When we as consumers are reminded of the planet’s climate-related impending doom, which happens a lot these days, we tend to go down an imaginary lists in our heads and cross off the efforts we’ve made towards reducing our carbon footprints:
I take the bus and sometimes even bike to work. Check.
I try and buy local meat and produce. Check.
I don’t travel by air that often. Check.
But one area of concern is often forgotten on our lists, and it happens to be what almost every person on the planet has in common: our clothes.
So how exactly do our clothes affect climate change?
Let’s talk about carbon emissions.
Luckily the vast majority of us studied this in middle or high school, right? Remember the arbitrary ‘CO2’s in the textbook diagrams floating in the sky or drawn behind a car like a little car fart? Carbon! Duh. Okay but really… what are people talking about?
Carbon is an element. It’s in everything: the air, our food, our bodies. Carbon is cool. We like carbon! Carbon starts to suck when we start talking about carbon dioxide (CO2) and humans in the same sentence. Carbon dioxide is released organically into the air through many different natural processes, like the exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere, when animals and plants decay, and every time we exhale. Nature is super good at keeping this fine CO2 balance in check, and it’s only when humans get involved that it gets tricky.
When we extract, refine, transport, and burn fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil, we release carbon into the atmosphere and throw the carbon cycle off balance. Not only that, but we remove healthy forests, one of the greatest ways to remove and store carbon. This is where I’d insert that upside down smiley emoji.
What does this have to do with fashion?
Well, I bet you didn’t know that the clothing industry is responsible for more carbon emissions every year than international airline flights and shipping combined. Full. Stop. I could drop some arbitrary numbers to quantify the CO2s floating in the sky, but it’s better if you just appreciate that it’s a stupid amount for an issue not enough people know about. Especially when a report generated in 2017 by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that people are “buying more clothes, wearing them less, and throwing them away sooner.”
The report, which was well received, found that if the textile industry – more like an angry tornado at this point- continues on its current trajectory, “by 2050 it could use more than 26% of the carbon budget associated with a 2°C pathway.” They’re referring to a global project established in 2011 to maintain the global temperature, and avoid imminent death. Lol just kidding. More like slow death for a lot of cute animals.
Where’s the carbon from?
Because the supply chain is so long and confusing, it’s very difficult to name the real CO2 emitting enemy. Let’s just say there’s a shocking amount of emissions involved in the process and a few too many of those pesky CO2s floating about. To summarize, the life of a garment may look like this: farming, harvesting, extraction, textile manufacturing, various suppliers, raw materials, quality checks, global shipping, domestic shipping, retail, eventual discardment as waste, taken to a landfill, and often incinerated. Essentially, I hope we look cute (and know it) in our fast fashion clothes, because the planet cannot tolerate the demands we continue to place on it.
A cotton pickin’ example
To give you a better idea of at least one type of material we’re all wearing while reading this article, let’s consider cotton and it’s carbon footprint. According to one study out of MIT, they measured just one t-shirt of cotton to equate to 4.3kg of CO2. That is the same as driving a car for 16 km or using 1.82L of gas (10 miles or 0.48 gallons of gas). While that number may seem small, the combined impact of cotton in the textile industry is much scarier. If we continue with a transportation related analogy, the annual carbon emission just based on cotton t-shirt production is equal to:
1,300 rounds trips to the sun in a car
Emissions from every car in New York state for two years
Carbon absorbed in 1 year in 88 million acres of forest: nearly the size of Japan
That’s just in one year and only one type of material. Buckle up.
Let’s talk about oil.
I’m sure you’ve heard of polyester. Polyester is a synthetic textile with raw materials made from petrochemicals like oil and natural gas and it was only introduced in the 1970s. It’s the same type of material (polyethylene terephthalate, or PET) that’s used to make plastic water bottles and shampoo containers, which actually means plastic items can be recycled into polyester, like the recycled fleece pullovers made by Patagonia.
How is oil used?
Essentially oil or natural gas is processed to form a plethora of products, and PET is one of them. The PET pellets are heated, made into tiny fibres and then spun and textured to look and feel like cotton or wool yarn. Next, the polyester yarns are woven into textiles, then cut and sewn into clothing. Polyester to clothing is like smartphones to humans: revolutionary! It’s to make stiffer textiles like linen, denim and tweed more elastic and stretchy!
Why should we avoid oil?
Polyester may have changed the game, but that doesn’t mean it’s improved it. When petroleum products are burned as fuel, including oil, they emit tons of greenhouse gases into the air. Carbon emissions and then some! It’s fact that finding, producing and moving crude oil releases harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, despite constant technological advances. Sadly, this enhances the greenhouse effect – an increase in greenhouse gases, contributing to the warming of the planet.
Adding ‘insult to injury’
Although carbon emission rates are really one of the only quantifiable ways we can track how fast fashion waste affects the climate, the dysfunctional fashion industry is adding insult to injury by changing the environment for all of life on Earth. That means the indirect effects of fast fashion are creating more barriers for plants and animals to overcome, and less energy spent surviving a fast changing environment.
Microfibres: Clothes that use synthetic fibres release plastic microfibres, of which around half a million tonnes end up in the ocean every year, wreaking havoc on all life, including ours. And FYI, that’s 16 times more than plastic microbeads from cosmetics.
Chemicals: “The textiles industry relies mostly on non-renewable resources – 98 million tonnes in total per year – including oil to produce synthetic fibres, fertilisers to grow cotton, and chemicals to produce, dye, and finish fibres and textiles.”
Water: “Textiles production (including cotton farming) also uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water annually” Hazardous material is being pumped into clean water. “As an example, 20% of industrial water pollution globally is attributable to the dyeing and treatment of textiles.” (Definitely worth checking out what WWF says about cotton here)
Coal: Textile doesn’t have to be used for clothing, but most of it is. Over 60% of textiles are used for clothes, and most manufacturing occurs in China and India. These countries rely heavily on coal to fuel power plants to get the job done — It’s not oil but it’s dirty all the same.
So here we are.
Through readers like you, the world is slowly catching on and realizing that our clothes, unless they’re sustainably and ethically made by caring companies, are actually contributing to climate change in a very measurable way. The question now is when we go down the imaginary lists in our heads and cross off the efforts we’ve made towards reducing our carbon footprints, will we include our fashion choices?
Sarah is a lover of photosynthesizing beings and all things outdoors. She started her blog when she realized that people haven’t been making personal changes to improve the environment, because the information available is overwhelming and doesn’t feel relevant to most people in her life. It is a call to action to all of us to take responsibility for our actions, visit her blog to find out how you can make your life and future travels more eco-friendly. There’s something for everyone.