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The Fashion Industry: Creating Global Problems Affecting Us All

Fashion is something that has developed over time and is a large industry which mass produces clothing to fit the trends of today. The ever-changing styles are unique and cheap, but what costs does the revolving cycle really have? Over the last decade, the fashion industry has become the second most polluting industry in the world just after oil and is hardly spoken of in the debate to solve climate change. With the potential scarcity of water in the near future, the industry is a key factor in water usage, using millions of litres to make the clothes we all love. Even so, these problems can be easily solved through recycling and reusing clothes rather than getting rid of them as soon as trends die out. Businesses can avoid overproduction as well as governments intervening with welfare impacts. But is the industry prepared to change?

The Fast Fashion Cycle

One of the root causes of the damage created from the industry is the impact of ‘fast fashion’ - the mass production of cheap clothes to keep up with changing trends and styles. Many high street stores use this method to keep up with consumer demand, promoting overconsumption to inevitably make the most profit. They produce clothes cheaply and sell them at higher prices, but the clothes are likely to be poorer quality, leading to people throwing them out quicker. This cycle is enhanced with the increased number of changes in trends per year. It’s estimated that a decade ago, there were 20 new trends per year, but now has increased to around 52 (almost weekly).

Black Friday is a great example which circulates the fast fashion methods. Prices are cut which causes a massive buying frenzy of clothes and other items worldwide. Soon after, people will use them only a few times before throwing them out, contributing to the global climate crisis. Pollution was not generated just from textile waste, but through vehicles as well. In 2017, 81% of Black Friday purchases included a home delivery. In order to keep up with demand, a diesel truck was leaving an Amazon fulfilment centre every 93 seconds at peak times. The burning of fossil fuels because of this one event further pushes the problem that the fashion industry has yet to solve. Despite knowing this, businesses are still willing to continue their production methods to make profits and are likely to continue because consumers are hidden from the consequences.

What Really Happens with Our Clothes and their By-products?

North Americans send 9.5 million tons of clothing to landfills every year, whilst in 2017, the UK sent 235m. The use of cheap, toxic textile dyes to make these clothes and the rate clothes are disposed of by consumers create a huge amount of waste. As a result, it had contributed to the fashion industry being the second largest polluter of clean water globally after agriculture. Since the fabrics used aren’t biodegradable, this causes huge mounds of unnecessary clothing waste because people stop wearing them shortly after being bought.

When clothing made of natural fibres like cotton ends up in landfills, it behaves like food waste; it produces methane as it degrades in the abnormal, anaerobic environment. This yet again contributes to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In most of the countries in which garments are produced, untreated wastewaters from textile factories containing mercury, lead and other substances are dumped directly into the rivers. This harms aquatic wildlife and the health of millions of people living by those rivers.

The industry is also a major water consumer, which doesn’t help the potential water crisis we may have in the future. Up to 20,000 litres of water are needed to produce 1kg of cotton. This has dramatic ecological consequences such as the desertification of the Aral Sea, where cotton production has entirely drained the water there.

Behind the Scenes of Manufacturing

The majority of people have some knowledge of how clothes are potentially made in developing countries. Even with this knowledge, most of us choose to ignore it and continuously buy from these stores. It’s no secret that your favourite high street brands probably manufacture clothes under poor conditions and wages for the benefit of lower prices. Examples include Zara, H&M, Primark, ASOS and more. Then why do we still choose to support them? The fact is that we benefit as first world countries from others suffering since we get things for cheaper, not thinking about how it was actually made.

As well as pollution, the fashion industry creates an ethical crisis too. Most brands harness sweatshop use and get away with paying workers below living wages. For example, H&M manufactures its clothing in Bangladesh, a country which has repeatedly disregarded international labour practices. About 61% of H&M factories didn’t have fire exits that matched the required regulations. So, it’s a high possibility that workers could die in a fire while making H&M products for terribly low wages.

There are real events where workers have actually died because of hazardous working conditions, such as the 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. Out of the 1134 people killed, 300 of them were working for Primark, making it evident that there’s minimal regards to safety of workers. Although most brands outsource production, it’s highly unlikely that they have no clue what’s going on, so they should also take responsibility for tragedies like this. The core issue is money at the end of the day. Especially in countries where laws are fragile, it’s easy for businesses to exploit people in this way.

Ways to Fix the Developing Crisis

A clear solution is to avoid buying from brands which use cheap labour to create its clothes. Despite this, it’s hard to have much impact as we are all attracted to low prices, and many aren’t fully aware of the impact they have on the environment either. A stepping stone is to make people aware of the crisis to allow for a greater impact on the climate problem as well as the ethical implications of our clothing. A simple Google search will openly tell you what brands use sweatshops, as companies have been exposed many times for this, but it hasn’t been spoken about enough to cause a movement.

A modern way of reusing and recycling clothing is through ‘thrifting’ where people sell their clothes either online or in stores. A popular app for this is Depop, where users sell clothes, they’ve barely worn usually for lower prices than they bought it for. This is a great solution, as you can get the items you want, even branded items, for low prices in good condition. People also earn money as a result, so it’s a win-win situation. In London, there are many clothes recycle bins owned by Traid or Amnesty that you can give your clothes to. Amnesty donate them to children and adults in need in developing countries, and to citizens displaced because of wars or political corruption. This allows for a good use of clothes we no longer want anymore.

There is no conclusive answer to solve these issues completely due to the way clothes are made and their long shelf life. It’s mostly dependent on the companies themselves. If consumers don’t fight back, the companies will not consider the problems seriously. We are part of the problem as much as they are, since we fall into the cycle of buying clothes unnecessarily in the way they want. If we become more aware of our actions, I believe that we can end the toxic effects that the fashion industry has created.

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Bevin Tosun, Writer, Warwick University studying Physics


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