Ironically, amidst the world’s broadest industrial revolution, the 4iR, the fashion and fabrics industry is heavily outdated, generating tons of waste each year, and killing even more animals. The overarching understanding is that stylish, luxury materials come at a high cost due to the very manual and resource intensive manufacturing and design processes. Additionally, our simple fabric processing play a massive role in jeopardising the health of our planet.
Unfortunately, I’d have a very hard time getting rid of all my luxury wear and materials; the idea of no more silk, leather, satin, exotic skins and furs, or high comfort cotton doesn’t really feel complete. Ultimately though, that is what over 60% of the human population would need to do in order to ensure that the practically parasitic (and somewhat mutualistic) relationship we have with the Earth is continued.
I’ll give you an example: Canada Goose. I absolutely love their parkas. They optimise for cold temperatures, varying in levels, and are stuffed with geese feathers and topped with a coyote fur hood to keep you warm. The jackets are flexible, durable, and clean looking, thanks to their monochromatic and slightly bulky looks. They sell a variety of jacket types, from parkas to windbreakers, all of which I enjoy.
Being a curious person, I would always wonder why I was exchanging so much money for a jacket. I got that it was a well thought-out aesthetic and material variety, but I would wonder how and why they thought that their parkas should have a mean price of $400-$1,000. After engrossing myself in the world of alternative protein, I began to understand why the textile industry is so expensive.
It is a fact that the general wardrobes of today aren’t sustainable, so our reasoning is forced to go beyond not just wanting to give up luxuries. While as a baseline, clothes are non-negotiables since we have no plan for fig leaves as the alternative, we’re going to have to figure something out.
Modern Day: World-Warping Wardrobes
We are all a part of a big problem. In fact, we are all a part of a lot of big problems, this one is major, and in need of a fix. The compounded effects of the many problems we see in our lives today could mean that the Earth, our cities, and nature end up shriveled after many decades of unsustainable existence.
So no matter how much we know or have read about this problem, obviously, it is not enough, we must keep at it until the solution is fully realised. Here is another read.
The textile sector has existed for multiple millennia but has reached the peak of negative contributions in the more recent years after industrialisation. Therefore, it might be surprising to learn that in 2017, the U.S. textile industry supplied only 500,550 jobs and yet, the country’s textile and apparel exports totaled $78 billion. Intuitively, a booming industry is always economically beneficial. However, even with these apparent pluses, the textile industry is far from perfect. Currently, fabrics processing and manufacturing can be described as having a three-pronged issue:
- The working conditions as well as compensation rates have archaic and unsafe infrastructure.
- Textiles and fashion contribute significantly to high concentrations of anthropogenic GHG emissions, and the process and consumer structure is very wasteful.
- Currently, much of the produce of the fashion and textile industry isn’t cutting-edge or adaptable and encourages consumers to spend needlessly and use up valuable resources.
Breaking down the workspaces of the textile industry from the Industrial age to the 4iR of today – The more things change the more they stay the same!
It is still characterised by low pay, dangerous working conditions and a lack of sanitation👇🏾
One clear issue that is highlighted consistently, is the lack of favourable working conditions in the textile industry since the onset of the industrial revolution. While I acknowledge the many fashion companies making efforts to incorporate safety, sustainability, and diversity in their workspaces, there is no denying that much of the actual handiworks today, specifically with fabrics, is still done by low-wage workers in lower-income (typically) Asian countries (East and some South), some of which are underage.
In the industrial age, factories were dusty, dirty, and dark – the only light source was the sunlight that came in through a few windows. Because the machines ran on steam from fires, there was smoke everywhere. Many people ended up with eye problems and lung diseases. “Poor workers were often housed in cramped, grossly inadequate quarters. Working conditions were difficult and exposed employees to many risks and dangers, including cramped work areas with poor ventilation, trauma from machinery, toxic exposures to heavy metals, dust, and solvents.” (source)
In these times, workers were viewed as expendable, children were the cheapest form of labour, but since many lacked the strength to do certain tasks, adult workers were still necessary. To minimise costs, companies would spend the minimum on living resources for these workers, which led to long-term health effects, some of which were passed on to families.
Immigrants were a big boost to business owners; they brought the much-needed scale to industries. They could be exploited, used for back breaking work, worked for long hours, and given low wages! They were called sweaters. As industrialisation increased, the US, Europe, and many Asian countries swelled with this special workforce class, and entire factories employing them were called sweatshops.
