Do you want to fight fast fashion? Here's how to get started
During the 2000s, the apparel industry underwent an important shift. A number of factors, including moves towards cheaper synthetic fibres, resulted in today’s fast-fashion business model embodied in key corporate players such as Zara, Topshop and H&M.
Garments became cheaper, leading to a growing perception that they are disposable. In some circles, wearing a dress twice became a social faux pas. Australian figures show the average item of clothing is worn just seven times before being discarded.
Australia is second only to North America as a consumer of clothing and other textiles, equivalent to 27kg per person per year. This is roughly twice the global average of 13kg, which has in turn nearly doubled from 7kg between 1992 and 2013. New Zealand’s figure is probably a little lower.
Environmental impacts of the use of textiles include demand for resources such as water, greenhouse emissions and pollution discharges.
From a climate change perspective, clothing is estimated to represent about five per cent of the world’s greenhouse emissions. A recent circular economy report stated that, if existing trends continue, by 2050 fashion could use more than 26 per cent of the world’s carbon budget associated with two degrees of warming.
However, there are wide differences. From an energy perspective, hemp or flax linen production consumes the least energy while synthetics are the worst, especially nylon.
Australia is second only to North America as a consumer of clothing and other textiles, equivalent to 27kg per person per year.
The primary resource required for making synthetic fibres is oil, with 60 per cent of the world’s PET plastic used to produce polyester. Natural fibres can require synthetic fertilisers, insecticides and, in the case of Roundup Ready cotton, profligate applications of herbicides. Then there is the farmland devoted to non-food textile crops at a time when the world’s population is rapidly increasing.
In Australia, water allocations in the Murray-Darling basin are being directed to large irrigated cotton farms along the Culgoa River, including Cubbie Station. At the same time, the Darling has run dry downstream we have seen a couple of major fish kills in the Menindee Lakes in New South Wales.
The water needed to grow cotton for one pair of jeans has been estimated at about 10,000 litres; a T-shirt, roughly 2700L. One suggestion has been to grow hemp instead, which produces three times the yield per hectare while requiring about half as much water.
Harmful chemical releases are linked to different stages of clothing production, include dyeing and bleaching. An alternative process known as cold pad-batch dyeing offers significant savings in energy and water. Another is waterless CO2 dyeing that achieves a very high rate of dye uptake and requires a fraction of the usual energy; some products made by Adidas and Nike use this system. Another simple solution is to buy undyed.
The disposal dilemma
So where does all of this clothing go when the owner no longer wants it? As part of the ABC-TV War on Waste series, hoist Craig Reucassel organised a stunt where a small hill of clothing was created at Martin Place, Sydney. Consisting of six tonnes of garments, it represented the amount of clothing going to landfill in Australia every 10 minutes.
A statistic frequently quoted is that, in Australia, 85 per cent of clothing is disposed of as garbage. Cotton, wool and rayon biodegrade in landfill but the downside is that they are liable to release methane, a greenhouse gas with 25 times the climate-warming power of CO2.
The most obvious alternative to binning clothes is to donate them to an op shop but unfortunately this doesn’t make the problem go away. Disposable fashion is leading to a growing volume of poor-quality clothing that is hard to sell. With an excess of donated garments to choose from, op shops pick the best to sell and get rid of everything else. Some donations are put on the shelves; others are turned into rags or sent overseas to developing countries. The op shop landfill rate is somewhere around 25 per cent.
Making green choices
Parallel with these issues, there are some encouraging dynamics. The past 10–15 years have seen a far greater interest in buying eco-friendly clothing, especially by millennials. Large companies have been making moves towards sustainability and new garments are being created from recycled textiles. The market share of organics is growing. Consumers are often prepared to pay a small premium for ethical products.
A recent circular economy report stated that, if existing trends continue, by 2050 fashion could use more than 26 per cent of the world’s carbon budget associated with two degrees of warming.
However, it is easy to become confused. According to a group named the Changing Markets Foundation, the clothing sector, absurdly, has more than 100 different voluntary eco-schemes and green labels. It can feel like navigating a labyrinth.
Fortunately, a UK group called Made-By has provided a useful tool. Based in London, the group operated as a dynamic sustainable fashion organisation before going into receivership in 2018. Three years earlier, it commissioned an Environmental Benchmark for Fibres whereby a range of textiles was ranked according to greenhouse gas emissions, human toxicity, eco-toxicity, energy, water and land use. Ratings were given ranging from A to E, A being the most sustainable and E the least.
Mechanically recycled nylon
Mechanically recycled polyester
Organic flax (linen)
Chemically recycled nylon
Chemically recycled polyester
In Conversion cotton
Monocel (bamboo Lyocell Product)
Conventional flax (linen)
Occupying categories A and B in the Made-By chart, organic is a good environmental choice for natural fibres. No synthetic chemicals are used in cultivation, genetic modification is excluded and harmful chemicals are prohibited during processing and manufacture.
In addition to national certification marks, another one to look out for is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) that includes standards governing working conditions and animal welfare. To be GOTS-certified, a product must have at least 70 per cent organic content.
Even more ambitious is the fairly new Regenerative Organic standard. This American initiative is a result of efforts by several entities including Patagonia and the Rodale Institute and its goal is to increase the level of soil organic matter rather than simply maintaining it. Cotton is one of the crops in its sights.
Issues with semi-synthetics
An issue worth clearing up is the impact of semi-synthetic clothing. The traditional leader among this type is rayon/viscose. It is sourced from wood and often unsustainably: about 35 per cent of the tree is used and the rest wasted. Another issue is the use of toxic chemicals in manufacture, of which carbon disulphide is the worst.
