The environmental price of fashion

Fashion has never failed to court controversy. If it is not the provocative designs of the clothes themselves (or lack of clothes in some cases) then it is the emaciated figures of its waif-like models that come under fire from the press. More recently, the harsh working conditions behind the cheap mass production of clothing by companies such as Primark have justifiably been condemned in a massive media campaign. In addition, slowly but surely the media is starting to expose the terrifying reality of the environmental cost of clothing production both in terms of carbon footprint but also in water consumption. On a planet where millions cannot access clean water and so many face crippling drought and water shortage, it is hard to justify the estimated 1,800 gallons of water that goes into growing the cotton for just one pair of jeans (thirsty jeans) And that’s not taking into account all the water that will then be consumed through the processes of harvesting, cleaning, manufacturing and transporting those jeans from the field to the shop floor.

But The Economist, in a  recent article on the clothing and fashion industries, points out a more alarming socio-cultural trend amongst the consumerist societies of MEDCs (Economist: environmental cost of clothes); that is the habit we have got into of changing our wardrobes, sometimes yearly, sometimes seasonally, sometimes even monthly and constantly buying and discarding more and more clothes. Less and less do we keep our cast-offs for warmer weather or a change of fashion but throw them away in an attitude of wantonness that is a far cry from the austerity of the early and mid 20th century.  Partly this is due to the ready availability of cheap clothing and partly due to the increase in poorer quality clothing that is less likely to last as long. But it is also in part due to a cultural shift in attitudes towards clothing, identity and materialism. We have to have the latest in fashion and we have to have it now. And retailers and designers have jumped at the opportunity to increase their revenue on the back of this desire by bringing out fresh lines almost every other week, escalating the demand for new clothes which in turn increases the fashion output and so on. And the environmental toll just keeps rising with it.

I think it is time to try and embrace the idea of permanence, sustainability and environmental responsibility and somehow make that sound fashionable. More challenging still is the task of making eco-friendly clothing attractive to the fashion industry and finding an alternative source of revenue that can compete with rapid changes in fashion.

The bottom line is that there is nothing fashionable about global or localised water shortage and enhanced global warming. The sooner we wake up to the reality of the environmental costs of manufacturing, whether it is a can of beans or a pair of jeans, the better for the future of our increasingly fragile planet.





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