Fashion accounts for around 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity, but there are ways to reduce the impact your wardrobe has on the climate.
“For years I was obsessed with buying clothes,” says Snezhina Piskova. “I would buy 10 pairs of very cheap jeans just for the sake of having more diversity in my wardrobe for a low price, even though I ended up wearing only two or three of them.”
When it comes to resisting the lure of fashion, Piskova faces a tougher challenge than most. As a copywriter for a company in the fashion industry she’s surrounded by fashionistas. And it’s been easy to go along with the tide.
But conversations about the climate crisis made Piskova, who lives in Sofia, Bulgaria, consider the impact that the industry and her own shopping habits were having.
The fashion industry accounts for about 10% of global carbon emissions, and nearly 20% of wastewater. And while the environmental impact of flying is now well known, fashion sucks up more energy than both aviation and shipping combined.
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Clothing in general has complex supply chains that makes it difficult to account for all of the emissions that come from producing a pair of trousers or new coat. Then there is how the clothing is transported and disposed of when the consumer no longer wants it anymore.
While most consumer goods suffer from similar issues, what makes the fashion industry particularly problematic is the frenetic pace of change it not only undergoes, but encourages. With each passing season (or microseason), consumers are pushed into buying the latest items to stay on trend.
It’s hard to visualise all of the inputs that go into producing garments, but let’s take denim as an example. The UN estimates that a single pair of jeans requires a kilogram of cotton. And because cotton tends to be grown in dry environments, producing this kilo requires about 7,500–10,000 litres of water. That’s about 10 years’ worth of drinking water for one person.
There are ways to make denim less resource-intensive, but in general, jeans composed of material that is as close to the natural state of cotton as possible use less water and hazardous treatments to produce. This means less bleaching, less sandblasting, and less pre-washing.
The stretchy elastane material in many trendy jeans is made using synthetic materials derived from plastic, which reduces recyclability and increases the environmental impact further
Unfortunately it also means that some of the most popular types of jeans are the hardest on the planet. For instance, fabric dyes pollute water bodies, with devastating effects on aquatic life and drinking water. And the stretchy elastane material woven through many trendy styles of tight jeans is made using synthetic materials derived from plastic, which reduces recyclability and increases the environmental impact further.
Jeans manufacturer Levi Strauss estimates that a pair of its iconic 501 jeans will produce the equivalent of 33.4kg of carbon dioxide equivalent across its entire lifespan – about the same as driving 69 miles in the average US car. Just over a third of those emissions come from the fibre and fabric production, while another 8% is from cutting, sewing and finishing the jeans. Packaging, transport and retail accounts for 16% of the emissions while the remaining 40% is from consumer use – mainly from washing the jeans – and disposal in landfill.
Another study of jeans made in India that contained 2% elastane showed that producing the fibres and denim fabric released 7kg more carbon than those in Levi’s analysis. It suggests that choosing raw denim products will have less impact on the climate.
But it is also possible to look for further ways of reducing the impact of your jeans by looking at the label. Certification programmes like the Better Cotton Initiative and Global Organic Textile Standard can help consumers work out how green their denim is (although these programmes aren’t perfect – many suffer from a lack of funding and the complex supply chains for cotton can make it hard to account where it all comes from).