Dressed to kill – the environmental cost of fast fashion exposed

Europeans consume an average of 26kg of clothes per person per year, with 11kg discarded per person annually [StockSnap / Pixabay]

The EU needs to introduce strict measures to tackle overconsumption in the fast fashion industry and increase the recyclability of textiles if it wants to reach a zero emission and zero waste economy by 2050, according to a new report released on Wednesday (3 February).

The fashion industry is responsible for a fifth of waste water globally, consumes more energy than shipping and aviation combined and, by 2050, is expected to account for 25% of the world’s remaining carbon budget.

Cheap synthetic materials, which have increased nine-fold in the last 50 years, form the “backbone” of throwaway fashion and use around 350 million barrels of oil every year, according to the report by the Changing Markets Foundation on the dependency of fast fashion on fossil fuels.

“Unless the fashion industry gets off this trajectory of churning out billions of clothes every year made from cheap low quality fibres and breaks off its reliance on synthetic fibres, then we will be unable to cope with the related ecological disaster,” said Urska Trunk from the NGO Changing Markets Foundation.

The report shows a link between the rise of polyester as the “darling” of the fast fashion industry and the dramatic increase of cheap, low-quality clothing.

In 2015, the textiles industry used 98 million tonnes of non-renewable resources, including oil for synthetic fibres, fertilisers to grow cotton and chemicals. That number is expect to grow to 300 million tonnes by 2050.

“These trends are not only damaging the environment, they limit opportunities for the fashion industry to succeed in the long-term. The industry already misses out on $560 billion in value from clothing being worn less and barely recycled,” said Laura Balmond from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Fashion industry 'playing catch-up' with the circular economy

With reports continuing to reveal the extent of the environmental and social damage caused by fast-fashion, not-for-profit organisation H&M Foundation believes the industry is now on the cusp of a radical sustainability shift towards the circular economy. EURACTIV’s media partner edie.net reports.

Call for “radical slowdown”

Since 2000, clothing production has more than doubled. People are buying more clothes and wearing them for a shorter time. According to EU figures, Europeans consume an average of 26kg of clothes per person every year, with 11kg discarded per person annually.

“The solution we see here is not replacing one type of fibre with another but a radical slowdown of fashion, which is the principal cause behind unattainable volumes that we see today and the release microfibres and widespread pollution,” said Trunk.

Not only does fast fashion drive overconsumption, the clothes release half a million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year – the equivalent of more than 50 billion plastic bottles.

Alongside this, recycling for these textiles is very poor. 87% is burnt or sent to landfill – roughly one garbage truck of clothes is landfilled every second across the world.

Around 3% of clothes from brands like Nike, H&M and Louis Vuitton are never sold and go straight to landfill or incineration. The latter produces heavy metals, acid gases, particulates and dioxins, which can be harmful to human health.

Even those textiles that are recycled are often downcycled into rags and insulation, ultimately ending up in waste streams. Only 0.1-1% is recycled fibre to fibre.

“Unless we move away from the fossil fashion production model, we risk pushing past planetary boundaries in our quest for cheap fashion. We will be entirely unable to cope with the mountains of clothing waste produced by the system and reliance on fossil fuels will contribute to catastrophic levels of climate change,” according to the report.


Creating a circular economy for textiles

For the EU to reach its net zero carbon emissions and zero pollution goals, it will need to tackle the industry with concrete legislation. As part of its circular economy action plan, the EU is attempting to cut down on waste produced from the textiles industry and boost reuse.

“Policymakers in the EU and beyond can play a key role in helping the fashion industry shift from this wasteful and polluting approach to a circular economy by promoting and incentivising the development of business models that keep clothes in use, and stimulating the design of high-quality, durable and recyclable clothing through ambitious minimum product criteria,” said Balmond.

In January 2021, the Commission launched a roadmap for the future of sustainable textiles in the EU, aiming to ensure the industry recovers after COVID in a circular way. This includes considering targets to boost reuse and recycling.

“The initiative will propose actions to make the textile ecosystem fit for the circular economy, addressing weaknesses regarding sustainable production, sustainable lifestyles, presence of substances of concern, improving textile waste collection and recycling in the member states as well as capacity building,” the Commission said.

The report recommends that the EU adopts measures to slow down the “inherently unsustainable” rate of consumption and increases their quality through mandatory eco-design.

“The main barrier is the absence of legislation and the fact that the sector is massively under-regulated,” said Trunk, adding that companies often greenwash with campaigns about reducing plastic in hangers and carrier bags, but avoid the main issue of fossil fuel consumption.

“Without prompt and radical legislative action and a considerable slowdown, fast fashion’s quest for cheap clothing will create untenable volumes of waste and toxic microfibres, and emit more carbon than the planet can handle,” according to the report.

'Fast fashion' is out, green fashion is coming next

The COVID-19 crisis is accelerating the shift of consumers toward more green and local forms of fashion, writes Mariam Harutyunyan. As high streets haemorrhage, fashion will need to fundamentally remodel itself, she argues.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]


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