that force brands to constantly offer new collections to attract more customers. Therefore, making people conscious by educating the community is also essential as the clothes industry is driven by consumer demand.

We need to start consuming consciously. It is unrealistic to expect consumers to stop shopping completely, however, there are small habitual changes that can make huge difference in terms of environmental impact. First of all, the simplest step is to just buy fewer clothes. To address this throwaway culture, we should keep our clothes for longer, a study shows that wearing clothes just 9 months longer can potentially cut carbon emissions by almost 8%. So before buying ask yourself if you really need it or do you just want it? Secondly, we should buy more responsibly, read the label to choose more eco-friendly clothes such as natural and organic fibres, brands that use non-toxic dyes and rather than throwing away clothes give them to charity. Recently, there has been a trend to borrow or rent clothes, especially the formal wear. As according to research most of the clothes are worn fewer than seven times so it is less environmentally damaging to just borrow for an event. Lastly, wash the clothes wisely, small changes like washing inside out, on low heat and only when needed can have a huge impact. Excessive washing is not only bad for the clothes but harmful to the environment as the micro fibres that enter the ocean through unnecessary laundering damage the marine life.

To achieve the world’s social and economic goals, businesses need to adopt circular economy models that will move the fashion industry beyond the linear model of take-make-waste to a more sustainable models that focus on waste management and minimise environmental influence. We need to understand that the natural resources are finite and consider environmental concerns to manage our consumption appropriately. Though the real change will come when the major brands widely adopt sustainable business models, until then the consumers can help by changing what they buy, from where they buy and where it ends up.

Amna S. Sandhu
Research Associate,
Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI)

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