Fashion's eco-sins: In search of sustainable clothing

The clothing industry puts a huge strain on the environment: It creates more greenhouse gas emissions in a single year than all international flights and shipping combined. But it doesn't have to be that way.

You see them on every street corner in Germany: collection bins for old clothes. Day after day, they swallow up the items we discard — and we discard a lot. In Germany, 75 percent of old clothes end up in these containers.

But what's convenient for us is becoming a problem for people elsewhere. The majority of our old clothes are shipped abroad — to Asia and Africa, for example.

What will happen, though, if people there decide they don't want our old clothes anymore? Several East African countries have recently announced that they wanted to stop receiving old clothes.

"Our clothing is increasingly clogging up the channels for second-hand products," says Kirstin Brodde, a textile expert with Greenpeace. "There's so much now that the countries where these items end up, either as second-hand items or for processing, have started saying: Enough already."

Nature and Environment | 15.03.2018

Read more: Giving up my filthy fashion habit

This congestion is just a symptom of the real problem: fast fashion. We're consuming too quickly, and too much.

Over the past 15 years, the sale of clothing worldwide has doubled, whereas the average life of an item of clothing has dramatically decreased. Clothes are usually not even kept for a year.

Repair it? For many people, that's just not an option. "Hardly anyone knows how to sew on a button anymore," says Brodde.

In Germany, people are accustomed to dumping their old clothes just as they would their recyclable bottles

She's especially critical of the manner in which we consume. "Really, it ought to be the case that we buy less and wear the clothes we have for longer, instead of taking bags of them to the container every few months in the hope that someone somewhere at the other end of the world will wear them."

Massive CO2 emissions

Low prices effectively encourage this behavior. Although the price we pay in the shop is low, the price paid by the environment is enormous.

Related Subjects

Textile production worldwide creates more than a billion tons of CO2 per year. That's more than all international flights and shipping combined. On top of this comes the pollution of the seas by microplastics from textile fibers and the use of poisonous chemicals.

Read more: Bottled water not safe from microplastic contamination

Chemicals from textile production easily end up in nature

"Companies need to be put under more pressure; they need to be told what production should look like, and how ecological it should be. That would automatically make production more expensive, and they wouldn't be able to produce stuff so cheaply anymore," says Brodde.

She works for Greenpeace's detox campaign, which advises companies on how they can make products without using poisonous chemicals. Seventy-nine global fashion companies, from H&M to Adidas to Aldi, have committed to replacing pollutants with nontoxic substances by 2020.

Just a question of marketing?

Projects like these show that big fashion chains have also realized sustainability is in vogue. But is there more to that than marketing?

"Long-term, big fashion companies will also have to adjust," says a spokesperson for the Confederation of the German Textile and Fashion Industry.

She says the German textile industry is in fact a trailblazer: "The social and ecological standards of the textile and fashion industry in Germany are among the highest in the world. The sector is an international role model in its environmentally conscious way of dealing with resources."

Read more: 'Partnership for Sustainable Textiles' unraveling

Brodde thinks it's imperative for the sector to adjust and become more sustainable. According to a study by the Ellen McArthur Foundation, if business continues as usual, it will have an even more catastrophic impact on the environment.

With markets like Africa and Asia growing steadily, the demand for clothing is growing too. If clothing production continues to expand at the current rate, in 2050 it will be three times the size it is today.

Aiming for a circular economy

Now live
03:02 mins.
Eco Africa | 22.03.2018

Evening gowns made of milk

One approach that is currently being researched, in order to solve the problem and make the clothing industry more sustainable, is the so-called "circular economy."

This means sustainable commodities being reused for as long as possible. Ideally, the circle would be powered using only renewable energy.

Read more: 'Make things last': Can the circular economy save the planet?

A number of large companies have already pledged to pursue this goal. H&M, for example, has decided to overhaul its sustainability strategy to that effect.

"We want to become 100 percent circular, in that we only incorporate recycled or otherwise sustainably sourced materials in our production," says Anna Gedda, H&M's project leader for sustainability.

In 2017 the company was heavily criticized after it was revealed that large quantities of clothing were simply burned due to overproduction.

"The industry has to reduce the pace of the massive overproduction of clothing. And we have to reduce the pace, by not constantly buying more stuff even though our wardrobes are overflowing. We have to relearn the art of mending things," says Brodde.

Slovenian photographer captures the cost of cheap clothes

From rags to riches

The idea of farming seems today more abstract than ever before. Jost Franko's latest photo essay brings this distant world back to our reality, in which the ridiculous price of garments is paid by workers living in dire conditions. Pictured here is a relative of Issa Gira (67) from Burkina Faso, who's been growing cotton for 30 years, but still earns less than a dollar a day.

Slovenian photographer captures the cost of cheap clothes

Weight control

After the crop is harvested, farmers just like these two in Burkina Faso have to bring the cotton to the collection centers in nearby villages. Just before the market day, farmers help each other press the cotton into a huge, hard mass so they're able to weigh their loads. "No one really cares about farming, the first part of the supply chain," says Franko.

Slovenian photographer captures the cost of cheap clothes

The golden lining

Cotton farming gives work to more than four million people in Burkina Faso, and it is its second-most-valuable resource after gold. Sofitex is one of the three companies in the country that buys cotton from farmers and provides loans to cultivators, and it exports around 540,000 tons of cotton annually. Local farmers are seen here loading cotton into one of the many Sofitex containers.

Slovenian photographer captures the cost of cheap clothes

Work-life imbalance

"Due to western cotton subsidies, which are creating a dumping effect, poor countries are in a huge loss," says Franko. In his opinion, the production of cotton and garments in third-world countries is just another form of colonialism. "Small workshops sometimes take subcontracted work for larger companies. The rent is expensive for most workers, so they sleep in the factories," he adds.

Slovenian photographer captures the cost of cheap clothes

A princess' dress or a cushion?

In this photo, garment workers cut the textile in a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the heart of the global cheap clothing industry. They earn 2.20 euros ($2.36) a day on average. Companies like H&M, Walt Disney or Lidl have their garments and home textile lines produced in the Dhaka region, which made the headlines in 2013 when the Rana Plaza sweatshop building collapsed, killing 1,129 workers.

Slovenian photographer captures the cost of cheap clothes

The other side of the EU

"It's hard to talk about fair conditions even when it comes to expensive, high-fashion labels," Franko claims, describing this photo of Romanian garment workers. "The state of the garment factories in Romania is much better compared to most Asian and African countries, but wages are still extremely low, not exceeding 200 euros a month, which is worse than in China. And this is the EU!"

Slovenian photographer captures the cost of cheap clothes

Last season's styles

Although the fashion industry has been stagnating trend-wise recently, which has made more styles trans-seasonal, more than 80 billion pieces of clothing are purchased every year worldwide. But the low quality and purchase cost make the clothes disposable. In the US alone, more than 15 million tons of used textile waste is generated annually.

Slovenian photographer captures the cost of cheap clothes

Get the London look

"The history of cotton is indeed a dark one, and in my eyes, the issues surrounding the cotton trade have never ended," states Franko. Although much has been written and spoken about the invisible and destructive line of the clothing industry, customers seem to be immune: "I guess it's easier to turn a blind eye to it. Those issues are structural, and don't have to do only with garments."