Of being fashion-conscious and eco-friendly

The fashion industry is contributing between 8-10 per cent of the carbon emissions every year



Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

By Shalini Verma

Published: Wed 23 Feb 2022, 12:23 AM

I have a fetish for heels. I enjoy putting on a nice dress. A fresh coat of lipstick certainly lifts my spirits on a rough day. I am not always well turned out, but I am generally mindful of what I wear.

Sometimes I get it right, at other times I can go wrong. I often find the seasonal fashion colour trends ludicrous, but I am curious about a new collection.

I have clothes in my wardrobe that went out of fashion long enough to be back in fashion.

In short, I consider myself a bit of everything, no different from the vast majority of consumers of the fashion industry that has relentlessly worked to democratise fashion. Why not? It makes perfect business sense. The virtuous cycle of the growing middle-class aspirations, nourished by mass-produced fast fashion that gives livelihood to millions in developing countries. Sounds like a fairytale for any industry. But this comes at a cost.

Our planet is reeling under the weight of fashion pollution.

The fashion industry is contributing between 8-10 per cent of the carbon emissions every year. If this is left unchecked, we will not meet the 1.5-degree pathway to mitigate climate change as set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and endorsed by the 2015 Paris agreement. McKinsey estimates that this requires the global fashion industry to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, from the current 2.1 billion tonnes. Fashion consumes an estimated 93 billion cubic meters of water per year that could meet the water consumption needs of five million people. About 20 per cent of the wastewater is produced from the fabric dyeing and washing. We still don’t have a robust solution for recycling synthetic fibers in blended material.

After fully comprehending these astounding figures, can I still buy new clothes? The inexplicable feeling of pulling out a new skirt from a shopping bag is visceral. I am alive to the pressures of not repeating clothes at social gatherings. Surveys show that 10 per cent of men feel embarrassed for a friend who repeated an outfit on Instagram. The outfit of the day hashtag means that people buy clothes just to pose once for Instagram. Some keep the tags on the clothes so that they can return it. I am relieved by the countermovement of minimalist wardrobes as influencers are touting the idea of repeating clothes.

Before fast fashion took off, brands would take out two or three collections in a year to align with seasons. Now our climate is threatened by the 100 collections that leading brands bring out each year. The volume of demand keeps the factories humming in Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, and India. The industry overproduces by a staggering 40 per cent, most of which ends up as waste. Nearly 87 per cent of the fabrics produced are incinerated or sent to landfills. The average number of times we wear our clothes has come down by 36 per cent when compared to more than 15 years ago. The burden of waste sits unpleasantly on our eco-friendly conscience.

The astounding figures are making us all uncomfortable. They tell us that each of us are part of the problem. It is hard to reconcile my own consumerism with what fashion is doing to the environment.

How much is too much? Perhaps I could abide by a self-imposed rationing of new clothes and shoes? It would make me feel a lot better. Yet there is no reconciliation between the fashion lover and the eco-warrior within me. They are at war as I walk inside a store and inspect a shirt with a tag that states the percentage of recycled fabric used. I then go on to buy a pair of jeans that produces 16 times more carbon than the shirt. Maybe, if I planted a few trees, I could offset my deep sense of guilt, and the carbon emission. Or if I drank no water for 100 days, to compensate for the water consumed by that pair of jeans, from the cotton fields to the store.

Perhaps I am helping to pay for the salaries of the tailors in India. But their income is not rising because more collections are needed for fast fashion brands to stay competitive. As the fashion brands race to the bottom, they move from one low-cost country to another to escape the pressure on margins.

The prêt collection of global sustainability targets are at odds with our overconsumption. When a friend asks me about how I feel about buying new clothes now, I give a long-winded answer to explain my inner struggles. I try to buy less, only when I need to and mostly from brands that report sustainable sourcing. I keep my I-have-nothing-to-wear thoughts at bay. I then go on to casually browse the spring 2022 collection on my phone.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT Technologies. She has co-founded NurtureAI that offers a supply chain traceability platform for sustainable sourcing.


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