Modern fashion is a global phenomenon that defines our social, cultural and aesthetic identities. But what’s often overlooked is the negative impact it has on our planet and its people. It is time to change this, as the world’s consumers and designers are calling for a reckoning with the industry’s damaging effects.
The fashion industry is the world’s second largest water consumer. It takes about 700 gallons of water to produce just one cotton shirt. This is enough to provide one person with eight cups of drinking water per day for three-and-a-half years. The fashion sector also produces a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, according to a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it contributes 10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions—more than international flights and shipping combined.
Many of the fabrics that we use are made from synthetic fibres like polyester. These aren’t biodegradable and can end up in the ocean, where they cause a lot of harm to marine life. It is estimated that about 35% of microplastics in the ocean come from the laundering of polyester garments.
To meet the growing demand for new styles, many fashion companies have been relying on offshore manufacturing where labour is the cheapest. This has engendered a race to the bottom, with companies competing to find cheaper and faster ways to make their products. This has resulted in unsafe working conditions, a lack of basic rights for workers, and complex supply chains that are difficult to monitor.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, fashion leaders have been forced to reevaluate how they manufacture their collections. They are experimenting with more sustainable methods, including in-store recycling schemes. But this is only a fraction of the changes that need to be made. The industry needs to rethink how it allocates talent and promotes its executive roles—in addition to introducing more sustainability into its core operations.
While this may seem like a tall order, there are some positive signs. For example, the sustainable brand GU has found success with its eponymous collection of minimal, everyday staples. This line of clothing is popular with young women and students, as it is affordable and fashionable. Other brands, such as COS, are proving that minimalism isn’t boring with their unique designs and louder colors.
The recent media frenzy over skinny jeans causing compartment syndrome may have raised awareness of the health risks of tight clothing, but this is only a small part of a much wider issue. Throughout history, the culture of fashion has led to a range of harmful consequences for human beings—from foot binding to lifelong pain for beauty, and even, as in the case of the woman hospitalized for skinny jeans, medical complications that require surgery.