Why And How To Reduce Your Fashion Footprint

Ana Alves

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From the total of greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity, fashion footprint accounts for around 10 per cent.

The question is, are there any ways to reduce the impact your wardrobe has on the climate?

For years I was obsessed with buying clothes,” says Helen Carter.

For the sake of having more diversity in my wardrobe, I would buy, at a low price, tens of pairs of jeans. Yet, I would be wearing only two or three of them.

When it comes to resisting the lure of fashion, Helen faces a tougher challenge than most.

As an editor for a media company in the fashion landscape, she’s surrounded by fashionistas.

As such, it’s been easy to go along with the tide.

Yet, conversations about the climate crisis made Helen re-consider the impact that the industry and her shopping habits were having.

Fashion Impact On Climate

The footprint of the fashion industry accounts for about 10 per cent of global carbon emissions, and nearly 20 per cent of wastewater.

And while the environmental impact of flying is now well known, fashion sucks up more energy than both aviation and shipping combined.

Fashion polluting and wasting water

The apparel industry has, in general, very complex supply chains.

As accounting for all emissions that come from producing a new jacket or pair of jeans is difficult.

Then, when consumers no longer want it, there’s further carbon emission in the transport and disposal of garments.

While most consumer goods suffer from similar issues, what makes the fashion footprint particularly problematic is the hectic pace of change.

Even worse, fashion not only undergoes but also encourages change, as it thrives on it.

With each passing season (or micro season), consumers are pushed into buying the latest styles, to remain on-trend.

It’s hard to visualise all of the inputs that go into producing garments, but let’s take denim as an example.

Growing the cotton needed for a single pair of jeans requires a tremendous amount of water while dying and manufacturing processes use yet more.

The UN estimates that a single pair of jeans requires a kilogram of cotton.

And because cotton tends to be grown in dry environments, producing this kilo requires about 7,500–10,000 litres of water.

That’s about ten years’ worth of drinking water for one person.

Denim Fashion Footprint

There are ways to make denim less resource-intensive.

Jeans made of natural textiles or organic cotton use less water and hazardous treatments to produce.

Sustainable denim

It means less bleaching, less sandblasting, and less pre-washing.

Unfortunately, it also means that some of the most popular types of jeans are the hardest on the planet.

For instance, fabric dyes pollute water bodies, with devastating effects on aquatic life and drinking water.

And the stretchy elastane material woven through many trendy styles of tight jeans is made using synthetic materials.

These materials are derived from plastic, which reduces recyclability and increases the environmental impact further.

Jeans manufacturer Levi Strauss estimates that a pair of its iconic 501 jeans will produce the equivalent of 33.4kg of carbon dioxide equivalent across its entire lifespan.

This is about the same as driving 69 miles in the average US car.

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Just over a third of those emissions come from the fibre and fabric production, while another 8 per cent is from cutting, sewing and finishing the jeans.

Packaging, transport and retail account for 16 per cent of the fashion footprint while the remaining 40 per cent is from consumer use – mainly from washing the jeans – and disposal in the landfill.

Another study of jeans made in India that contained 2 per cent elastane showed that producing the fibres and denim fabric released 7kg more carbon than those in Levi’s analysis.

It suggests that choosing raw denim products will have less impact on the climate.

But it is also possible to look for further ways of reducing the impact of your jeans by looking at the label.

Certification programmes such as the ‘Better Cotton Initiative’ and ‘Global Organic Textile Standard’ can help.

However, that only if consumers are engaged and want to work out how ‘eco’ their denim is.

Moreover, these programmes are yet from perfect as complex supply chains make it hard to account where it all comes from.

Then, it can get better by working on ways to reduce the environmental impact of the production of jeans.

For that, initiatives are developing new ways of recycling denim or even jeans that will decompose within a few months when composted.

Synthetic Fabrics Footprint

It’s not cotton, but the synthetic polymer polyester that is the most common fabric used in clothing.

Globally, 65 per cent of the clothing that we wear is polymer-based“, says Lynn Wilson, an expert on the circular economy, who for her PhD research at the University of Glasgow is focusing on consumer behaviour related to clothing disposal.

