My pal Nic Jekill moved here from Calgary last July to study Japanese at the University of Victoria. No stranger to the world of high fashion retail, Nic visited the shop shortly after arriving and we became quick friends.
After a few weeks in UVic's Japanese language program, he decided to instead pursue a degree in the environmental field. Now a budding scholar of environmental studies and geography, Nic started an Instagram page dedicated to highlighting the various negative impacts the production and consumption of fashion has on our planet - @carbon.fibres
Having always wanted to write a piece on the ecological impacts of the fashion industry on our planet myself - Nic's project provided the perfect opportunity to expose the industry's ills via an interview with someone who is acutely focusing on this very subject.
/ What first stoked your interest in sustainability [or lack thereof] in the fashion industry?
I suppose what kicked it off was really a coming to terms with my own consumption habits and using that self-realization as a stepping stone to start educating myself on what I could do better. The fact that it has taken the form of a project focused on the fashion industry and its impacts is more a product of the environment I was in for so many years.
Being in an setting where, to be blunt, you are essentially trying to convince people to buy more clothing than they actually need, while also being expected to be a walking advertisement for the brands you are selling really means you end up becoming a product of your environment. You always feel the need to be taking part in the most current trends and updating your wardrobe accordingly.
Over the years looking back I’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars on trends that have simply passed me by. For me going back to school and no longer having the means to afford this lifestyle gave me a chance to look back at what I had to show for all it. Going through my closet and realizing I had only worn some things that I had spent significant amounts of money on a handful of times before they had gone out of style or my tastes had changed was an eye opening but important realization for me.
I suppose what @carbon.fibres has become to me is a platform to share my findings with others. As I’m learning more, researching topics, reading reports, I’m trying to synthesize what I find into digestible posts that people can read without having to flip through pages and pages of documents.
@carbon.fibres has for me become a way to stay honest and committed to learning about this topic. If I can educate people or inspire someone to change their habits along the way I would feel that the page has done what I hoped it would when I set out to start this project. It only takes a few small changes from everyone to make huge differences globally.
/ Correct me if I'm wrong, but there's two facets to this alarming equation - ecological, and humanitarian, no?
Well the important distinction I would have to make firstly is that environmental problems are NOT problems with the environment. They are symptoms of global issues, political problems, our consumption habits, and most importantly are all human driven. People seem to have this idea that environmental issues are just as much a problem with the environment itself as with what people are doing to accentuate the problems.
As far as the issues with the fashion industry are concerned there are so many different levels of socioeconomic and environmental problems that are interwoven in complex relationships that it's difficult to divide them into two black and white categories.
That being said the humanitarian issues associated with the industry are pretty glaring. Everyday workers rights are being exploited, working conditions in factories are dangerous, and people are exposed to toxic chemicals which lead to long term effects like cancers. I really think that most people would reconsider their consumption habits and a lot of the cheap crap they buy if they knew that someone on the other side of the world was dying of cancer because of the chemicals used to make their $12 jeans.
/ Give it to us straight - how bad is it?
Honestly, it’s hard to know where to begin. Fashion’s true environmental scope is pretty astounding. It touches nearly every industrial sector globally. From agriculture (cotton, flax, hemp), animal agriculture (leather, fur, wool, cashmere), petroleum (polyester and other synthetics), forestry (rayon, viscose), mining (metal and stones), construction (retail stores), shipping, and of course, manufacturing.
If the global population continues to rise as expected to 8.5 billion people by 2030, many projections show that the overall apparel consumption will rise by around 60%. This increase would be the equivalent to the production of more than 500 billion new t-shirts.
Unfortunately to unpack all of the issues around the global fashion industry is tough ask. I am certainly no expert, everyday I’m am learning that there are so many different levels of socioeconomic and environmental issues involved with this question that it would be difficult for me to fully do it justice outside of writing a full paper regarding these issues.
The fact of the matter is the fashion industry is a huge contributor to pollution and environmental degradation experienced by the globe annually. The fashion industry makes up roughly 10% of all global CO2 emissions, this equates to more than the total annual emissions from all flights and shipping globally combined. These numbers are projected to increase by more than 60% over the next 10 years to nearly 2.8 billion tons of CO2 per year, which is the equivalent to the emissions produced by 230 million cars driven for an entire year. If the industry continues on its current path, by 2050, it could use more than 25% of the carbon budget associated with the prevention of a +2°C global temperature rise as outlined in the Paris agreement.
I will also add just so people don’t think I’m pulling these numbers out of thin air, most of the information I’m referencing in this interview are pulled from reports done by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They are a charity in the UK focused on building a positive future through the framework of a circular economy, and are a respected resource globally for their research around the fashion industry and its environmental and humanitarian issues. I strongly encourage anyone who is interested in any topics around sustainability and circular fashion to read through their resources.
/ With that, let us attack this in sequence - starting with environmental impacts
The unfortunate reality of the situation is that the people most responsible for the impacts on the environment fueled by overconsumption are the same ones who will be the last to feel the dramatic effects it will have on the planet. The wealthiest 10% of the global population produces more than half of the planets individual consumption-based emissions. In contrast the poorest 50% of the world’s population (around 3.5 billion people, located mostly in the global “south”) are responsible for only around 10% of emissions. This poorest 50% are the ones who will suffer the most immediate and brutal effects of climate change and the issues that will bring along with it.
Ultimately, I think the best way for me to highlight some of the most glaring environmental impacts associated with the fashion industry is through listing a few specific examples. Unpacking each of the environmental impacts of the fashion industry would require a level a knowledge which, to be honest, I don’t yet have. For me to be able to do these issues justice and get into just how complex and interwoven these issues really are, is going to require my continued learning and research around these issues.
- To start, the fashion industry is responsible for around 20% of global waste water, and the volume of fresh water consumed yearly is around 80 billion cubic meters, or enough to fill nearly 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools. This number accounts for around 2% of global fresh water extraction per year but accounts for around 10% of water used in all industry annually. This usage is also anticipated to increase by nearly 50% by 2030. Beyond production, cleaning clothing using washing machines is estimated to require an additional 20 billion cubic metres of water annually.
- Through cotton production, the fashion industry is also one of the largest single users of fertilizers globally, with cotton consuming 45% of nitrogen fertilizers and phosphorous annually. On top of that nearly 20% of pesticides used globally every year goes toward cotton production. Excessive use of these chemicals leads to runoff from the land into waterways and the degradation of top soil. The negative effects also include algae blooms which deplete oxygen and cause dead zones in waterways. The impacts to human health are also significant, these chemicals and toxins build up in the body which has the possibility of leading to cancers, acute illnesses, and other life threatening conditions.
- Plastic microfibres are another huge issue, one wash load of polyester clothes can release up to 700,000 plastic microfibres into the environment. It is estimated that half a million tonnes of these microfibres end up in the sea each year. On current trend, the amount of plastic microfibres entering the ocean between 2015 and 2050 could accumulate to an excess of 22 million tonnes. Because of the size of these fibres, they bioaccumulate in fish populations and then into humans. Plastic micro-fibres are present in nearly all global water systems, and studies show they end up in many cities drinking water supplies.
- Currently humankind produces 2.1 billion tons of waste per year. In terms of annual ecological footprint, the worlds population already produces more than 1.6 times what the earth can absorb in the same timeframe. Assuming todays current trends the fashion industry’s waste will increase by 60% between 2015 and 2030, the equivalent of an additional 57 million tonnes of waste generated annually. This is largely due to the fact that around only 13% of the total material input in the fashion industry is in some way recycled after clothing use. The issue with many of these fibres is the fact that the fabrics are blended. Currently the technology does not exist to extract polyester out of other fabrics so materials like cotton-polyester blends are nearly impossible to recycle. Thus most fabric recycling consists of cascading to other industries and for use in lower-value applications, for example, insulation material, wiping cloths, and mattress stuffing, all of which are currently difficult to recapture and therefore likely constitute the fabrics final use.
The fact of the matter is companies are going to have to come to the realization that they are going to have to drastically change their practices, and ultimately become less profitable if they hope to operate with any sort of credibility as “sustainable” businesses in the future. The industry has operated for years on on a take-make-dispose model, the planet just isn’t going to be able to sustain our desire for cheap crap for much longer. The best thing each of us can do to influence change it to really take look at our own habits, we are ultimately the driving force behind this culture of overconsumption. If we want companies to take note and improve their practices the best way to make them understand it with your money. “Every time you spend money, you are casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” - Anna Lappé
/ And regarding humanitarian impacts...
Humanitarian issues in fashion today are complex, they involve so many different parts of the global supply chain that it can be difficult to know how to best approach these issues. However the disparities really start to become apparent when you look from the bottom of the supply chain upwards.
Fashion today is mainly designed in some of the richest countries around the world and made in some of the poorest countries. The ability to design a product or a pattern and email that design across the planet to have it manufactured for pennies on the dollar has perpetuated decades of unsafe working conditions, child labour, environmental degradation, and over all lack of care for the workers in the factories which make their garments.
Large fashion companies often put pressure on garment manufacturers in lesser developed nations to continue to ignore environmental regulations and the working conditions in factories to keep costs down and maintain their bottom line. If these manufacturers do not continue to cut corners to keep costs down for these larger companies they may ultimately decide to move their business to another country who will.
The catch-22 of this situation (perhaps inadvertently, but it seems highly unlikely) is it places massive amounts of pressure on governments to look the other way when it comes to the working conditions and the environmental issues that arise from these factories. Often these factories employ huge portions of the population in these countries, and if they were to move their business out of that country it would have an enormous effect on the economy and leave many thousands out of work if they were to leave because of increased regulations.
In Bangladesh for example 80% of all exports are textile based, while over 6 million people are directly employed in the textile industry, another 40 million are indirectly involved in some way. Bangladeshi factory workers are also paid around 1/50th of the wage of an average American factory worker. These employees are often expected to work nearly 100 hours a week with minimal breaks and no days off for a wage of around only $40 USD per month.
There needs to be minimum wage requirements, transparency within the supply chain, a limit on the acceptable environmental impact of companies, and a mandate for publishing a modern slavery act, before a company should be allowed to operate within the fashion industry. If we don’t see some real legislative changes around laws that hold major brands to account for their human rights and environmental impacts, including mandatory human rights due diligence, extended producer responsibility and mandatory disclosure of their practices and impacts, there isn’t likely going to be any voluntary change made in the industry.
These brands seem only to care about their share prices and profits, not the people across the world suffering the awful effects of the dangerous working conditions, environmental degradation, and the system they depend upon for a meager existence.
Due to the depth & breadth of this topic, we've decided to split this interview into two parts.
The second entry will release next week - focusing on precarious claims of sustainability, resources for further information, and suggestions on how to make a positive impact as a consumer.
Photography - Graham Newmarch
Questions - Graham Newmarch
Knowledge - Nic Jekill
Links - @carbon.fibres