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How is our fashion industry impacting our planet?

So here we are, January 2019. Often a time when people think of a New Years resolution, maybe even taking part in the growing phenomenon of ‘Dry January.’ However, this year we’re hearing about ‘Clothes Sober’. An initiative where people are giving up buying clothes in January, or for a couple of months, or even a year. Trinny Woodall, famed fashionista, presenter of What Not To Wear and avid Instagram fashion snapper, is abstaining until February, promising only to use her existing wardrobe through the first month of 2019. Fashion magazines have also begun the new year promoting this new trend, weekly magazine Grazia, known for its regular hot picks from the High Street segments, has published an eight-page feature entitled “How To Shop Your Own Wardrobe.”

But why has this new year, a time when we’re usually discussing the bargains we’ve picked up in the sales, started with pledges to abstain from hitting the High Street?

In today’s world of fast fashion, many brands no longer just produce seasonal collections, often dropping new lines on the High Street on a weekly basis. This has resulted in a change in our shopping habits, with increasingly more people buying more clothes than they need  in an effort to keep up with the latest trends. But few consider the effect their passion for fast fashion has on the environment.

Stacey Dooley’s recent documentary, Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, first broadcast in October 2018, revealed some worrying statistics about the effect of the fashion industry on the environment. The documentary highlighted the shocking fact that due to cotton farming the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan has dried up. Over the past 15 years, global clothing production has doubled to meet demand, with the average number of wears a garment receives dropping by 36%. Labelled as the world’s second most polluting industry after oil, it’s time for the fashion industry to take some responsibility.

Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation for jeans brand Levi’s, told Stacey, “We share information on how to reduce the water footprint of our cotton. We’re working on a solution that takes old garments, chemically deconstructs them and turns them into a new fibre that feels and looks like cotton, but with zero water impact."

However, it seems that large-scale change is still a long way off. “This is a big industry. It’s so broadly decentralised that affecting change is nearly impossible. Especially when the appetite doesn't want change [but] there needs to be a regulatory solution.” In other words, more fashion brands need to start investing in eco-friendly production, but for real change, we need governments to do their bit too.

The production process of many fast-fashion pieces includes pesticides used in cotton farming and toxic dyes and chemicals in manufacturing, which alone is causing water pollution. The huge amount of natural resources used is causing significant shortages, not to mention the increasing volumes of textile waste. Dooley’s documentary highlighted the lack of understanding we have around the environmental damage caused by fashion. As she concluded “I feel like we understand what plastic does to the Earth but I had no idea what cotton was capable of”.

Despite these shocking facts, there is much that can be done within the fashion industry to reduce the negative environmental effects of clothing production. Some retailers are already taking responsibility for the carbon footprint of their products and welfare of their staff.

H&M are a prime example, one of the first retail giants to pioneer environmentally aware fashion. "A company of our size and scale has a responsibility as well as a great opportunity to lead the change towards a more sustainable fashion and design industry” says Anna Gedda, Head of Sustainability at H&M.

In 2017 35% of the products H&M produced used recycled clothing, with a goal to reach 100% by 2035. The use of recycled products for clothing has a dual benefit, reducing the pressure on resources and tackling the growing problem of waste management. H&M are also among the world’s top five users of organic cotton and are focussing on their entire value chain, including strict regulations with their suppliers.

Stella McCartney is another retailer who’s paving the way for sustainable fashion. At the end of 2018 McCartney participated in a Fashion Industry Charter For Climate Action, part of the UN’s initiative to reduce climate change. From creating trainers made without glue to using fully biodegradable mannequins, McCartney is highlighting to both consumers and her fellow designers that it’s possible to make environmentally friendly decisions within the fashion industry.

Global sports giant Adidas is also taking steps towards a sustainable future. Teaming up with non-profit organisation Parley, Adidas sold more than a million pairs of shoes made from recycled ocean plastic in 2018. With each shoe preventing approximately 11 plastic bottles from entering our oceans. The brand has pledged to only use recycled plastic by 2024 and eliminate all single-use plastic in its products, including polyester. Adidas will also cut out single-use plastic in its offices, warehouses, retail outlets and distribution centres, saving an estimated 40 tonnes of plastic per year.

Although brands such as H&M, Stella McCartney and Adidas are starting to take responsibility for the fashion industries catastrophic effects on the environment, there's still a long way to go. The lack of consumer education around the effects of fast fashion desperately needs to be addressed and governments, big brands and High Street retailers must start working together to develop standards for sustainable practices.

It’s time for us all for us all to stop making those impulse purchases and picking up another (unnecessary) t-shirt because it’s only £5 and fall back in love with the clothes we already have. Our online masters courses in Sustainable Development and Energy Policy are designed for students who are passionate about driving change for a sustainable future. Taught by academics leading global policy change, you can study online with Sussex from wherever you are in the world.

Last updated: 01/2019

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