Earnest Elmo Calkins, considered the father of modern advertising, said in the early twentieth century: there are 2 kinds of products, the kind that you use (for a long time, like a car, a washing machine or, in the past, clothes) and the kind that you use up. Consumption is all about getting people to treat the things they use, as the things they use up”. And nothing represents this analogy as well as the fashion industry. Ultimately, due to small margins, the fast fashion industry is only profitable if it sells incredible amounts of product on a daily basis, and for that they need us, consumers, to perceive fashion as disposable goods.
As David Attenborough put it, "Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is either a madman or an economist."
And the reality is that the fashion industry has well surpassed the environmental limits in many ways, and the size of its impact is difficult to portray. It’s often said that the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, and while we don’t stand behind that claim, here is some data that we do stand behind.
The textile industry emits more greenhouse gas emissions than international shipping and aviation combined. In 2015, that was 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2. This means that it is at the head of leading contributors to global warming.
Textiles production uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water annually.
20% of industrial water pollution globally is attributable to the dyeing and treatment of textiles, making the fashion industry the second worst polluter of water, after the agriculture industry.
In addition to that, annually 0.5 million tonnes of microfibers are estimated to be released by washing our clothes. Washing a single polyester garment can shed 1,900 individual micro plastic fibres into the ocean.
What our clothes are made of matters A LOT, and today it is not looking good. 97% is virgin feedstock, which means we are recycling close to 0% of the millions of tonnes of textiles that are thrown away every year. Of this new feedstock, 63% is plastic (in their fancy name of polyester), 26% is cotton, 11% is other materials (this 11% is where trace collective will operate).
In order to produce our clothes (the roughly 53 million tones of clothing produced per year), we need 98 million tonnes of non-renewal resources, such as oil (where polyester fibre comes from – yes, you are wearing oil), fertilisers to grow cotton (cotton production accounts for 22.5% of pesticide use globally), and chemicals to produce, dye and finish fibres and textiles.
In our intro to fast fashion post we talked briefly about clothing waste. If we start thinking about what our clothes are actually made of, it is not hard to tie the dots with what this means for the environment. These garments, full of lead, pesticides, and countless other chemicals, almost never break down and spend their life releasing these toxic chemicals in the air for years and years. Just think about it: due to their composition, most of the things in your wardrobe will outlive you. And your children. And your grandchildren. That is, if there is still a planet for our grandchildren to live in, which with the current status quo is looking rather unlikely.
We need a radically new model to reshape the industry – that is why at trace collective we work only with sustainable and regenerative plant fibres, which are fully organic and fully biodegradable, and why we are shaping a fully circular model that not only increases clothes utilisation through a rental model, but recycles 100% of the textiles that come to us and can no longer be mended. Because we love our fabrics, and we love the stories behind them.
The sources used to put together this post are the following:
The Economist: The True Cost of Fast Fashion (video).
Ellen MacArthur Foundation: A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion's future.
The True Cost Movie (available for rent or purchase on their website, where you can find tons more of resources, as well as in Netflix in most countries).
UN Environment: Why fast fashion needs to slow down.
Wrap UK: Textiles Overview.