Why isn’t fashion sustainable (yet)?

Firstly, as always on the blog this is not designed to make you feel guilty.    And it’s not all bad news. 

People often ask why the fashion industry isn’t sustainable (yet).  There are three big reasons, and they are:

(1) The fabrics used to make clothes come at the price of a lot of carbon, a lot of water, a lot of land, a lot of polluting chemicals and a lot of pesticides

(2) It’s much harder to recycle clothes than many people realise   

(3) Maybe most importantly, the sheer amount of clothing we buy – and then dispose of quite quickly – has grown exponentially in recent years

This excerpt from a report by the Ellen McArthur Foundation sums it up very well: ‘Large amounts of non-renewable resources are extracted to produce clothes that are often used for only a short time, after which the materials are mostly sent to landfill or incinerated.’

A bit more detail on the three:

(1) The fabrics used to make clothes come with a lot of sustainability problems.  Cotton requires a mind-boggling amount of water: A kilo of cotton takes about the amount of water a person drinks in their lifetime.  So much so that the Aral Sea, which is in a cotton-producing area, has completely dried up.  Lots of brands use organic cotton to avoid the problem of the huge quantities of pesticides the crop often requires.  However, some experts think that’s just as bad because organic cotton requires even more land and water compared to conventionally grown crops.  Other fabrics, such as polyester are made from plastic.  And that’s not good. 

(2) Globally just 12% of the material used for clothing ends up being recycled.  The podcast listed below goes into lots more detail, but essentially most clothes are made from a mix of different fabrics which are hard to separate, and therefore hard to recycle. 

(3) Check out the purple line below.  The amount of clothes we’re buying has been going up and up and up in the past two decades:

That’s been fuelled by the wide availability of really cheap clothes.  (And yes, I have been one of the people raiding the rails in Zara and H&M.)   I’m studying for a master’s degree in environment and sustainability at the moment.  One of the big debating points in the class is whether the fundamental problem in sustainability is sheer over-consumption – not just in clothing, but in general.  After all, even if clothes are made from better fabrics such as Tencel, they still require water, carbon and chemical dyes. 

So, what can you do?

  • Check out my blog for tips on buying preloved fashion.  eBay, Depop and charity shops are all great options.
  • Also follow the blog to learn about sustainability-focused clothes brands
  • Buy from sustainable collections such as H&M’s Conscious Collection or Zara’s Join Life.   None of these are perfect options, but they are better

Thanks for reading!


Further info:

A good way to learn more about this topic is to watch one of these documentary films: The True Cost or Stacey Dooley Investigates – Fashion’s Dirty Secrets

This podcast which is about 20 minutes long explains in more detail why finding a sustainable fabric is so challenging. 

#sustainablefashion #sustainability #preloved #ethicalfashion #fashionblog #secondhandfirst

Published by jengreggs

I'm a London-based writer and blogger focused on sustainability in fashion. My purpose is to help everyone discover the joy of living more sustainably.

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