We generally tend to associate pollution with far-off mining operations, manufacturing plants or power industries. We often forget about the person at a shopping mall or ourselves, throwing out old clothes and making room for new ones. The truth is that, today, the impact of the fashion and clothing industry is extremely grim, making it the second dirtiest industry in the world, next to oil.
The business of fashion involves long supply chains of production, raw materials, textile manufacturing, shipping, sale and finally disposal. At each stage of this process, there is immense wastage of water as well as use of hazardous toxic chemicals.
Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally, after agriculture. Polyester, the most popular and cost effective fabric used in this industry, shed microfibers that increase levels of plastic in our oceans when washed, thereby endangering aquatic life.
Most importantly, the cotton grown worldwide is genetically modified to be resistant to regular pesticide, and therefore, need to be treated with even more toxic pesticides. Evidences of serious environmental deterioration can been seen from the drying up of the Aral Sea, and destruction of the fishing communities that relied on it. It was mainly due to diversion of rivers in Central Asia so as to cater to the water requirements for cotton irrigation in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Fashion Industry – Enemy of the Environment
The latest trend of “fast fashion”, to quickly deliver new collections inspired by catwalk looks and celebrities, is making the fashion industry a true enemy of the environment. Today, the average shopper is not only buying much more clothes than they did before, owing to burgeoning consumerism and globalized market structures, but also keeping them for half as long.
This trend of fast fashion started in the West, and has now gained popularity globally. Over the years, the influence of western consumer culture and Euro-centric ideas have been diffused to other countries, especially the developing economies with large markets like India.
Moreover, most fashion garments that are produced in developing countries like India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Pakistan, are shipped to far-away large urban markets for mass consumption. These countries pay the highest costs as they are used as centres for cheap labour by big fashion industries, as well as dumping grounds for waste.
Fashion Industry & Water Wastage
With fast fashion becoming a popular global phenomenon and big brands increasing their production by large margins, the fashion industry is putting severe pressure on our natural resources, especially water. The Citarum River along with its nearby human habitation and wildlife biodiversity has been severely destroyed by the textile industry upsurge in Indonesia. In the Tiruppur district in Tamil Nadu for example, the textile industry has become a very large source of pollution, and completely destroyed the agricultural industry in the region.
According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the USD 2.5 trillion fashion industry has become one of the largest users of water globally producing 20 percent of global water waste.
Additionally, the fashion industry’s carbon dioxide emissions are projected to increase by more than 60 percent to nearly 2.8 billion tons per year by 2030. Fast fashion is causing the increased production of polyester and nylon, which release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that contribute to global warming 300 times more than even carbon dioxide. Moreover, one chemical used in dyeing clothes that is getting more popular is Nonylphenol Ethoxylate (NPE). NPEs, although banned in the EU, are found in tons of clothes imported into the US, which can lead to various complications in pregnant women such as the development of breast cancer cells and damage to the placenta.
Inefficient Practices and Exploitation of Labour
On 1 March 2018, at an event in Geneva, titled ‘Fashion and the Sustainable Development Goals: What Role for the UN?’ the UNECE cautioned that the fashion industry’s practice of churning out increasingly large volumes of cheap and disposable clothing is an “environmental and social emergency”.
Inefficient production practices and the blatant exploitation of informal and subcontracted workers in developing countries with capital-friendly labour laws allow big fashion companies to produce clothing in bulk at low prices.
Consumers of fast fashion are often ignorant to the transnational flow of goods, exploitative labor conditions, oppression of women and environmentally corrupt production practices associated with this industry.
The onus of striking a balance between price affordability and environmental sustainability with regard to the fashion industry lies on the shoulder of the global community. This has to be achieved through natural capital assessments, stringent laws and guidelines in the purview of Corporate Social Responsibility and civil society movements so as to campaign for a drastic reduce in the environmental and social footprint on such products.
(Soumya Bhowmick is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation. He focuses on Indian Economics, Governance and Sustainability related policy research. Soumya was a Government of Japan Scholar (2013-14). This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)