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Fashion's eco-sins

Melina Grundmann
April 16, 2018

The clothing industry puts a huge strain on the environment: It creates more greenhouse gas emissions in a single year than all international flights and shipping combined. But it doesn't have to be that way.

A woman sorts through clothes in Bangladesh
Image: picture alliance/ZUMAPRESS

You see them on every street corner in Germany: collection bins for old clothes. Day after day, they swallow up the items we discard — and we discard a lot. In Germany, 75 percent of old clothes end up in these containers.

But what's convenient for us is becoming a problem for people elsewhere. The majority of our old clothes are shipped abroad — to Asia and Africa, for example.

What will happen, though, if people there decide they don't want our old clothes anymore? Several East African countries have recently announced that they wanted to stop receiving old clothes.

"Our clothing is increasingly clogging up the channels for second-hand products," says Kirstin Brodde, a textile expert with Greenpeace. "There's so much now that the countries where these items end up, either as second-hand items or for processing, have started saying: Enough already."

Read more: Giving up my filthy fashion habit

This congestion is just a symptom of the real problem: fast fashion. We're consuming too quickly, and too much.

Over the past 15 years, the sale of clothing worldwide has doubled, whereas the average life of an item of clothing has dramatically decreased. Clothes are usually not even kept for a year.

Repair it? For many people, that's just not an option. "Hardly anyone knows how to sew on a button anymore," says Brodde.

Containers for old clothes and bottles
In Germany, people are accustomed to dumping their old clothes just as they would their recyclable bottlesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Galuschka

She's especially critical of the manner in which we consume. "Really, it ought to be the case that we buy less and wear the clothes we have for longer, instead of taking bags of them to the container every few months in the hope that someone somewhere at the other end of the world will wear them."

Massive CO2 emissions

Low prices effectively encourage this behavior. Although the price we pay in the shop is low, the price paid by the environment is enormous.

Textile production worldwide creates more than a billion tons of CO2 per year. That's more than all international flights and shipping combined. On top of this comes the pollution of the seas by microplastics from textile fibers and the use of poisonous chemicals.

Read more: Bottled water not safe from microplastic contamination

Purple suds in the Tullahan River in the Philippines
Chemicals from textile production easily end up in natureImage: Greenpeace/Gigie Cruz-Sy

"Companies need to be put under more pressure; they need to be told what production should look like, and how ecological it should be. That would automatically make production more expensive, and they wouldn't be able to produce stuff so cheaply anymore," says Brodde.

She works for Greenpeace's detox campaign, which advises companies on how they can make products without using poisonous chemicals. Seventy-nine global fashion companies, from H&M to Adidas to Aldi, have committed to replacing pollutants with nontoxic substances by 2020.

Just a question of marketing?

Projects like these show that big fashion chains have also realized sustainability is in vogue. But is there more to that than marketing?

A foot in a leather shoe with a branch
Image: mago

"Long-term, big fashion companies will also have to adjust," says a spokesperson for the Confederation of the German Textile and Fashion Industry.

She says the German textile industry is in fact a trailblazer: "The social and ecological standards of the textile and fashion industry in Germany are among the highest in the world. The sector is an international role model in its environmentally conscious way of dealing with resources."

Read more: 'Partnership for Sustainable Textiles' unraveling

Brodde thinks it's imperative for the sector to adjust and become more sustainable. According to a study by the Ellen McArthur Foundation, if business continues as usual, it will have an even more catastrophic impact on the environment.

With markets like Africa and Asia growing steadily, the demand for clothing is growing too. If clothing production continues to expand at the current rate, in 2050 it will be three times the size it is today.

Aiming for a circular economy

Evening gowns made of milk

One approach that is currently being researched, in order to solve the problem and make the clothing industry more sustainable, is the so-called "circular economy."

This means sustainable commodities being reused for as long as possible. Ideally, the circle would be powered using only renewable energy.

Read more: 'Make things last': Can the circular economy save the planet?

A number of large companies have already pledged to pursue this goal. H&M, for example, has decided to overhaul its sustainability strategy to that effect.

"We want to become 100 percent circular, in that we only incorporate recycled or otherwise sustainably sourced materials in our production," says Anna Gedda, H&M's project leader for sustainability.

In 2017 the company was heavily criticized after it was revealed that large quantities of clothing were simply burned due to overproduction.

"The industry has to reduce the pace of the massive overproduction of clothing. And we have to reduce the pace, by not constantly buying more stuff even though our wardrobes are overflowing. We have to relearn the art of mending things," says Brodde.