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Filthy fashion

Jennifer Collins
January 13, 2017

As a self-confessed fast fashion addict, DW reporter Jennifer Collins decided it was time to break her bad habit and scrutinize the environmental impact of the garment industry. She was shocked by what she learned.

HowGreenAmI challenge Jennifer Collins
Image: Aisling Collins

Today, I'm wearing a cotton t-shirt, a ruffled black sweater that is 72 percent viscose and 28 percent nylon, and dark blue denim jeans. From a fashion perspective, I look okay. But by environmental standards, my outfit is a disaster.

The garment industry is a dirty business from start to finish - meaning my t-shirt and jeans' journey from cotton growing in field in Burkina Faso to my favorite local high street store, have had a major environmental impact.

Pesticides and chemicals aside, making the jeans and tee alone required around 13,000 liters of water. Nylon is a petrochemical, and viscose - made from wood-pulp - leads to deforestation.

That's bad news, considering it's become a near weekly ritual to scroll through all the fashion bloggers in my Instagram feed and then hit the shops to pick up a top or two to add to my already bursting-at-the-seams wardrobe.

I know, I know, I need to get a better hobby. Enter the #HowGreenAmI challenge.

Journey of discovery

Jennifer Collins in front of sales sign
Giving up sales: Torture for a fashion junkieImage: Grace O'Malley

I vowed to give up shopping for *cough* a month and do some research on fashion's environmental impact to see if more knowledge would help me change my ways.

I know a month of not shopping is actually not a big deal for normal people - as my friends have helpfully pointed out. 

But to be clear, this isn't really about challenging myself to not shop: It's about using the time to understand the problems this resource-intensive industry has.

How has it changed?

In the spirit of full disclosure, two days before the challenge started I went to my local shopping center in Dublin and bought new jeans, cheap earrings and two of the same dress from Penneys (the name for Primark in Ireland, which has the dubious honor of being the birthplace of the retail giant).

I didn't feel like trying them on in the store, and vowed I would return the one that didn't fit. Both are still sitting, unworn, in a bag at my mother's house. 

Jennifer Collins in new clothes
This is what my fashion addiction looks likeImage: DW/J. Collins

But apparently, I'm not alone in my behavior. The rise of cheap, disposable "fast fashion" - led by retailers like Primark and Zara - has completely transformed the industry over the past 20 years.

"Fast fashion has fueled so much demand," says Amanda Ratcliffe, a lecturer in Marketing and International Retailing at Dublin Institute of Technology.

"The fashion cycle has become much shorter. Where before fashion retailers used to present maybe two collections a year on average, these days most of the fast-fashion retailers will have up to 20 collections a year.

"Zara, for example, manages to design, produce and supply in under 18 days," Ratcliffe told me.

What's the scale?

Some 80 billion pieces of clothing are purchased worldwide each year, up 400 percent from two decades ago. This according to "The True Cost," a devastating 2015 documentary that delves into the perils of the fashion industry for people and the planet.

In North America alone, 10.5 million tons of clothes end up in the landfill each year. The majority of those garments are made from petroleum-based textiles like polyester - which has long since overtaken cotton as the main material in clothing - so they don't biodegrade.

Of the clothes that are donated to charity and thrift stores, just 10 percent gets sold, while the rest ends up in landfills or floods markets in developing countries where it can destroy local clothing industries.

In fact, garment manufacturing is the second-most-polluting industry in the world - after oil. It accounts for 10 percent of global emissions. A quarter of the world's chemicals are used for textiles, which ends up in rivers and lakes.

Infographic fashion is dirty work

Who pays the price?

T-shirts for a fiver and jeans for 15 euros ($16). If it seems too good to be true, it is, says Ratcliffe.

Someone is paying the true price somewhere along the (product) line. And it is developing countries - also the source of many of our garments - that bear the brunt of garment industry pollution and exploitative work practices.

In short, fashion companies get around strict labor and environmental standards in industrialized countries by setting up shop in the developing world instead.

In a 2013 report, Greenpeace exposed how garment manufacturing businesses in Indonesia treated the Citarum River as their own "private sewer, pumping out a cocktail of hazardous substances into the local waterways."

"The printing and dyeing processes are particularly chemical-intensive, and have contributed to the Citarum developing a reputation as one of the dirtiest rivers on earth," wrote Greenpeace. This, in turn, threatens the wildlife and 5 million people all along the river basin. 

Infographic clothes and oil

What's the alternative?

Yet it seems anything we choose to wear is going to have some kind of impact on the environment.

What can you do apart from weaving your own clothes, or donning some leaves (not recommended if you're in Europe in winter)? Before we fall into a black pit of despair, I'd like to point out what some companies and individuals are trying to do to turn the tide.

Companies like Adidas have committed to "detoxing" their supply chain - that is, reducing or eliminating release of hazardous chemicals in production processes.

One step in this is transparency - H&M and Zara are among companies to have published wastewater data and supplier's lists.

Still others have signed up to the Ethical Trading Initiative and the Ethical Fashion Forum, which push for better workers' rights and sustainability.

But with so many subcontractors and such globalized supply chains, it's hard to know whether you can be guaranteed the shirt on your back is ethical.

Infographic fashion is thirsty

Small and ethical

Some smaller fashion brands are opting for home-grown textiles made from local sources - however, these garments are out of most people's price range.

There are some small brands, like Fresh Cuts Clothing, doing casual items like t-shirts and hoodies, which are ethical and eco-friendly - and that won't break the bank.

But the question is whether these can be scaled up, and whether people are willing - or able - to pay more.

Steven Murphy, owner of Fresh Cuts Clothing - which is tucked away in a basement just off Dublin's main shopping street - says it's "hard to come back" from the fast fashion mentality.

"People just want their t-shirts for the weekend, or to buy their whole outfit for 40 euros in Penneys - wear it a couple of times and bin it," he says.

Environment HowGreenAmI Steven Murphy
Steven Murphy is trying to make a change with Fresh CutsImage: DW/J. Collins

Change in mentality

Murphy is quick to say he's no eco-warrior, and doesn't want to preach to people. With no background in fashion or environmentalism, he started Fresh Cuts two years ago when he couldn't find the casual t-shirts and sweaters he'd worn when living in Australia.

He hadn't intended to start an eco-brand - but when he started to source t-shirts to screen print, he was shocked by how cheap they were.

Now, he gets his garments through the Fair Wear Foundation, which insures that garment workers are paid fairly, and supplies organic and upcycled textiles.

Hats in Fresh Cuts store
Eco-friendly hats in Fresh Cuts ClothingImage: DW/J. Collins

"I'm just a little shop in poor old Dublin," says Murphy. "I'm not changing the world, and I'm certainly not at the forefront of eco-fashion or anything like," he says.

"But I just try to uphold a certain standard, I suppose."

And in the end, I realize that's probably the best most of us can do: be aware, buy less and more consciously where we can, put pressure on companies to do better by voting with our wallets, and join campaigns.

In the meantime, I'll quietly unfollow all the fashion bloggers on Instagram and continue my fashion detox.