What does it cost the planet to look fashionable?

The fashion industry plays a significant role in intensifying the climate and ecological crisis. As it operates under a culture of excessive production and consumption, the fashion industry is one of the major contributors to pollution, following sectors such transport, and energy.

Clothing production is already exceeding the planetary boundaries and contributing towards biodiversity loss through the pressure it puts on fragile ecosystems. Massive amounts of energy, water, and other resources are needed to make clothes. It is estimated that it takes 10,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of cotton or approximately 3,000 litres of water for one cotton shirt (Princeton), while making 1 kilogram of fabric generates an average of 23 kilograms of greenhouse gases (McKinsey).

Facts and statistics about the fashion industry

  • Between 2000 and 2014, more than 150 billion garments were produced globally each year, with 2 million tons/year discarded in Europe (UNEP).
  • Globally, $400 billion worth of fashion products are wasted annually, and 13 kg/capita of clothing is consumed (Papamichael, et. al., 2023).
  • More than 300 million trees are logged every year and turned into cellulosic fabric such as viscose (Canopy).
  • The total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production is estimated at 1.2 billion tonnes annually, which is more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future (2017).
  • The fashion industry accounts for 20% of global waste production, with approximately 35% of materials lost or wasted in the fashion supply chain (UNEP).
  • Today, the most common type of fibres used in textiles are synthetic fibres, in particular polyester. Although polyester is comparatively inexpensive and durable, its major drawback is that it is oil-based and is adding to the microplastics pollution problem in our oceans. Synthetic textiles contribute to the accumulation of microplastics in oceans, with 13.000 tonnes of textile microfibres (25 grams per person) and 8% of dumped microplastics from clothes released to surface water every year in Europe (EEA).

Circular fashion: Sustainable design for the entire clothing value chain

Although the sector is increasingly adopting sustainability as a core priority, solutions are not being implemented fast enough to counterbalance the negative environmental and social impacts of the growth it is otherwise seeing (Boston Consulting Group). According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report “Sustainability and Circularity in the Textile Value Chain”, a more systemic approach is required to transform the way textiles are designed, produced, consumed, and disposed of.

The circular economy constitutes one of the main objectives in the reduction of the environmental burden of the fashion industry. The implementation of the ‘R strategies’ of circularity (i.e. reduce, reuse, recycle, remanufacture, refurbish, redesign etc.) could provide great innovation potential in different stages of the supply chain. Circular business models in the fashion industry align with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including sustainable production and consumption (SDG 12), industrial innovation (SDG 9), and decent work and economic growth (SDG 8).

The European Union (EU) has released strategies and action plans to address the challenges, such as the European Green Deal (EGD), the Circular Economy Strategy, and the Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles with a vision to make textiles more durable, repairable, reusable and recyclable, to tackle fast fashion, textile waste and the destruction of unsold textiles, and to ensure their production takes place in full respect of social rights. In addition, the novel bio-based textile fiber industry will play a key role in reducing the environmental footprint of the textile industry. Although the majority of novel textile fibres are still in relatively early stages of development, commercialisation is accelerated by partnerships in the value chain.