Sustainability and fast fashion: thoughts on the lifecycle of a cotton T shirt
Sustainability and fast fashion: how do mass produced garments impact our planet?
A wise woman once said "Buy less, choose well, make it last. Quality not quantity." It was British designer and couturier Vivienne Westwood, and she's right!
Together with (I’m sure) many of my customers, I care deeply about our planet and the people who live on it. To help look after it, we make choices like buying organic and fairtrade, we recycle, and we try to minimize our carbon footprint. We want to help create or restore a happy, healthy and sustainable environment.
As you might expect, I believe strongly in well-made, high-quality garments. Along with many others in the business I am concerned about the state of the industrial garment industry, which today is often labelled as “fast fashion”. The lower-quality, “cheap” clothing we find on the high street, in discount stores and online seems to have become the norm in recent years. We are buying more and more, for “less”, but it is actually costing us all a great deal.
According to a study published in 2009 in the UK, and reported by the Huffington Post, the material, production and transport of one 170 gram (6 ounce) T shirt produced in India uses more than 3,100 litres (700 gallons) of water, 100 grams (0.22 pounds) of fertilizers, 4.5 grams (0.01 pounds) of pesticides and 544 grams (1.2 pounds) of fossil fuels.
Let’s consider the lifecycle of the quintessential “fast fashion” staple: the cotton T-shirt.
Stage 1: Growing the plant
Growing conventional cotton requires a lot of water, insecticides and pesticides. There is also the fertilizing, harvesting and processing (“ginning”) to consider.
A sobering report published by the Environmental Justice Foundation in collaboration with Pesticide Action Network UK lists too many statistics to mention here on the use of pesticides and insecticides in the world’s cotton industry. But among other things, it details the alarming prevalence of pesticide poisoning in the cotton industry among farm workers (including children).
Stage 2: Producing the cotton fabric
Producing cotton t shirt fabric and garments involves spinning, knitting, bleaching, dyeing, cutting and sewing, all of which use a lot of water and energy. Commercial dyes and bleaches are harmful pollutants, and the cotton fibres are more often than not treated with silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, softeners, heavy metals, flame and soil retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde. These need to be used and disposed of with great care.
Unfortunately, in parts of the world where health and safety standards aren’t upheld (or don’t exist), these toxic substances are flushed into the water supply and have a detrimental affect on the health of those working in and around the industry.
Stage 3: Distribution
Cotton textiles, most made in China, India and other Asian countries, are shipped in planes, ships and trucks, and warehoused along the way. A considerable amount of fuel is burned to get these goods to our high streets, which leaves a substantial carbon footprint, contributes to air and water pollution, and feeds demand for and conflict over oil.
Stage 4: Use
We tend to assume that actually wearing a cotton T-shirt is the least damaging part of its lifecycle, but the environmental impact of everyday wearing, washing and handling is actually higher than you might think. We launder our clothes far more frequently than we used to, often washing and drying “fast fashion” daily, using a lot of water and energy. Fibres from our clothes also find their way from the washing machine and dryer lint traps into our waterways and landfills, and into the bodies of birds and other wildlife.
Stage 5: Disposal
Finally, disposal - when you’ve finished with your T-shirt; most of us do our best to pass used clothes to family or donate to charity shops. These shops often participate in recycling programs, but even donated clothes can end up in landfills, incinerated, or simply left to (hopefully) decompose in the heaps and heaps of other waste.
According to the Council for Textile Recycling, and based on US Environmental Protection Agency estimates, the textile recycling industry recycles approximately 3.8 billion pounds or 1.7 billion kg of post-consumer textile waste each year, and this only accounts for approximately 15%. So 85% of these textiles end up in landfills.
So, what can we do?
It helps to be aware of the problem, and we need to find better solutions, both for what we buy and for the industry as a whole. Here are my 6 suggestions for how each of us can make a positive difference with our buying choices.
Consider purchases carefully and avoid impulse buys, including “sales” and "bargains" which aren't actually sales or bargains!
Buy good quality classics which don’t date
Look after your clothes so they last for years, including repairing them or having them mended
Wash things only when actually needed and in the correct way - if in doubt, use tepid water or the cool setting
Avoid the tumble drier unless really necessary
Recycle by donating to charities, and don’t send clothes to the landfill (read more about the lifecycle of recycled clothing)
So, to repeat my earlier sentiment, I’m with Vivienne Westwood when she said, “Buy less, choose well, make it last. Quality, not quantity.” Try to keep quality, beauty and sustainability top of mind when you shop (this seems like a good philosophy to apply to most things in life).
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, you may want to watch a documentary called The True Cost.
If you'd like to build your wardrobe with sustainable fashion, then why don’t you browse my collection of knitwear designs.
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