Women received ½ the wages of men for the same work; $1.00 to $1.50 was the typical pay for working men, and children were even paid less than women. (source) As the institution of sweatshops became popular, so did extremely low wages. The wages were so low that workers were unable to feed their families, forcing many of them to work as well, which increased the poverty cycle present in the working class and allowed for continued exploitation for extended periods.
Ultimately, the discrimination in this industry is what has caused textiles and fashion to be considered to be one of the most dangerous jobs to work in entry-level, hands-on.
The environmentally unethical emissions – The Fashion industry’s very high GHG emissions. In fact, it’s estimated that the textile industry emits 1.2 billion tons of CO₂ yearly.
In 2017, fashion was named the second highest pollutant source in the world. Not only does fashion contribute to global warming and climate change, but it also accelerates many other extinction-level events that we are facing, such as air and water pollution! As the industry grows, so does its environmental footprint, and this does not mean anything good for us humans (the the problem creators turned solvers 🙃).
Most of our clothes are produced in China, Bangladesh, or India, countries still powered by coal, which emits carbon when burned, and mixes with oxygen in the air to produce the dreaded CO₂.
The global fashion industry is generating a lot of greenhouse gases due to the energy used during its production, manufacturing, and transportation of the millions of garments purchased each year.
Synthetic fibers (polyester, acrylic, nylon, etc.), used in most of our clothes, are made from fossil fuel as well, making production much more energy-intensive than with natural fibers. Production also causes further pollution issues, too.
Untreated toxic wastewater causes chemical reactions in lakes and other bodies of water that causes them to bubble, change pH, and become dangerous for consumption.
Much of the pollution in water comes from the use of dyes for artificial colouration. In fact, over 20% of water pollution comes from textiles treatment and the use of dyes. Many of the waste products of the dye process is just dumped into streams on the assumption it will diffuse or be drafted away.
It is as though people just forgot that when water dissociates compounds, it can bond with the substance to dissociate them, especially with acids (H⁺) and bases (OH⁻)… chemistry class, people!
Instead of everything going their way, the chemical infusion of the water creates a slushy of lead, mercury, and arsenic, among other compounds. Even though the water may look cool, it’s not. It’s extremely dangerous and is a causal factor of why millions of people in countries where textiles are huge, such as China, are dying from either dehydration — because they can’t drink the water — or poisoning. Even worse, some chemicals do not cause the water to discolour or chemically misbehave, making it a silent killer.
Aside from contaminating the water sources of cities, this prong of the fashion industry also helps kill millions of aquatic lifeforms, including:
Sometimes, it is difficult to remember that these chemicals aren’t just killing fish, which are also a primary source of food to millions, but also the many other life forms that reside in the deep sea, including the largest living thing on Earth’s biosphere: the coral reef. The reason why deep-sea organisms such as the former can be injured is because of the fact that 90% of the wastewater in developing countries doesn’t get purified and flows into rivers and oceans, along with plastic waste.
What is odd is that dumping out chemicals into the ocean makes no sense. In fact, it does more harm than good, wasting away 200,000 tons of dyes. Effluents are an overall bad idea, but because we are not using organic materials, the pollutive cycle is exacerbated.
Beyond just wasting water, the fashion industry consumes a lot of water. Remember that cotton shirt and jacket you bought last week? Well, each kilogram of cotton used in the jacket not only cost you a couple hundred $, but it also cost 20,000 litres of water. According to Stephen Leahy, “85% of the daily needs in water of the entire population of India would be covered by the water used to grow cotton in the country. 100 million people in India do not have access to drinking water.”
Wow! Putting things into perspective, we are really spoiled. And we are wasting our resources. And in case you were not already feeling bad, here are some more #s to top it off.
- 1.5 trillion L of water are used by the fashion industry each year.
- 200 tons of fresh water = 1 ton of dyed fabric.
- 750 million people need 7 cups of water per day, but do not have it.
Add to that the fact that every time we wash a synthetic garment (polyester, nylon, etc.), about 1,900 individual microfibers are released into the water, making their way into our oceans. This means that 85% of all human waste on the shorelines are microfibers. It should be unambiguous by now that textiles aren’t great for the environment, especially fast fashion.
Finally, the fashion industry encourages consumers to waste money and resources. It does not encourage that people be conservative, but that people spend more than they have to.
Of course, it kind of makes sense why. A large portion of the population lives in some form of a capitalistic society, where private property is owned, and wealth is not equally disseminated. Even if you are not living in a capitalistic society, it is likely that both of these statements are still true. This means that with things like clothing, it is not looked at as a necessity, but a business.
Even Adam and Eve dressed themselves with fig leaves; they were sustainable and simple!
