Economics Environment

Economics of fashion and pollution

It is my daughter’s holy communion and my entire family was busy in getting the best fashionable attire for her. When I had the first look of the attire it was soft as silk and was magnificent. Angels would shame seeing her in that attire. As my usual practice, I was curious to know what was the material that was used for making such a beautiful attire. The content list detailed it out as 70 percent polyester and 30 percent silk. I did not take it much seriously when I saw the attire. But over the evening, I just thought of checking out what is the impact of such synthetic fashion polymers on the environment.

Over the past few decades, there has been a major shift in the materials chosen by manufacturers, designers and consumers for the clothes they are going to work and wear. There were times when we had created trade routes for the finest silk. We also know how cotton played a central role in shaping the modern social and economic institutions including the United Stated of America and the United Kingdom.

Since the arrival of NYLON the first synthetic fibre, fifty years ago, synthetic and man-made materials have taken centre stage. As of now, industry is filled with polyester, acrylic and nylon. The shift is not irrational. Synthetics are cheaper and easier to produce in large quantities. Even though these materials are good for the bottom line, it is damaging the environment in a big way. Considering a number of pollutants expelled by the clothing and apparel industry, from the estimates of Forbes, the industry is responsible for over 10% of global emissions, an estimate that gives an idea of the grand scale we are talking about.

The plastics are made from the petroleum gases and petroleum liquids, which are by-products of petroleum refining. As per rough estimates by OPEC, in a single year, almost 70 million barrels of oil are used in the manufacturing of polyester alone. This includes the consumption of oil both as a raw material and as fuel to generate the necessary energy used in the process. Globally we consumed 100 million tonnes of textiles in 2016. In that, over 65 million tonnes were petroleum based. As highlighted in Elizabeth Cline’s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, this quantum of production requires 145 million tonnes of coal and a couple of trillion gallons of water.

On the consumption side, in developed economies, it is estimated that each consumer buy anywhere between 60-70 garments every year and in developing economies it is around 20-30 garments and possibly in underdeveloped countries it may even be 0-5 too. This wide disparity of the fashion is supposed to encourage us for recycling the clothes. But do we do so?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States went to either a landfill or an incinerator and not to recycling. What is the impact? If we are talking about natural fibres, unlike banana peels, these natural clothes can’t decompose. The chemicals used in bleaching, dying and printing leach from the textiles and improperly sealed landfills into groundwater. The incinerators also release toxins into the air. The agency estimates that if the trashed textiles are put into a recycling program it be equivalent to taking 7.3 million cars and their carbon dioxide emissions off the road. The synthetic fibres, like polyester, nylon and acrylic on the other end take hundreds of years, if not a thousand, to biodegrade.

After this understanding, I am not so sure whether I should be in shame or the should believe that the angels would shame.

Possibly the closed-loop textile recycling could be an answer where the technology will enable a circular flow of resources in textiles. If we could separate blended fibre garments, dyes and other contaminants thus producing fibres comparable in quality and price to that produced from virgin-derived resources, the technology could be revolutionary. Tomorrow may come where we could get a discount on purchases for returning our own worn garments and could get fresh fashion made from old fashion.  Adidas, Levi’s, Nike and H&M are leading this game and would be the firms that could impact the future of what we wear and not the traditional Prada, Burberry and Gucci.