Why are environmental problems viewed as complex nowadays

Fashion is becoming an ever greater environmental problem

Fashion has never been as cheap as it is today, but the associated environmental costs are rising steadily. New collections can be bought online every week - fast fashion is the name of this trend, which has been critically discussed for years. Because many items of clothing that consumers purchase today are never or only rarely worn. Since 2005, the average usage time has decreased by 36 percent, as the fashion and design researcher Kirsi Niinimaki and an international team of authors document in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment. This also contributes to the 92 million tons of waste that the fashion industry produces annually.

Second largest polluter in the world

In addition to wasting resources, Niinimaki counts CO2 emissions as one of the biggest problems in fast fashion. The fashion industry is now the second largest polluter behind aviation and is responsible for ten percent of global environmental pollution. "The reason for this is that, despite the criticism, the fashion industry continues to grow without significantly changing its business model," Niinimaki told science.ORF.at.

The procurement and production chains in the clothing industry are complex and span the entire globe. Production takes place where it is cheapest, in the countries of the global south, where wages are low and working conditions are extremely poor. According to the study, every production step has environmental impacts.

From the high water consumption in cotton production to the use of chemicals in the production of synthetic fibers and in the dyeing process to the CO2 emissions caused by the transport of raw materials, the finished goods and sales.

Lots of transport, lots of greenhouse gas

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), ten percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the fashion industry today. The study calculates that a fifth of this is at the expense of global shoe production. Among other things, this is due to the fact that each individual production step takes place in a different country, for example for items of clothing made from cotton.

"The harvested cotton fibers are transported to another country to be washed and then come from there to another country to spin the thread, which is then transported on to weave the fabric," says the fashion researcher. The dyeing of the fabric, the cutting and sewing of the garments also follow very similar principles. In addition, the individual production steps consume a lot of energy. “That is why the fashion industry is also contributing to the climate crisis,” says Niinimaki.

Pollution is outsourced

The fashion researcher explains that fast fashion items of clothing or their components circumnavigate the planet several times before they can be bought online or in stores. Production takes place where the labor force is cheapest and these are mainly Asian countries such as China, India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. These countries would also have to bear the largest share of pollution from the fashion industry, for example in terms of water use and water pollution, says Niinimaki.

According to the study, global clothing and shoe production uses one and a half trillion liters of water per year, the majority of which is used to grow cotton, as well as to wash and dye fabrics. It is responsible for 20 percent of industrial water pollution and causes 35 percent of the total discharge of microplastics into the oceans. "None of this would be possible if we were producing in the countries of the global north, we have outsourced these problems," says Niinimaki.

No turnaround in sight

Although there is currently a lot of discussion about sustainability in the fashion industry, no turnaround is in sight, the authors sum up. “Today's clothing and shoes are so cheap that it doesn't pay to repair them,” explains Niinimaki. Instead, more and more is being bought. Between 1996 and 2012, Europeans increased their fashion purchases by 40 percent. More than 15 kilograms of new clothes are bought per person per year.

The fashion researcher emphasizes that this consumer behavior has to change in order to reduce the waste of resources. Legislation is currently required even more: one could oblige producers to take back clothing waste. “This creates costs that may induce the fashion industry to produce better quality clothes and shoes,” says Niinimaki. However, that would only be a first step towards solving the great environmental problem of the fashion industry.

Marlene Nowotny, Ö1 Science

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