When we think grand challenges, which biotechnology could potentially present solutions to, we don’t often think the fashion industry. Magda Kohut is a PhD student in Chemical Sciences at the University of Auckland and was a Leader of Tomorrow 2017. Her scientific background has given her some insight into the significant environmental and human capital challenge that the changes in the fashion industry present and she wanted to share that perspective. At GBR we like to think that a challenge is also an opportunity, and the challenges posed by the new nature of the fashion industry are sure to get the cogs turning in the clever, tech savvy and enterprising minds of our community!
Don’t let clothes become just consumables!
With the creation of the fast fashion movement, the world faces 52 fashion seasons per year instead of the original four. Every week we are faced with a release of new designs. This naturally leads to people feeling that their clothes are out of fashion faster, and wanting to buy new and throw away old more frequently. According to Fashion Revolution data “It is estimated that 80 billion items of clothing are delivered out of factories annually worldwide. 30 billion GBP worth of clothes are discarded in one year in the UK, which would fill Wembley Stadium. 95% of discarded clothing can be recycled or upcycled. The average British woman hoards 285 GBP of clothes they will never wear, the equivalent of 22 outfits each that are left hanging in valuable wardrobe space, or 30 billion GBP of unworn clothes.” Even though the charity shops accept donations enthusiastically, they are not able to store and sell on the huge amounts, and so a lot of the time they are forced to send the clothes to landfill themselves. An alternative is sending the clothes to less developed countries, which damages the local garment industries.
Fast fashion causes environmental issues not only in terms of waste produced but also due to high CO2 production and the large water consumption required. “Clothing consumption produces on average 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per household per year, the equivalent of driving 6000 cars. It takes 2720 litres of water to make a T-shirt; that’s how much we normally drink over a 3-year period. It takes 200 gallons of water to make one pair of jeans, the equivalent of 285 showers.”
Fast fashion is not only damaging to the environment but also promotes exploitation of workers in less developed countries. Western brands outsource production into cheaper countries to cut the costs down at the same time not caring about the working conditions of their labour. The companies in these countries accept the work no matter if they are able to deal with the workload or not to keep the profits coming in, and they then themselves outsource the work to yet smaller factories and finally to single households. These are not at all regulated, which leads to major safety issues. A good example of such situation is the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013, which killed 1138 people and injured 2500. The problem lies not just within the fast fashion brands but also within the local governments, which promote this uncontrolled outsourcing behaviour in order to boost the local economy. Garment companies do not own the factories; the state does. And it is the state, which controls the unbelievably minimum wage in fear of the western clothes brands moving their production to a different country.
So how can you help? There are many ways in which we can counteract the problem. There are already a number of existing eco-ethical brands, which care about the environment and pay their workers fairly, but these usually sell high-end, expensive outfits. For many of us, who can’t afford such luxuries there are still plenty of options – you can buy second hand clothes from charity shops, attend clothes swaps, repair faults in old clothes instead of throwing them away, or get a redesign into a new outfit. Remember that with every kilo of recycled textiles you will save 3 kilos of carbon dioxide and with every kilo of cotton salvaged and returned to textile you will save 20 litres of water! Let’s all individually as well as globally shift the focus away from just the profits.
By Magda Kohut
PhD Student, The University of Auckland