…and yes, I know that was in a desperate attempt to cover up their sin…
The point is businesses want you to buy more and more and more so that they can get higher lifetime values out of customers. Therefore so many fashion companies are OK with manufacturing cheap-material products, selling them at high prices, having their customers destroy them quickly, and then having people buy another product, and then rinse and repeat. Of course, they can only do this to a certain extent before the customer just stops buying from them, but as a consumer, it is difficult to just pivot away from a store with something as necessary as clothing.
Then, in what are considered “first world countries” (a classification which, in my opinion, has no basis), there is a lot of vanity ingrained in our industries. Initially, this is not bad; fashion is a means by which people can express themselves. It is a respectable art. However, companies use this against their buyers all the time. They will release some new version in a different colour, and people will buy it up.
But what is the problem with having a lot of clothes anyway?
I’m not going to lie, my closet is pretty full. But that is wasteful. Just think about all the clothes you do not wear. Once you are done with them, do you donate or sell them for reuse or repurpose? If you do, awesome job, but if you do not, you are a part of 74% of the rest of the population.
Unused clothing is oftentimes wasted, thrown out, or lost, which causes billions of dollars in various resources to be lost.
Beyond this, though, companies get us consumers in other unavoidable ways.
You see, animals are incredibly lucky in this respect. Our world consists of multifarious environments that require adaptation and tedious biological characteristics. We have the Sahara, Antarctica, and the Indian Ocean during the summer all on the same planet, along with 100+ other environmental aspects. Non-humanoids have various abilities that do not cost them money, they just do it.
Ducks and other pond-y animals have naturally hydrophobic skin surfaces so they can float on a lake by essentially repelling themselves from the water. Many animals, such as arctic foxes, grow fur coats to retain warmth during cold seasons. Tortoises have shells with fast controlled absorption and dissipation of heat in deserts.
Yet, people cannot do any of this. If we plopped ourselves in these environments with no preparation, we would end up drowning, freezing, or shriveling up to death. However, that is only if we were naked.
For some 200,000+ years, we have found that adding clothing can help us because we do not have extreme enough physical adaptations to just survive, and because undergoing natural selection to have a majority of the population have the necessary adaptations would mean some million-billion humans needed to die in those environments first!
So, we took the smartest, least controversial route to not die from the environment, and it worked. Unfortunately, our clothing protection methods remain relatively unsophisticated, and are used as means to allow the fashion industry to make more money. We do not have clothing that’s adaptable, instead, we have clothing for each adaptation.
Unlike the duck that grooms itself, or the fox that just grows a fur coat when necessary, we do not have a coating or device that responds to dynamic environments, we have something for each environment. This means we need a winter coat, a fall scarf, mud boots, stylish boots, hiking boots, swimming shorts, running shorts, sweatpants, pants, and the list goes on. Essentially, we need something for every possible situation to make ourselves comfortable. This means more money and more waste.
This is our fashion industry today. The hoodie is an extremely popular jacket because it’s perfect for many types of situations.
It is slightly more assuring knowing that people are looking more towards personalized and adaptable clothing vs. the 1-of-everything marketing approach that fashion tries to take.
Anyway, back to the hoodie. Despite being considered one of the most adaptable clothing types on the market, it is pretty lackluster in almost every respect: it is too light to provide warmth in the real cold, it is not great for rain/water because of its fabric composition, and it is too heavy to be worn when it is really hot.
Ultimately, it is “adaptable” because it’s pretty good at nothing (except for fall weather, maybe). This is what the current approach to fashion looks like. Because of this, people own, on average 4 jackets. Factoring that with stylistic duplicates (basically buying similar things that look different), 8 jackets. Imagine how much water that wastes, and greenhouse gas that produces, and how many people were disenfranchised to make those!
So, now that you know a lot more about the many problems with the fashion industry, it is imperative that you take action. Since my next article on tech solutions to these problems has not been released yet, it’s important that you stay tuned, and really think about what you are putting your money into. Ultimately, we the people are funding these organisations to carry out environmentally destructive and exploitative acts for clothing production.
I am making changes every day, both big and small. We vote with our dollars, naira, yuan, yen, francs…..money, crypto, intentions, and beliefs. So, what are you voting for?
•Okezue Bell, is a R&D scientist in the cellular agriculture space. He is now working with the leading companies, such as Aleph Farms, New Harvest, and Perfect Day, in developing and studying cultured meat and milk. He has also working with and networked at leading labs and universities, like Tufts University and Doudna Lab. Find him at okezuebell.com or LinkedIn.