Undeniable economic success, fashion has become, in thirty years, one of the most harmful industries for the planet: it consumes a lot of water, emits greenhouse gases, pollutes the oceans … And for the moment, recycling is almost non-existent. But the awareness and the ongoing change offer glimmers of hope.
A friend of mine runs a vintage shop in London. He regularly visits a huge warehouse in the suburbs to rummage through huge piles of discarded clothing. Most of them are worthless, but for those who know how to look, it’s a real gold mine.
This warehouse has a long history. Initially, it was used to store poor quality wool scraps which were then used to make inexpensive clothing for the masses in the Victorian era. A century later, nothing has really changed. Today the warehouse is overflowing with modern materials: shoddy cotton, polyester, viscose and nylon, in the form of low-cost mass-produced garments from around the world. Only these clothes will end up in landfills and incineration plants and will not be recycled.
These surpluses are the products of an industry that, in the last thirty years, has become one of the most profitable but also one of the most devastating for the planet. Fast fashion [ou mode jetable] fills our closets with cheap clothes that are good for morale. But after decades of reckless growth, the model is hitting vital environmental limits and everyone agrees, even within the fashion industry, that it’s time to downgrade.
“The fashion industry poses a huge threat to the environment”, says Kirsi Niinimäki of Aalto University in Espoo, Finland.
“The long-term stability of the textile sector depends on the complete abandonment of the fast fashion business model.”
Like junk food, disposable fashion offers instant pleasure without breaking the bank. This term of fast-fashion [construit sur le même modèle que fast-food] entered the common language in 1989 after an article in the New York Times who explained that a Zara store managed to offer a new ready-to-wear garment on its shelves just fifteen days after its design. At the time, ready-to-wear brands renewed their collections twice a year. Today, the fastest can offer two a month.
This affordable model thrives on impulse purchases, low-quality, low-cost clothing and the never-ending pursuit of novelty, notes Kirsi Niinimäki. In recent decades, this pattern of alcohol consumption has become the norm for most people in the West and is spreading to the rest of the world, says Patrizia Gazzola of the University of Insubria in Varese, Italy. Multiple temptations lead consumers to buy more clothes when they don’t really need or even really don’t want them. Plus, they wear them less often and get rid of them more quickly. The (numerous) statistics on the subject are mind-boggling. Magazine rowing, the bible of fashionistas teaches us that, out of 100 billion items of clothing produced each year, three out of five will be thrown away in the same year.
13 kilos per year and per inhabitant
According to a recent article written in collaboration with Kirsi Niinimäki, the average American buys 66 items of clothing a year – or one every five and a half days – and sheds them almost as often. Another study from the Resilience Center in Stockholm, Sweden reveals that most clothes are thrown away within the first three years of purchase. It is not just a Western trend. According to Shanthi Radhakrishnan, a textile engineer at Kumaraguru University in Coimbatore, India, people wear their clothes three times less than they did 15 years ago, around the world.
From an economic point of view, this model is “Extremely profitable”, Kirsi Niinimäki points out. But from an environmental point of view it is a real scandal. Last year the Stockholm Center, which introduced the concept of critical thresholds not to be exceeded for the planet, published a study that warned of the dangers of the textile industry that risks making the planet uninhabitable.
Fast fashion has greatly expanded the size and production of the textile industry. Between 1975 and 2018, global per capita textile production increased from 6 kilos to 13 kilos per year, with the largest increase recorded for polyester apparel. According to the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, global textile production doubled between 2000 and 2014. Currently, 62 million tons of fabrics are purchased worldwide each year.
Even the most spendthrift fashionistas struggle to keep up. According to some estimates, around a third of clothing imported into the European Union (EU) is never sold and ends up in warehouses, where it goes out of style and wrinkles, or is simply thrown away. Orsola De Castro, co-founder of the Fashion Revolution activist association explains:
“Currently, textile workers, in addition to being underpaid and exploited, produce astonishing quantities of clothes, resulting in enormous waste.”
Fashion has been slow to adopt sustainable development, remembers Andreza de Aguiar Hugo of the Federal University of Itajubá in Brazil. “The vast majority of the fashion industry operates on a linear model of extraction, production and use of resources”, she says. However, the sector is well aware that this situation is not sustainable, especially as consumers are starting to realize the environmental cost of their consumption habits. “We are aware of the climatic and ecological problems, acknowledges Jaki Love Director of Innovation and Sustainability at UKFT (The Association of the Textile and Fashion Industry in the United Kingdom) This linear economic model of extraction, production and disposal is not sustainable. The circular economy is the only possible model “.
Other polluting industries come into play
Not surprisingly, this mismanagement of production and consumption has a huge environmental footprint. However, accurately quantifying it is complicated. Fashion is regularly described as the second most polluting industry in the world, albeit this one “Do” it is still without sources in the media. Even the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion is careful not to be peremptory and prefers to add “it is often said” to this statement.
The Ecocult website, which is interested in sustainable fashion by providing scientific elements, has tried to find its origin