The Impact of Fashion on Climate Change

Patrick Bawn investigates the influence that fashion has on climate change, utilising his substantial experience within science communication.

In today’s day and age, it’s fairly hard to escape news related to climate change. You only have to look at the statistics: polar ice caps are melting at 13% per decade; atmospheric carbon dioxide is at its highest level for three million years; and the global average temperature has increased by nearly two degrees worldwide.

These alarming statistics don’t represent a problem for the future either – the effects of climate change are happening right now: ice caps are shrinking, global water shortages are happening, sea levels are rising and the weather has become less predictable than ever before. Something needs to be done – and sooner rather than later. Otherwise, the world as we know it could quickly become a very different place.

With this in mind, it’s vital for major industries to now look at themselves, their practices, their processes, and identify ways to become more sustainable. Whether it be the constructionautomobile or pharmaceutical industry, there is an onus on every corporation big and small – from watch suppliers to fashion houses – to refine their approach, implement an eco-friendlier manufacturing mentality and, fundamentally, cut down on the greenhouse gases they pump into the atmosphere.

But, looking at the fashion industry in particular, how much of an impact does climate change really have? And what can be done to prevent its growing threat?

Fashion vs. Climate Change

Fashion is synonymous with setting trends and climate change is certainly one trend that cannot be ignored. In a world where fast fashion is growing ever more popular, there has now become a ‘need’ for consumer greed, so it’s important that the fashion industry stands up against inefficient practices.

Apparel manufacture is, after all, incredibly unsustainable – as the wealth of statistics and research tell us. In one such report by WWF, more than 2,700 litres of water were shown to be needed to produce just one cotton shirt, equating to approximately 15,000 litres for just a kilo of cotton. When you couple this with the fact that India and Pakistan are two of the UK’s major cotton suppliers, it’s fairly unsurprising as to why water scarcity is such an issue in both of these countries.

Denim manufacture doesn’t fare much better when it comes to sustainability either. According to research by Levi Strauss, the process of manufacturing just one pair of jeans emits the same amount of greenhouse gases as driving a car for almost 70 miles. When you think about how many jeans-wearers there are in the world, it’s no wonder why the fashion industry has also been found to be responsible for almost 10% of all global carbon emissions.

Fashion = Climate Change

But it isn’t just the carbon emissions you need to worry about. Once the clothes have been worn, used and thrown away, the non-biodegradable fabric they’re made from can sit in landfills for up to two centuries. This, in turn, contributes to the overwhelming amount of waste we see in landfills across the globe – another hugely contributing factor towards climate change.

And, while on the topic of fashion-related waste, it isn’t just the landfills that fill up with unwanted clothes – the world’s oceans do as well. Many clothes are made using polyester which, when washed, releases thousands upon thousands of microplastic fibres into the environment. According to research, nearly half a million tons of these microfibres later end up in the sea and, thanks to their non-biodegradable nature, can go on to seriously harm underwater ecosystems. Polar bears aren’t the only animals we need to worry about when it comes to climate change – there are all the fish, turtles and underwater creatures as well.

A Change of Attitude

So, now the damning statistics are out of the way, what – if anything – is the fashion industry doing to combat the effects of climate change?

Well, one of the key reasons the fashion industry is so widely associated with climate change is because of the number of new collections that are released each year. According to an EU report published last year, fashion companies produced an average of two collections each year back at the turn of the millennium. Fast forward to 2019, and some chains now produce 24 collections annually, contributing to the opinion that clothes are ‘disposable’.

Therefore, it is up to companies in the fashion industry to shape the attitudes of their consumers. By setting the example that fashion is fast-flowing, wannabe fashionistas become actively encouraged to refresh their wardrobe and banish their previous clothes to the landfill. In order to prevent this, fashion brands need to start producing clothes in more sustainable ways – from using less water and producing a reduced quantity, to using environmentally-friendly materials and avoiding excessive transportation.

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

While there is a growing movement towards the adoption of sustainable fashion, a lot more needs to be done if the industry is serious about combating climate change; current statistics do not make encouraging reading.

According to a report by the Pulse of Fashion, the fashion industry was responsible for more than 1,715 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions back in 2015 – more than both the aviation and shipping industries combined. More damningly though, the report also predicted these levels to actually grow by 63% over the next decade, demonstrating the industry’s apparent ignorance to sustainable practice.

It’s time, therefore, for the fashion industry to sit up and take notice. As the old phrase goes, there can be no action without reaction and – as the statistics here prove – that time to react is now.