Clothes were once used until they fell apart, repaired and patched and reused, ending their lives as dish towels and oil rags. Not today. Especially in high-income countries, clothing, footwear and upholstered furniture are bought more and more frequently, discarded and replaced with new fashions, but they are quickly discarded and replaced.
The proof is in the data. In 1995, the textile industry produced 7.6 kilograms of fiber per person on Earth. By 2018, this nearly doubled to 13.8 kilograms per person. During that time, the world’s population also increased from 5.7 billion he to 7.6 billion. More than 60 million tonnes of clothing are now purchased each year, and this number is expected to increase further, reaching nearly 100 million tonnes by 2030.
It’s called “fast fashion” because the fashion industry, historically a quarterly event, releases new lines every week. Fashion brands now produce almost twice as much clothing as they did in 2000, mostly in China and middle-income countries such as Turkey, Vietnam and Bangladesh. Worldwide, 300 million people are employed in industry.
But an incredible report from an expert workshop convened by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released in May found that more than 50 billion pieces of clothing are thrown away within the first year of production. increase.
Landmark treaty on plastic pollution must put scientific evidence at center
Textiles fall into two broad categories: natural and synthetic. Production of plants and animals, such as cotton and wool, is increasing slowly but remains fairly stable. In contrast, production of polymer-based fibers, especially polyester, increased from about 25 million tons per year in 2000 to about 65 million tons in 2018, the NIST workshop report said. Taken together, these trends are having a staggering impact on the environment.
take water. One of the world’s largest water consumers, the fashion industry consumes 20 trillion to 200 trillion liters of water every year. Then there are microplastics. Plastic fibers account for 20% to 35% of the microplastics that are released when washing polyester and other polymer-based fabrics and clog our oceans. Added to this are the chemicals used to make fabrics antifouling and certain chemicals such as pesticides needed to protect crops such as cotton.
Change is desperately needed, but the fashion industry needs to do more to embrace more of what is known as the circular economy. There are at least two things to do with it. More rapidly expanding technology for sustainable manufacturing processes, especially recycling. Both academic and industrial research have a major role to play in achieving these and other goals.
Researchers can start by providing more accurate estimates of water use. From 20 trillion liters he should be able to narrow the range of 200 trillion liters of water. There is also work to be done in improving and expanding textile recycling. With relatively few systems (at a large scale) to collect, recycle and reuse materials, post-consumer fibers overwhelmingly end up in landfills (around 85% in the US). Such recycling requires manual separation of textiles, not just buttons and zippers. Different fibers are not easily discernible with the naked eye, and overall such a manual process is time consuming. A useful machine is being developed. Technologies exist to chemically recycle used fibers to create high-quality fibers that can be reused in clothing. However, these are nowhere near the scale required.
Another challenge for researchers is figuring out how to change the behavior of consumers and manufacturers. This is already an area of active research in the social and behavioral sciences. For example, her Verena Tiefenbeck and her colleagues at the University of Bonn in Germany found that when hotel guests were shown real-time feedback on the energy used when showering, showering energy consumption was 11.4% higher than hers. found to be reduced.1Other research challenges include finding ways to encourage people to buy durable goods. Find ways to satisfy your desire for something new while reducing your environmental impact. Also, understand why certain interventions scale well while others fail.
Environmental pricing for fast fashion
Industry and academia could also work together to establish a system to track textile microplastics. This can be done digitally, for example. An agreed definition of what constitutes a fiber microplastic, such as material composition and dimensions, will be needed. Businesses, universities, campaigners, and governments should also consider ways to make their technology more accessible. Doing so accelerates development and testing, and (eventually) adoption at scale.
There are also schemes in other areas that can be a source of ideas. The World Health Organization has considerable experience with accessibility, including access to the COVID-19 Tools Accelerator. Hereby, companies and governments agree on the principle of sharing key technologies in diagnostics and drug development. And in the early 2000s, the Rockefeller Foundation, under its then president, Gordon Conway, now an ecologist at Imperial College London, established the African Agricultural Technology Foundation to help companies develop agricultural biotechnology. It has given great impetus to encourage sharing. These schemes are not perfect and are constantly evolving, but they provide ideas and lessons to study and consider.
Meanwhile, campaign groups are doing a lot of the heavy lifting in partnership with the industry. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK-based charity that promotes circular economy solutions, is launching its second campaign called Redesigning Jeans. Some manufacturers make their jeans manufacturing process more circular by using organic cotton and inserting zippers for easy removal when the garment is recycled. Others use enhanced stitching to make their products last longer. These are proof of important principles, but such techniques need to go mainstream.
These actions come at a cost and challenge the idea of fast fashion. This is because it can make items less affordable for consumers who want to keep up with the latest trends. Brands and retailers take the risk to their bottom line seriously (and may choose to delay action on sustainability as a result). This is why government action is key.
Policy requires precision and teeth, which current policy does not always have and ideally needs to be coordinated. For example, the European Union’s recommendations for Member States say that by 2030, textiles should be “mandated to contain recycled fibres, making them more durable and easier to repair and recycle”. This is too vague. Without more specific goals, it becomes very difficult to track for compliance purposes. China, the world’s largest textile producer, also has his five-year circular economy plan for the industry. Given the interconnectedness of fast fashion, China and her EU must work harder to coordinate efforts, working with the US and others.
Small steps are good, but big changes are needed. It doesn’t take long to change textile manufacturing and design. The shameful environmental costs of quirky new wardrobes, in style and panache, need to be tackled on a large scale and immediately.