When thinking of key contributors to environmental degradation, the fashion industry may not be at the top of the usual suspects list. Surprisingly, modern textile production accounts for 10% of the planet’s total carbon dioxide output, and a lack of easily recyclable materials threatens to worsen our global environment in the century ahead.

As textile technology has advanced, so too has the pace of modern fashion. Keeping in lockstep with new production methods, consumer goods have exploded in popularity, a by-product of the shift away from seasonal purchases. Fashion companies realised that they were limiting themselves by adhering to products fit for the distinct summer-winter-autumn-spring schedule and have instead adopted a 52-weekly seasonal approach known as ‘fast fashion’. These products are now produced en masse, with increasing frequency and decreasing quality.

The global fashion industry emits more CO2 than both the aviation and shipping industries combined.

A Downward Spiral

With the increasing pace of product launches, advertisers pray on the FOMO effect – Fear of Missing Out. Instead of your winter jacket becoming outdated in a years time, it is now obsolete within the week. Flanked by never ending sales and the urge to stay up to date, consumers are buying more clothes than ever, driving environmental damage at a global scale. For context, the global fashion industry emits more CO2 than both the aviation and shipping industries combined. In fact, estimates have placed the industry as contributing to approximately one tenth of global carbon emissions.

Excessive, mass consumption of anything is almost never a good outcome, however one would be justified in thinking that at least unwanted clothes are being donated and gifted to those in need. Unfortunately, such a well-meaning outcome does not appear to be taking place. In poorer nations such as Ghana, literal metric tonnes of discarded clothing pour in from richer nations each week, including Australia, North America and Europe. This textile waste often ends up in landfills, further polluting the environment and wreaking havoc on developing nations.

And increased sales leads to a higher number of returns. Some companies end up victims of their own fast fashion cycle, unable to resell items once the window of opportunity closes. Overwhelmed and unable to manage inventory, many turn to simply destroying overstock.

The Polyester Problem

Ever noticed how polyester is everywhere? Synthetic fibers are on the rise, and the chief culprit is a familiar foe – plastic. In fact, polyester has overtaken cotton, wool and cellulose as the main textile material, accounting for some 57 million metric tons globally in 2020 and expected to reach over 100 million tons by 2030.

A petrochemical-based material closely related to plastic, polyester is highly attractive to clothing companies due to its low cost and high versatility. It is however also notoriously difficult to recycle, as most products are comprised of a ‘polyester blend’, where polyester, cotton and nylon fibers are often woven together in a single garment. This makes fiber separation and recycling very challenging, though recent developments in fibre recovery increase the likelihood that this process will improve in time.

What Can Be Done

There is hope. Outside of breakthrough recycling technologies, there are several paths forward that can help limit the impact of fast fashion on our environment.

Firstly, and most logically, buy less! Instead of opting for ‘cheap’, one-of-a-kind items, focus on interchangeable essentials that compliment your wardrobe, are timeless and are of a higher quality – meaning they will last longer and mitigate the need for repeat purchases. Your goods will also have a lengthier second life if you decide to donate them to those in need.

Secondly, buy products that are either made with recycled materials, or are single-blend and thus easier to recycle themselves. Alternatively, you could source materials that are made from non-polyester materials, such as hemp, cotton or bamboo. And if possible, choose to purchase organic and sustainably sourced items, meaning the company has a commitment to produce materials with limited impact to our environment.

Finally, here are some great places to start your sustainable fashion journey: