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Global Crisis Response

Fast fashion and Overshoot - Part-1

A business as usual (BAU) route to ecological overshoot

New rules in the European Union will ensure that clothes last longer and easier to repair, while New York State could be the first to set sustainability legislation for the fashion industry.

The recent rise of ‘fast fashion’ - cheap clothes that are designed to be worn once and then replaced, has massively increased the production and disposal of clothes globally. While £1 bikinis and $3 t-shirts might make fashion more accessible, the real ‘cost’ is borne by our planet. ‘Fast fashion’ describes the highly competitive and exploitative business model that replicates high-end fashion designs and celebrity fashion trends, by mass-producing and selling them at low cost to maximize profit.

Some resources are essential for us to live like fresh water, food, shelter, medicines etc. (non-discretional consumption), while others we use to support our way of life (discretional consumption). Fast fashion belongs firmly in the second category.

The resources used to make a $3 T-shirt do not come from nowhere – we extract them from the planet and when we have finished with them they do not disappear. Raw materials from sources (such as mines, croplands and forests), move through the economy and finally end up in sinks (such as the land, atmosphere or oceans).

This flow of materials and energy is called throughput. It begins with the extraction of resources such as plant and animal fibers, then production of items like jeans and t-shirts, followed by global distribution of clothes by shipping and trucking, ready for consumption – when we buy and wear the clothes, and finally disposal, when the clothing is worn out and becomes waste.

The ecological sources of fast fashion

Ecological sources we rely on include soil, land, water, forests, ecosystems, the seas, metals, non-metallic, and minerals. Of these, many are renewable resources (those that are replenished in a human timescale), such as freshwater, which can be renewed within human lifespans. 30% of all global freshwater passes through agricultural, industrial or urban infrastructure and this is predicted to reach 50% by 2050.

It takes 7,500 litres of water to make a single pair of jeans, while 70% of cotton globally is produced on irrigated farms, mostly in semi-arid and water scarce areas with poor soils, contributing to drought, soil erosion and salinization. River-fed irrigation of cotton in the Indus River basin in Pakistan is threatening the endangered Indus River Dolphin, while the surface area of the Aral Sea has decreased 85% in the last 40 years due to cotton cultivation in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Groundwater irrigated cotton crops in Andhra Pradesh contributed to drought in 2001, while groundwater in the Murray-Darling basin in Australia is over-exploited for irrigation.

Soil in contrast, is a non-renewable resource and cannot be recreated within a human lifetime. When soil is lost, it is essentially gone for good. While for many of us soil is unremarkable, our societies and systems are critically dependent on the existence of healthy, fertile living soils not only for the production of food and medicine, but also for fibers. Over 30% of land is “moderately to highly degraded” from erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification and chemical pollution.

And that's only cotton. The rise of fast fashion has doubled use of synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, acrylic and elastane, which are made from fossil fuels (crude oil and gas), another non-renewable resource. Synthetic fibers make up 60% and 70 % of European clothing and household textiles respectively.

“The production of synthetic fibres for the textile industry currently accounts for 1.35% of global oil consumption. This exceeds the annual oil consumption of Spain.”

Ecological sinks dealing with fast fashion

At the other end of throughput are the sinks – including the atmosphere, oceans, lakes and rivers, seas and land – which absorb material waste, pollution and heat. Many global sinks are reaching levels beyond which they will no longer be able to accommodate our waste.

The fashion industry as a whole is now responsible for more carbon emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. A single t-shirt might travel more than 25,000km by rail and sea (and even by air) on its journey around the globe from where the cotton is grown, to where it is dyed, processed, sewn and finished, until it finally winds up in a shop. The CO2 emitted during the production and shipping of our clothes doesn’t just vanish – it is absorbed into the Earth’s sinks – such as the atmosphere and oceans.

Cotton is grown with vast quantities of pesticides and insecticides, while irrigation causes salinization. For example, in Cambodia the fashion industry accounts for 88% of all industrial manufacturing, causing 60% of water pollution and 34% of chemical pollution. Synthetic fibers use water during production, and most clothes are dyed. All of these processes leach chemicals into our watersheds.

“In one example, a single European textile-finishing company uses over 466g of chemicals per kg of textile, including sizing agents, pre-treatment auxiliaries, dyestuff, pigments, dyeing auxiliaries, final finishing auxiliaries and basic chemicals”

These chemicals don’t just vanish – they are absorbed into sinks such as groundwater, rivers and oceans.

As much as 30% of textiles may be wasted during the manufacture of our clothes, while much produced but unsold or returned clothing is burned, having never been worn. Worn clothes donated to charity, given to textiles recycling programs of simply binned has been increasingly shipped to the global south, leading to environmental disasters in Ghana and Chile, among many others. A lorry-load of used clothing is incinerated or buried in landfill every single second. The Earth itself is the final sink – or dumping ground – for our obsession with having new clothes.

Ecological Overshoot

Ecological overshoot can be explained through the ‘Planetary Boundaries’ concept which demonstrates the effect of our industrial civilization on the sustainable functioning of Earth’s sources and sinks). Throughput is unsustainable when it exceeds:

· the replenishment rate of renewable resources,

· the depletion rate of non-renewable resources and

· the absorption rate and capacity of sinks

In this way our shopping habits, our love of new clothes, the endless cycles of fashion shows and latest styles are all inextricably linked to the Earth’s ecological processes. Our industrial civilization is characterized by the globalized economy with long supply chains and is highly adapted to uninterrupted access to cheap energy and natural resources. Sustained disruptions, caused for example by climate change, water scarcity or misplaced allocation of scarce resources (such as for discretionary economic sectors like fast fashion) will expose our industrial civilization to cascading collapse scenarios. Our planet’s resources are finite; the Earth’s sinks have a set capacity to deal with waste – do we really want to use up that valuable bio-capacity just for clothes? Are there alternative ways to produce, reuse and recycle clothing that are more ethical and less resource- demanding? We are heading into a chaotic future of energy decent and uncontrolled economic contraction. Now is the time to give up on habits which emerged from an era of abundance and adopt alternatives suitable to an era of frugality.

(More about response options and transition scenarios in Part-2)


A business as usual (BAU) route to ecological overshoot

By Dr. Patty Ramirez



[highlighted ones are key reports]

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