Fashion has always been an expression of individuality, style, and creativity. However, with the progressive development of the global fashion industry, a concerning impact on our planet has emerged. According to recent research, the fashion industry, with its ever-faster and more intensive production, contributes up to 10% of the total carbon dioxide emissions, surpassing the combined impact of air and sea transport.
If this pace continues, by 2050, fashion could generate a staggering 26% of the total greenhouse gas emissions, which would be catastrophic for a world already facing serious consequences of climate change. This alarming statistic emphasizes the urgent need to change the business models of fashion companies and consumer habits.
Processes related to this industry, from production to transportation and disposal of clothing, have a significant negative impact on our environment. Gas emissions accelerating climate change are just one part of that impact. Additionally, this industry is a significant consumer of clean water while simultaneously contaminating it with harmful chemicals, leaving a much larger ecological footprint than one might imagine.
The most critical aspect of the fashion industry's impact is seen in the phenomenon of "fast fashion." This concept involves mass-producing trendy, inexpensive clothing intended to be worn only a few times before becoming outdated.
In contrast to high fashion, which historically focused on quality and originality, this approach involves sacrificing material durability and pieces to create a constantly changing supply at a low cost.
Industry leaders like Zara, H&M, and other major chains frequently change collections to entice consumers with newer items, encouraging impulsive buying. Statistics show that clothing production in Europe doubled between 2000 and 2014, while consumers now wear garments half as long as before.
Globally, 60% of clothing is discarded, incinerated, or dumped in landfills within just one year of production, creating mountains of textile waste that decomposes very slowly. An example is the landfill in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where discarded clothing can take up to two hundred years to break down, emitting methane, a gas more harmful than carbon.
Furthermore, the increasing use of synthetic materials like polyester further complicates an already complex situation. One study showed that today, up to 60% of clothing is made of polyester due to its cost-effectiveness and suitability for mass production. However, the downside is that during polyester production, up to three times more harmful gases are emitted compared to cotton.
Moreover, this material does not biodegrade and ends up in seas and oceans, posing a threat to marine ecosystems. Unfortunately, it is challenging to imagine an alternative to polyester, as natural materials like cotton or wool simply cannot support the required production volume.
Another significant ecological aspect of the fashion industry is its dramatic water consumption throughout all production phases and significant water pollution. Considering that producing just one pair of jeans requires about 7,500 liters, it becomes apparent that this resource is depleted in vast quantities, increasing pressure on many drought-prone areas worldwide.
While discussions about sustainability in the fashion industry intensify, the question arises as to how much these discussions truly translate into action. Are fashion companies and consumers ready to change their current behaviors?
To reverse this negative trend, a combined effort from all stakeholders - from consumers to companies and governments - is crucial. While consumers play a vital role in the solution, fashion companies and brands dominating this industry, whose business practices directly impact the environment, must take the primary initiative for change. First and foremost, the trend of ever-increasing production volumes must stop, followed by substantial investments in researching and developing sustainable materials to replace currently dominant options like polyester.
Additionally, it is essential to improve recycling technologies and processes and make them profitable. Globally, the percentage of clothing genuinely recycled varies by region, with estimates showing that only about 20% to 25% of total clothing is recycled or reused, while most of the rest ends up in landfills or is incinerated. What are the reasons behind such a low recycling rate?
Key reasons include the complexity of recycling processes due to the diversity of materials used in clothing, lack of efficient recycling technologies for certain types of materials, as well as a lack of awareness and infrastructure for widespread clothing collection and recycling. Governments have the potential to significantly contribute to overcoming these challenges through tax breaks or subsidies for sustainable fashion brands, which could be a crucial incentive for investing in innovative production and recycling methods and technologies.
While companies bear much responsibility for the current state, consumers cannot be innocent bystanders. After all, consumer demand drives the mass production of "fast fashion" and its adverse effects. Therefore, consumer awareness and attitudes must move towards sustainability to drive changes in the industry. Reduced purchasing volume, a focus on higher-quality clothing that lasts longer, buying second-hand clothing, and careful selection of brands dedicated to sustainability are additional measures that every consumer can take.
Moreover, demanding more significant transparency from brands regarding their production practices, materials used, and environmental impact can be an additional catalyst for companies to be more responsible and transparent. The aforementioned H&M, as a leading brand in fast fashion, has faced controversy over allegedly inadequate handling of collected old clothing.
The common practice of this brand, as well as many others, involves collecting old clothing items from consumers through recycling programs. However, speculation arose that H&M, instead of recycling or reusing this clothing, inadequately handled the collected pieces.
Allegations suggested that only a small portion of the collected clothing is actually recycled or reused, while the majority ends up in landfills or even gets incinerated. This situation sparked significant controversy and criticism from environmental activists, consumers, and environmental protection organizations. As a brand that often highlights its commitment to sustainability, such accusations raised questions about the company's actual dedication to environmental preservation.
H&M responded to these allegations by claiming that all collected clothing items were processed in compliance with recycling regulations. However, the lack of transparency in the recycling process and the final destination of most collected clothing remained the main point of contention.
This scandal underscores the importance of transparency and accountability of companies in the fashion industry regarding their environmental impact, questioning whether brands' sustainability marketing messages are merely a facade or truly reflect their actual practices. Such cases scrutinize companies' credibility and encourage consumers to demand more responsibility and transparency from the brands they support.
While these steps may seem like individual efforts, they can significantly contribute to reducing the environmental impact stemming from the fashion industry. Awareness of our own impact and the choices we make when purchasing can have long-term positive effects. By employing smart strategies and changing habits, it is possible to achieve sustainable fashion production that continues to reflect our individuality and creativity without compromising the foundation of all living beings on the planet. And the best time for action is now.