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Are your clothes costing the earth?

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

How sustainable is your wardrobe? You may not even have thought about it. Why would you? Clothes are clothes and climate change is all about using too much gas and oil isn't it? What's sustainability got to do with clothes, fashion and the textile industry?

What we choose to wear has a major impact on our planet, but most of us are blissfully unaware of the environmental implications when searching online or in-store for a new outfit or accessory to brighten up our look.

We may be mindful of the waste our disposable fashion culture creates, and occasionally recycle clothes at charity shops or collection bins, but we largely have no idea of the devastating impact the entire textile supply and consumption chain has on our planet. We've probably given even less thought to the social and economic impact of appalling terms and working conditions which are all too common in the textile industry worldwide.

So what's the problem?

The modern textile and fashion industry has a devastating impact on our environment[i] [ii] by:

  • using 79 trillion litres of water

  • generating approx 20% of global waste water

  • creating chemical pollution from pesticides, insecticides and chemicals used in textile factories

  • generating 2.9gigatonnes [2,900,000,000 tonnes] of carbon emissions, the majority from production and use of oil-based synthetics

  • creating almost 100 million tonnes of clothing waste, by manufacturers and by consumers

These are huge numbers, well nigh impossible to relate to. Bringing it down to earth and closer to home:

  • 13 million items of clothing go to UK landfill every week.. that's one item for every five people, every week

  • it takes 3,000 litres of water [18 pints per day for a year!] to make one cotton shirt alone

  • 16.2kg of carbon emissions are produced by making a new pair of jeans.. equivalent to driving 58 miles by car

  • the same pair of jeans take a kilogram of cotton to produce, which requires about 7,500–10,000 litres of water: approx. 10 years’ drinking water for one person;

  • polyester, made from oil, doesn’t decompose for thousands of years but comprised 52% of all fibres produced in 2020.

These are scary facts and figures, particularly when we consider that nearly half the clothes in the average UK person’s wardrobe are never worn! There's no escaping that the textile and fashion industries are closely intertwined with the future and sustainability of our planet.

How on earth did this happen? The rise of ‘fast fashion’

The production and consumption of garments has changed radically over the last 70 years:

  • in the 1940s and early 1950s, clothing was rationed in the UK. ‘Make do and mend’ was the only option for most people who mended and altered clothes and repurposed household textiles;

  • the rise of consumer culture in the 1960s saw the rise of mass production and the promotion of new fashion trends and styles each ‘season’, at modest prices;

  • the textile/fashion industry has since seen explosive growth: production of textiles per head of population has doubled between 1975 and 2000 and by 2020, fashion brands were producing almost twice the amount of clothing as in the year 2000;

  • low quality 'fast fashion' destined for a short life in resource-rich industrialised countries is produced largely in low resource countries where wages are low and working conditions often appalling, resulting in disaster such as the Rana Plaza in 2013;

  • Production is now fragmented across the world, with significant costs and environmental damage resulting from the transport and fuel involved.

What YOU can do!

Ready to take action? Your purchasing power can and does make a difference.

This havoc wreaked by the fashion industry on our planet is clearly unsustainable. We need drastic change by consumers and producers. We can’t change the whole system on our own, but we can make choices which make a difference by choosing eco-friendly options:

  1. we can buy many fewer clothes

  2. we can extend garment lifetimes by altering/repurposing what we have; recirculate clothes and buy second hand

  3. we choose slow fashion which is environmentally friendly, often craft-based and hand made with natural materials and a huge dose of love

#1: Don't buy new clothes

“The most sustainable garment is the one already in your wardrobe.” Orsola de Castro, co-founder Fashion Revolution.

One obvious solution to the problem of fast fashion is simply to buy fewer clothes. the US-based organisation re/Make organised the #NoNewClothes pledge in summer 2022. I took part in it for three months and was quite shocked at how often I could have bought some new clothes, almost unthinkingly. Catalogues hop into the letter box; supermarkets have clothing sections. I stopped myself buying clothes at least four times, and it really made me think about whether I needed new clothes, and if I did, whether I could repurpose something I already had, or find something second hand [see below].

#2: Extend garment lifetimes: repurpose, recirculate and buy second hand

We can extend garment lifetimes by upcycling/repurposing them for our own use, or by recirculating them. If we donate to charity/thrift/op shops, where they will be bought secondhand, there's a double benefit: it prevent clothes going into landfill AND the charity benefits financially from the sale of the items.

#2.1: Repurposing/upcycling our own clothes

We can refresh and restyle our own clothes by altering them physically.. taking a pair of scissors to them, possibly combining them into a new creation, patchwork-style, or simply remodelling.

A major reason why clothes stay in the wardrobe is that they no longer fit [or never really did]. Be brave, get the scissors out and have a go! If you're feeling unsure, seek out local sewing classes.. an increasing number of community enterprises and small businesses such as The Sewing Institute, Lytham and Make CIC in Liverpool offer classes, and some will help you adapt and remodel your clothes. Afrayed Upcycling is a great example.. she'll make her unique patchwork clothes for you, by mail order including internationally, from your own fabrics/discarded clothes if you wish.

If your clothes lie unloved and unused because they are tired and faded or stained, breathe new life into them simply by over-dyeing, with or without a tie-and-dye pattern. You can use commercially produced, synthetic dyes, but try more sustainable methods, using eco-friendly natural dyes made from onion skins, avocado skins or pips, buddleija flowers. See my online course on onion skins or tap into Rebecca Desnos's natural dye expertise.

#2.2 Recirculate: buy [and sell] second hand

If restyling your own clothes feels like too much of a leap, consider buying second hand.. either direct from sellers via online sites such has Etsy and eBay, or from charity/thrift/op shops. The great thing about the latter is that the charity will financially benefit too.

In the UK, the major international anti-poverty agency, Oxfam, has launched #Second Hand September to encourage us to shop for clothes in a sustainable way that doesn't cost the earth. Oxfam's challenge is to buy second hand for just 30 days [but you can always do it for longer!], and benefit the charity and its beneficiaries as well as the planet. You'll be surprised what a good rummage in a charity shop can yield!

Second hand clothes and household linen can be used creatively to make a range of things: I have used second hand shirts and jeans to make bags and patchwork cushions. I use linen from second hand trousers and table cloths for my botanical prints, to great effect.

You can also recirculate clothes by donating to local charities organising resources including clothes for hard pressed local communities and/or refugees.. particularly as inflation bites into household budgets. Seek out local swap shops or equivalent on Facebook. In the UK, the website Give Your Best is a "tech-for-good nonprofit" which turns donating into gifting. They empower through choice, offering a digital platform where clothes can be donated so that refugee women and children can shop for free, with the agency and dignity they deserve.

#3: Choose slow fashion, ethical, environmentally friendly

There are environmentally friendly alternatives to industrialised, disposable fashion: natural fibres and dyes, rather than synthetics derived from oil. We can seek out ethical, organic and sustainable producers, who revive and keep alive crafts, knowledge and skills including natural dyeing, spinning nad weaving, but they are not always easy to find or cheap!

We can support ‘slow fashion’ by

  • making and using hand made yarns, cloth and clothing

  • actively seeking cloth or garments made with natural fibres and dyes, organically and ethically produced where possible

  • actively supporting makers investing emotion, design and skill in producing beautiful handmade creations..

Buying a more expensive item hand made with love can prove as economical in the long run as several shoddily made 'fast fashion' items. It's a choice which can make economic as well as moral sense.

Take action NOW!

So there's loads you can do to stop your clothes costing the earth...

So what's stopping you?

Maggie Pearson

19 September 2022

[i] Niinimaki K et al [2020] The environmental price of fast fashion. Nature Reviews. Earth and Environment, 1, 189-200. [ii] [


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