Most bamboo (rated E) is also a form of rayon, which raises the question of whether its green marketing lives up to the hype. Even though it’s likely to be a more sustainable raw material, making it still requires carbon disulphide. Both bamboo and another semi-synthetic named Modal (rated D) are considered slightly less toxic than rayon.
Lyocell (marketed as Tencel and Monocel) is a semi-synthetic with far more impressive eco-credentials, earning a B from Made-By. Most production uses FSC-certified wood cellulose from eucalyptus trees and it is manufactured in a closed-loop process where nearly all of the solvent is recovered.
An environmental nightmare
For environmentally minded consumers, synthetics such as polyester, nylon or acrylic are best avoided. Made from non-renewable fossil fuels, energy-intensive to manufacture and produced using toxic chemicals, they were rated D and E.
Problems with this type of clothing extend to its use as well. When washed, synthetic clothing releases plastic microfibres into the water, which fail to be captured by treatment plants and enter the environment where they can harm small aquatic organisms.
UK tests have found more than 700,000 fibres being released per wash with acrylic the worst offender. Recycled-origin synthetics are more energy-intensive than natural fibres and are more likely to shed these microfibres because their structural bonds are looser.
One solution is a special mesh laundry bag called the Guppyfriend; another is to install a washing machine lint filter.
The circular economy
Today it is widely acknowledged that our economy needs to become circular in a hurry to slow down the flow of materials heading to the bin. Clothing is one area where a lot of change is occurring, including:
- The Cradle to Cradle model and certification for circular-economy clothing that involves designing out toxic components.
- Collection of clothing for recycling via companies such as H&M, C&A and Patagonia, often in exchange for store vouchers. H&M in particular has stores in Australia that collect any brand’s clothing in any condition. For items that are falling apart, this is a good away to divert them from landfill.
- Recycling clothing into non-clothing products such as blankets, rags, tote bags, wipers and denim insulation. Companies include Castlereagh Industries in Australia and Terra Lana in New Zealand.
- High-tech strategies for determining the composition of textile material such as the hand-held scanner developed by Sydney company BlockTexx.
- Marketplaces for unwanted or waste textiles such as BlockTexx and Reverse Resources.
- Making recycled-origin natural-fibre clothes, including from cotton yarn, a practice that received A and B scores. Recycled options on the market include Nilit EcoCare and Unifi REPREVE. Such recycled materials are starting to appear in big-name products such as H&M’s Close the Loop range. A third-party certification to watch for is the Global Recycled Standard.
- Work towards recycled clothing in Australia and New Zealand. This includes Textile Recyclers Australia in Melbourne and the Institute for Frontier Materials “circular denim” system at Geelong’s Deakin University.
While most companies are engaged in simply trying to sell their product, Mud Jeans in the Netherlands has an unconventional multi-faceted business model that offers the option of purchasing or leasing. Strongly wedded to the circular economy, it makes its Fair-Trade-certified product from a mixture of recycled denim, processed by Recover in Spain, and organic cotton.
Leasing costs €7.50 (AU$12) per month and allows the lessee to swap or repair the product. The company accepts any pair of jeans for recycling and sells sweaters made from 85 per cent denim. Returned pairs of jeans in good condition are sold as “vintage”.
Similar are Nudie Jeans, which are made from 100 per cent organic cotton. The company offers lifetime free repairs, has shopfront repair facilities in Sydney and Melbourne, sells its unwanted jeans secondhand and recycles worn-out items.
Alternatives to buying
Ultimately, consumerism is responsible for the fast-fashion problem and the best way to tackle it is by meeting it head-on. Alternatives include:
- No-buy or low-buy trials where no clothing is purchased for a year and you make do with what is in the wardrobe. These have been run by journalist Radhika Sanghani and beauty blogger Hannah Louise Poston.
- Buying secondhand.
- Selling on places such as eBay or putting items in a consignment shop.
- Looking for giveaways via clothes swaps.
- Buying fewer but better-quality clothes designed to last. Eco-fashion campaigner Livia Firth is promoting this through her #30wearschallenge.
- Australia and New Zealand have several dress-rental companies. A few operate on a peer-to-peer basis including The Volte, Designerex and LendMyTrend in Australia and Designer Wardrobe in New Zealand.
- Repairing clothing at Repair Cafés, using local businesses or learning how to do it yourself via YouTube videos.
An influential pioneer in the sustainable fashion area is the American outdoor-wear maker Patagonia. Founded in the 1970s by Yvon Chouinard, it has increasingly led the way in pioneering sustainability.
In 1996, it switched to using 100 per cent organic cotton and in 2005 announced its Common Threads program that would involve making all clothing recyclable within five years. This started with polyester and moved on to cotton and Polartec.
Patagonia runs North America’s largest garment repair facility in Reno, Nevada, and has a Repair Hub in Sydney where its items are repaired free of charge. It has even worked against its own corporate interests in a 2011 newspaper ad by asking consumers to buy only items that they need. Secondhand Patagonia items are available from its Worn Wear site and its eBay store.
Given the extent of our challenges, tinkering around the edges isn’t going to achieve very much. Fortunately, there are some practical and creative steps that everyone can take.
O Eco Textiles eco-clothing blog: oecotextiles.wordpress.com
Good on You Australian phone app: goodonyou.eco
Rayon & forests activism: canopyplanet.org
Global Organic Textile Standard: global-standard.org
Regenerative Organic standard: regenorganic.org
A comprehensive guide to sustainable flooring
Since the earliest homes, when what lay underfoot was most likely earth strewn with straw, options for flooring have exploded....
9 simple DIY natural cleaning recipes for a healthy home
The chemicals in everyday household cleaning products are a poorly scrutinised health hazard. Fortunately, more of us are rediscovering the...
Discover how we can correct past mistakes for a brighter urban future
More than half of the world’s population live in cities. The design of those cities is of vital importance for...