23 September 2020

The fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Here are the biggest ways it impacts the planet.

2019-10-21T16:22:00Z

A customer shops during the grand opening of the Forever 21 flagship store in New York’s Times Square, June 25, 2010. Lily Bowers/Reuters

Some parts of modern life are, at this point, widely known to cause environmental harm — flying overseas, using disposable plastic items, and even driving to and from work, for example. But when it comes to our clothes, the impacts are less obvious. 

As consumers worldwide buy more clothes, the growing market for cheap items and new styles is taking a toll on the environment. On average, people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000. Fashion production makes up 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, dries up water sources, and pollutes rivers and streams.

What’s more, 85% of all textiles go to the dump each year. And washing some types of clothes sends thousands of bits of plastic into the ocean.

Here are the most significant impacts fast fashion has on the planet.

Clothing production has roughly doubled since 2000.

Employees sew clothes at the Estee garment factory in Tirupur, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, June 19, 2013.REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal

Source: McKinsey & Company

While people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than in 2000, they only kept the clothes for half as long.

An Iraqi man looks in the mirror as he shops for clothes in preparation for Eid Al-Adha celebration in Baghdad, Iraq August 9, 2019.REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

Source: McKinsey & Company, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

In Europe, fashion companies went from an average offering of two collections per year in 2000 to five in 2011.

Models Gigi Hadid, from front second left, Bella Hadid and Kaia Gerber wear creations with other models as part of the Max Mara spring-summer 2020 collection in Milan, Italy, September 19, 2019. AP Photo/Luca Bruno

Source: European Parliament

Some brands offer even more. Zara puts out 24 collections per year, while H&M offers between 12 and 16.

Rows of jackets at Zara’s headquarters in Arteixo, Spain, October 2018. Business Insider/Mary Hanbury

Source: European Parliament

A lot of this clothing ends up in the dump. The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second.

A truck unloads garbage at a temporary dump on the edge of Beirut, Lebanon September 23, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Source: United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

In total, up to 85% of textiles go into landfills each year. That’s enough to fill the Sydney harbor annually.

The Sydney Harbour lit by the setting sun, on a summer day in Australia, November 24, 2018.REUTERS/David Gray

Source: United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), World Resources Institute (WRI)

Washing clothes, meanwhile, releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year — the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.

A man waits for his washing in a launderette during filming for the Adidas “I Kiss Football” TV commercial in Potters Bar, England, June 12, 2001.Jamie McDonald/Getty

Source: UNEP, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

A 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics — very small pieces of plastic that never biodegrade — in the ocean came from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester.

A boy in the Philippines collects plastic materials near a polluted coastline. Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters

Source: IUCN

Overall, microplastics are estimated to compose up to 31% of plastic pollution in the ocean.

A giant green turtle rests on a coral reef at a diving site near the island of Sipadan in Celebes Sea, east of Borneo, November 7, 2005. Reuters

Source: IUCN

The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions.

A man uses his mobile phone as he walks amid smog in Tianjin, China after the city issued a yellow alert for air pollution, November 26, 2018.Stringer / Reuters

Source: UNEP

That’s because both the jeans and the shirt are made from a highly water-intensive plant: cotton.

Farmers work at a cotton market in Soungalodaga village near Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso March 8, 2017.REUTERS/Luc Gnago

Fashion causes water-pollution problems, too. Textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water, since the water leftover from the dyeing process is often dumped into ditches, streams, or rivers.

A worker dyes yarn at a textile mill on the outskirts of Agartala, the capital of India’s northeastern state of Tripura, April 19, 2008.REUTERS/Jayanta Dey

Source: UNEP, The New York Times, The Guardian 

The dyeing process uses enough water to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools each year.

The water in a ditch turns red as chemicals and waste are dumped into it from nearby tannery factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 14, 2005.REUTERS/Rafiquar Rahman

Source: WRI

All in all, the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.

A boy swims in the polluted waters of the Buriganga river in Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 14, 2009.REUTERS/Andrew Biraj (Bangladesh Environment Society)

Source: WRI, UNEP

Some apparel companies are starting to buck these trends by joining initiatives to cut back on textile pollution and grow cotton more sustainably. In March, the UN launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, which will coordinate efforts across agencies to make the industry less harmful.

A brand ambassador shops for dresses during the Boxing Day Sales at the David Jones Castlereagh St store on December 26, 2014 in Sydney, Australia.Getty Images / Don Arnold

Source: Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals, Better Cotton Initiative, UNEP

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