Around 70 million barrels of oil a year are used to make polyester fibres in our clothes.

Synthetic fabrics pollution

From waterproof jackets to delicate scarves, it’s tough to get away from the stuff.

Part of this stems from the convenience – polyester is easy to clean and durable. It is also lightweight and inexpensive.

But a shirt made from polyester has double the carbon footprint compared to one made from cotton.

A polyester shirt contributes to fashion footprint by the equivalent of 5.5kg of carbon dioxide compared to 2.1kg from a cotton shirt.

With over 70 million barrels of oil used to make the polyester fibres in our clothes, switching to the recycled polyester fabric can help to reduce the carbon emissions.

In fact, recycled polyester releases half to a quarter of the emissions of virgin polyester.

But it isn’t a long-term solution, as polyester takes hundreds of years to decompose and can lead to microfibres escaping into the environment.

Natural materials aren’t necessarily sustainable as they require vast amounts of water, dye and transport.

Organic cotton may be better for the farmworkers who would otherwise be exposed to enormous levels of pesticides, but the pressure on the water remains.

However, a great deal of innovation is going into crafting lower-impact fabrics.

Bio couture, or fashion made from more environmentally sustainable materials, is increasingly big business.

Some companies are looking to use the waste from wood, fruit, and other natural materials to create their textiles.

Others are trying alternative ways of dyeing their fabrics or searching for materials that biodegrade more easily once thrown away.

But the carbon footprint of our clothing can be reduced in other ways, too.

The Power Of ‘Consumer’

The way we shop has a significant impact.

Some research has suggested that online shopping can have a lower carbon footprint than travelling to traditional shops to buy products, mainly if consumers live far away.

But the rise of online shopping has also driven changes in consumer behaviour.

Online shopping contributes to the fast fashion culture where consumers buy more than they need.

It is easier to have it delivered to their door and then return a large proportion of their purchases, for free, after trying them on.

Shop Sustainable Fashion online during covid-19 pandemic

Returned items can double the emissions from transporting your goods.

And, if you factor in failed collections and deliveries, that number can grow further.

It can also be cheaper for internet retailers and fashion brands to dump or burn returned goods, rather than attempting to find another home for them.

This not only means the greenhouse gas emissions produced in manufacturing the clothing are wasted, but further emissions are released as it rots or burns.

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 2017 10.2m tonnes of textiles ended up in landfills while other 2.9m tonnes were incinerated.

In the UK an estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothes end up in landfill every year.

A simple way to reduce the fashion footprint from online shopping then is only to order what we want and intend to keep.

  • Buy only what you intend to keep.

According to the World Bank, 40 per cent of clothing purchased in some countries is never used.

Helen has tried to move away from the fast-fashion culture herself by learning to appreciate what she already has rather than what she could have.

But detaching herself from a fashion-obsessed mindset hasn’t been easy.

To help, Helen resists going to places where she feels pressure to consume, such as shopping malls.

She also periodically swaps clothes with her friends, which not only allows them to refresh their wardrobes but also helps them feel closer to each other.

She has also learned to embrace small blemishes on her clothes.

Rather than seeing these as an excuse to buy more, she sees these as unique points.

People are so careful with their clothes, like to not have any scratches on them or have any holes or whatever,” says Helen.

But then when you think about it, that’s part of the clothes. You remember that one time when you went to a festival, where you ripped your shirt or something like that, and it’s a nice memory.

The number of times you wear an item of clothing can make a big difference too in its overall carbon footprint.

  • Wear your clothes as many times as you can.

Research by scientists at the Chalmers Institute of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, found that an average cotton t-shirt might release just over 2kg of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere.

In comparison, a polyester dress would contribute the equivalent of nearly 17kg of carbon dioxide to fashion footprint.

They estimated, however, that the average t-shirt in Sweden is worn around 22 times in a year.

At the same time, the ‘average’ dress is worn just ten times. It means the amount of carbon released per wear is many times higher for the dress.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the average number of times garments are worn decreased by 36 per cent between 2000 and 2015.

In the same period, clothing production doubled.

These gains came at the expense of the quality and longevity of the garments.

