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By Guest Author 16/12/2020

NOTE: This is an excerpt from a digital story – read the full story here.

Electra Scott

Despite its pretty appearance, the fashion industry has some ugly truths.

The fashion industry is a massive contributor to environmental degradation, globally.

The production of clothing uses extreme amounts of water and creates 20% of global wastewater.

Additionally, the fashion industry alone produces 10% of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime combined.

While 90% of clothing garments are shipped by containers from low and middle income countries, shipping only accounts for a small percentage of the total emissions. The large majority comes from production and a surprisingly high amount comes from consumer trips to purchase clothing.

“The breadth and depth of social and environmental abuses in fast fashion warrants its classification as an issue of global environmental justice.”
Bick et al. (2018). The global environmental injustice of fast fashion.

Enemy Number 1: Polyester

Polyester: a textile that became known as a miracle fibre post-WWII for its ability to be worn for 68 days straight without ironing and still looking presentable. Today, polyester is the most widely-used manufactured fibre.

However, polyester is not as nice as it seems. Made from petroleum, it is constructed by melting and combining two types of oil-derived plastic pellet to create the polymer polyethylene teraphlalate. This process requires large amounts of crude oil, which releases harmful emissions such as volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and acid gases like hydrogen chloride, all of which can cause or worsen respiratory disease. Additionally, most polyester is made using antimony (a metalloid similar to arsenic), which is carcinogenic as well as toxic to the heart, liver and skin.

Finally, volatile monomers, solvents and other by-products are emitted into wastewater from polyester manufacturing plants. For this reason, many textile factories are now considered to be hazardous waste generators.

Enemy Number 2: Cotton

Cotton, often seen as a natural, earth-friendly fibre is also one of the most water and pesticide dependent crops when conventionally grown.

In fact, more than 10,000 litres of water is required to produce one kilogram of cotton; enough to produce one pair of blue jeans or, comparatively, the same amount a person drinks in 10 years. Globally, less than a third of cotton is rain fed. Given the vast amounts of water it requires, it is abusing a vital resource in many drought-prone areas where it is grown.

While cotton is natural, it is a fibre that is grown with an extensive amount of toxic chemicals. Endosulfan, a commonly-used insecticide, is responsible for several thousand deaths of cotton farmers and their families. A singular drop of aldicarb, a pesticide used on cotton in 26 countries, absorbed on the skin is fatal. Overall, cotton farming accounts for a quarter of all insecticides and 11% of pesticides used universally.

It’s not just the planet, it’s people

“Environmental justice is described as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, colour, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
USEPA, 2017

Garment construction employs 40 million workers worldwide. The fashion industry is a case of transferring the environmental and occupational risks associated with mass production overseas. As a result, 90% of clothing production occurs in low and middle income countries.

These are places where, due to poor political settings and institution control, occupational and safety standards are not properly enforced. Bangladesh has long been one of the cheapest places to produce clothes, where the minimum wage is 32 cents an hour (USD) or $68 a month.

The consequence is a multitude of health and safety hazards including: a higher likelihood of respiratory conditions due to poor ventilation and therefore the gathering of cotton and synthetic particles; and musculoskeletal disorders from repetitive motions and long hours. Other health impacts reported by low and middle income countries include lung disease and cancer, endocrine dysfunction, reproduction issues, unintentional injuries, injuries due to overworking and death.

Repeated occurrences of avoidable disasters offer stark reminders of the injustices faced by garment workers. The 2013 Rana Plaza Factory collapse in the Dhaka district of Bangladesh was an avoidable event that cost the lives of 1,134 garment workers and injured a further 2,500. Following the tragedy, the garment industry appeared to return to business as usual, with little change in safety standards for garment workers.

Read the rest of the digital story here.

Electra Scott is completing a Master of Science in Society at Victoria University of Wellington. This article was written as part of SCIS 589 – Science Communication Project and is presented within Shorthand, courtesy of the Shorthand for Education programme.