What we choose to wear can change the world
Ali Kelly

Our fashion system relies on overconsumption. Since the 1980s we have seen the rise of ‘Fast fashion’, a new business model which involves more fashion collections every year, quick turnarounds, lower prices and often lower quality items. It is trend driven and brands react quickly to capitalise on the latest looks.1 This system creates excessive waste at every stage of the process and is having a detrimental effect on our climate and biodiversity. Here are some of the facts: 

  • Climate Change: Our fast fashion habit is fuelling climate change. Across the full lifecycle of clothing globally, the industry has an annual carbon footprint of 3.3 billion tonnes CO2e. This is almost equivalent to the total carbon production of the EU 28 member states!2
  • Land Use: The most carbon intensive part of the process is the production of fibres such as cotton – and this is growing.  The industry is projected to use 35% more land for fibre production by 2030— an extra 115 million hectares that could be left for biodiversity or used to grow crops to feed our expanding population.3
  • Synthetic Fibres: An increasing number of garments are being made with synthetic fibres. These are often even more carbon intensive. A single polyester shirt has more than double the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt (5.5 kg  CO2e vs. 2.1 kg CO2e).4 The use of plastics in clothes is having a detrimental impact on animal and marine life. 20% to 35% of all primary source microplastics in the marine environment are from synthetic clothing.5 A single 6kg domestic wash has the potential to release as many as 700,000 fibres.6
  • The way we look after our clothes is changing too. We tend to wear our clothes for shorter periods of time, and buy new instead of making simple repairs. Around 300,000 tonnes of household waste each year is made up of garment waste.7 The ability to recycle textiles is limited and most recycling processes currently use damage the existing fibres. Most synthetic fibres are made from virgin, rather than recycled plastics due to the cost. 

And this is all before we consider the human rights abuses and social costs of the industry. However – it is not too late, if we can ACT NOW we can decrease the carbon cost of our clothes and the industry, but still enjoy the fun and creativity of fashion!

Resources to Learn From

  • In the What I Wear section Ali outlines 10 keys ways you can make a difference.
  • Aja Barber: Aja’s work looks at the intersections of sustainability and the fashion landscape.  She focuses on ideas behind privilege, wealth inequality, racism, feminism, colonialism and how to fix the fashion industry with all these things in mind.  Follow Aja on instagram and support her on Patreon
  • Slow Factory Open Education:Slow Factory sees fashion as a vehicle for social, cultural and environmental change. Check out their equity-centre education courses, designed for Black, Brown, Indigenous and minority ethnic communities and taught by Black, Brown, Indigenous and minority ethnic scholars, thinkers and educators. This will allow you to explore  the links between fashion, colonialism, culture and sustainbility. Open Education (slowfactory.foundation)

1. Environmental Audit Committee, UK Parliament, “Fixing Fashion Report”

2. Written Evidence Dr. Mark Sumner, University of Leads:  Written evidence – School oF Design, University of Leeds (parliament.uk) 

3. Written Evidence Dr. Mark Sumner, University of Leads:  Written evidence – School oF Design, University of Leeds (parliament.uk) 

4. Kirchain, R., Olivetti, E., Reed Miller, T. & Greene, S. Sustainable Apparel Materials (Materials System Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015)

5. Kirsi Laitala, Ingun Grimstad Klepp and Beverley Henry, Does Use Matter? Comparison of Environmental Impacts of Clothing Based on Fiber Type (July 2018)

6.  I. E. Napper, R. C. Thompson, Release of synthetic microplastic plastic fibres from domestic washing machines: Effects of fabric type and washing conditions. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 112, 39-45 (2016).

7. Environmental Audit Committee, UK Parliament, “Fixing Fashion Report” Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability – Report Summary – Environmental Audit Committee (parliament.uk) 

Ali Kelly is the co-founder and community director of Nuw, a clothes sharing app which allows members to share and swap clothes, thereby reducing the environmental impact of fashion. She is also a Senior Policy Advisor for Her Majesty’s Probation Service in the UK.

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