Several public surveys also suggest that many of us have clothes in our wardrobes that we hardly ever wear.

According to one survey, nearly half of the clothes in the average UK person’s wardrobe are never worn, primarily because they no longer fit or have gone out of style.

Another found that a fifth of the items owned by US consumers is unworn.

It is clear that investing in higher-quality clothing, wearing them more often and holding onto them for longer, is the not-so-secret weapon for combatting the carbon footprint from your garments.

  • Invest in higher-quality clothing.

In the UK, continuing to actively wear a garment for just nine months longer could diminish its environmental impacts by 20–30 per cent.

Naturally, some clothing companies have sniffed out an opportunity here.

Clothing rental services, for instance, are especially appealing in a social-media era where some people are reluctant to be seen online wearing the same outfit more than once.

For those who want to look good in their online photos but have even less fashion footprint on the environment, there is the fleeting trend for digital fashion, or clothing designed to only appear online by being superimposed onto your images.

Buying less also means caring for clothes more.

Websites like Love Your Clothes, set up by UK recycling charity WRAP, offer tips on repairing and extending the life of clothes, which can reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes.

But tackling the underlying reasons for why we over-purchase, yet underuse, clothes could also help to reduce your fashion footprint.

  • Avoid overspending

In a consumerist society, people are trained to find fast fashion pleasurable and addictive.

A lot of the things that we purchase fulfil some kind of function in ourselves – particularly fashion items,” says Mike Kyrios, a clinical psychologist who researches mental disorders at Australia’s Flinders University.

People who have lower self-esteem or worry about their status are especially likely to use overspending as a route to feeling like they “belong”, he explains.

As are people who are sensitive to rewards – indeed, the reward centres in the brain are those most activated by impulse shopping.

Online shopping also means that the impulse to buy is harder to control, as internet stores are open 24/7.

Moreover, as Kyrios says, we buy at times “when our decision-making capabilities are at their minimum”.

Though estimates vary, one is that about 5 per cent of the population exhibits compulsive buying behaviour.

The problem is it’s well hidden,” says Kyrios.

People don’t show up for treatment; people don’t acknowledge it’s a problem.

One solution might be to ration the time you spend looking at clothes online.

Yet, perhaps a better approach is to find less wasteful ways of achieving the sense of reward that over-spenders are seeking.

Mainstream consumers can scratch their itch for new clothes by buying from vintage and secondhand clothing shops.

Secondhand clothing is giving clothes a second life, and it’s slowing down that fast-fashion cycle,” says Fee Gilfeather, a sustainable fashion expert at charity Oxfam.

So I would say secondhand (clothing) is one of the solutions to the overconsumption challenge.

Cutting down on washing can also help to further reduce the carbon footprint of your wardrobe.

  • Wash your clothes when is needed

This also helps to lower water use, and the microfibres shed in the washing machine.

You don’t need to wash clothes as often as you might think,” says Gilfeather.

She hangs some of her dresses out to air, for example, rather than washing them after each wear.

Reducing the amount of washing that you need to do is the best way of making sure that the plastics don’t get into the water system.

How you dispose of the clothes at the end of their useful life is also important in reducing your fashion footprint

Throwing them away, so they end up in landfill or being incinerated simply leads to more emissions.

  • Reuse, recycle, repurpose

Perhaps the best approach is to pass them on to friends or take them to charity shops if they are still good enough to be worn.

However, individuals should be careful not to use this as a way of clearing space simply to buy new clothes, which Wilson’s research suggests is common.

Where clothing has been worn or damaged beyond repair, the most environmentally sound way of disposing of them is to send them for recycling.

Clothing recycling is still relatively new for many fabrics, but increasingly cotton and polyester clothing can now be turned into new clothes or other items.

Some major manufacturers have now started using recycled fabrics, but it is often hard for consumers to find places to take their old clothes.

Many of the changes needed to make clothing more sustainable have to be implemented by the manufacturers and big companies that control the fashion industry.

But as consumers, the changes we all make in our behaviour not only add up but can drive change in the industry, too.

According to Gilfeather, we can all make a difference by being more thoughtful as consumers.

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