The fashion industry has a huge influence on the global and human resources needed for both production and consumption of products. So, how does a T-shirt originally sold in a U.S. shopping mall to promote an American sports team end up being worn by an African teen? Globalization, consumerism, and recycling all converge to connect these scenes. Globalization has made it possible to produce clothing at increasingly lower prices, prices so low that many consumers consider this clothing to be disposable. Some call it “fast fashion,” the clothing equivalent of fast food. World textile production has been consistently increasing in recent years. Global population growth and rising living standards has caused an increase in textile demands as a natural consequence of basic needs and also resulted in overconsumption as a consequence of fast fashion trends.
The textile industry comprises many production steps such as fiber harvesting, cleaning, spinning, fabric formation, dyeing, and processing with different treatments. Every step brings about environmental hazards. Cotton production remains very high (over 25 million tonnes per annum), but the growing of cotton crops requires very intensive irrigation (up to 20 000 l of water per kg of cotton) and employs large quantities of pesticides and insecticides for crop control. Due to the land, water and chemicals it uses, global textile production accounts for global emissions equivalent to 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 every year, a bigger carbon footprint than all international flights and shipping combined.
Fast fashion leaves a pollution footprint with each step of the clothing life cycle generating potential environmental and occupational hazards. For example, polyester, the most widely used manufactured fiber, is made from petroleum. With the rise in production in the fashion industry, demand for man-made fibers, especially polyester, has nearly doubled in the last 15 years, according to figures from the Technical Textile Markets. Similarly, the environmental impact of cotton dyeing is of the most contaminant parts in the whole textile process. It involves the use of big amounts of energy, water, steam, and assorted chemicals like bleaching agents, dyes, wetting agents, soap, softener, and salts, in order to obtain the required colour.
Much of the cotton produced is exported to developing countries with low labor costs, where the material is milled, woven into fabrics, cut, and assembled according to the fashion industry’s specifications. And with the fierce global competition that demands ever lower production costs, many emerging economies are aiming to get their share of the world’s apparel markets, even if it means lower wages and poor conditions for workers. When it comes to clothing, the rate of production, purchase and disposal has dramatically increased. This means that the path that a T-shirt travels from the sales floor to the landfill has become shorter.
Although a part of this postconsumer waste is given to charities or passed on to friends and family members, most of it is deposited into the trash and ends up in municipal landfills. Increasing solid waste and solid waste management has become a worldwide environmental matter. In general, awareness of organization and planning in waste management has not yet reached a satisfactory level since the available information about current regulations is deficient and there are also financial limitations in many developing countries. A World Bank study has predicted a 70% global increase in municipal solid waste by 2025, which means that the expected waste volume will rise from today’s 1.3 billion tonnes to 2.2 billion tonnes per year. Solid waste dumping is a crucial risk, especially for developing countries. Insufficient collection and thoughtless disposal of solid waste causes land and air pollution and creates risks to human health and the environment.
Present day ethical consumers tend to seek foods and textile goods from ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ sources, but still mistakenly believe that anything must be harmful if it contains ‘chemicals. In the last decades, several initiatives have been developed to reduce the negative impacts of cotton production. In such a frame, the cultivation following organic farming practices avoids the use of fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides. The total pesticide consumption involved in the cotton cultivation is estimated at 11% of the world consumption, being around 50% in developing countries. So, the practice of organic agriculture strategies allows to drastically reducing the use of chemicals and the deleterious environmental impacts related to acidification and eutrophication potentials.
At the same time manufacturers have also been changing their attitudes. There has been an increasing awareness that many products could possibly be produced under better environmental conditions; for example, using less energy, attaining better yields, with less water or air pollution and generating less waste or fewer (or no) by-products. There is no doubting the general agreement that a more sustainable future must be an objective we should strive for and, in the field of textiles, progress has been slow but steady. There is today a much greater awareness of ecological and ethical issues than a decade ago, although the willingness to buy organic produce is increasingly dictated by price.
Yusuf Esmail ABDALLAH
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