What we wear, besides being made with the use of unethical labour in many cases, causes water and soil pollution, uses massive amounts of limited resources, emit 10% of the global carbon emissions, all to end up in a pile of trash in a landfill after a few uses while it was trendy. The fashion industry is the second-largest polluter in the world just after the oil industry. Hence, it is extremely important to understand the damage this industry causes and to recognize the power we have in our hands with our purchase choices.

The fashion industry is a huge water consumer. Cotton requires huge amounts of water to grow, and mismanagement of the environment can lead to long-term damage to where this material is being produced. Did you know that the world’s 4th largest lake is almost dry because of cotton production? An irresponsible project in Uzbekistan to boost cotton production diverted the rivers that feed the Aral Sea away from their natural source to irrigate plantations. Now, 90% of the entire Aral Sea is gone. But besides the production of raw materials, production, dyeing, washing and other steps also takes up a large amount of water. For example, “growing the cotton and dyeing the materials for one pair of jeans and one t-shirt can use up to 20,000 litres of water. It would take you over 13 years to drink this amount!” stated the British organisation Waterwise.

Besides consuming a lot of water, fashion production is also a pollutant. In most of the countries in which garments are produced, untreated toxic wastewaters from textile factories are dumped directly into the rivers. These waters contain toxins and heavy metals that are extremely harmful to the aquatic life and the health of millions of people living by those rivers banks. As rivers run to the sea, this pollution easily reaches global water and the impact is not local anymore. Also, non-organic cotton is grown with the use of fertilizers, which are another source of water pollution. Unfortunately, after a garment is made and used, the pollution continues: each cycle of a washing machine could release more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibres into the environment, according to a study conducted by Plymouth University that analysed synthetic fibres (polyester, acrylic, nylon, etc.).

Greenhouse gases emissions of the fashion industry should also be of great concern. This high level of air pollution is due to the use of synthetic fibres that are made from fossil fuel, the production of clothing happening in countries powered by coal (China, India, Bangladesh), transportation of the garments, etc. And unfortunately, even though the fashion industry has a large footprint to produce each item, clothing has become disposable. A family in the western world throws away an average of 30 kg of clothing each year, states the United Nations Development Programme.

Fortunately, the industry has experienced changes in consumer habits and new (better) trends are emerging. Jade Smart was a Londoner, who had a taste for travel and became a tour guide across Europe. After many years of living out of a suitcase, it was time to settle in one of her most favourite cities in Portugal, Porto. Jade grew tired of seeing the negative impacts of tourism and wanted to create a healthy balance between the locals and its visitors. Thus she founded her own company The Mindful Step (@mindfulsteptours), which encourages tourists to bring purpose to their stay through a series of mindful experiences. One of those activities is her ‘Sustainable Fashion Tour’, that gives travellers the opportunity to learn about slow fashion and discover Portuguese brands that are tackling the devastating effects in the industry. 

As part of her research and passion to learn more, this month Jade attended the NEONYT Trade Show in Berlin, and shared with The Courage what she learned. This event is the world’s biggest exhibition for sustainable fashion, bringing together a community of forward-thinkers, an affinity for technology and environmental awareness. 

The Courage: What are the most exciting trends you saw in the event (fabrics, techniques, etc.)?

Jade Smart: “Waste is totally on trend. Whether it’s transforming off-cuts from large factories to produce your own sustainable range, or being conscious of how your product is recycled at the end of its life. Waste was one of the main topics that were highlighted in the 3 days of NEONYT. 

In terms of techniques, brands are investing in becoming ‘zero waste’. Why? To show its customers they care about the planet and release less C02 into the atmosphere. Portuguese shoe brand Lemon Jelly have implemented their Wasteless Act range, which is a 100% recycled line made from their production waste. Mud Jeans impressed me with their circular guide and how they recycle denim to produce their own product. Their motto is ‘a world without waste’ and already they’ve saved 12,000 jeans from landfill and incineration and turned them into new denim. With their take-back scheme they collect jeans that consist of more than 96% cotton and send them to the recycle factory Recovertex in Spain. Plus customers can scan a QR code to see the environmental cost of their garment. 

The brand I get most excited about is Vintage for a Cause, which is a non-profit organisation who tackle waste by upcycling leftover fabrics. The north of Portugal is home to large textile factories and unfortunately a lot of material is unused. Helena, the founder of Vintage for a Cause, selects the off-cuts and transforms them into something new and stylish. As part of her social impact scheme called Granny to Trendy, she works with elderly ladies of Portugal to design upcycled garments. It gives the ladies an opportunity to feel welcome in today’s society and teach the youth valuable skills.” 

What are your favourite (sustainable) materials? Why?

JS: “They’re many exciting new materials coming into the scene, such as alternatives to animal leather. Leather, unfortunately, is no friend to the environment, it shares the responsibility for the environmental destruction caused by the agriculture industry, including pollution caused by toxics in tanning. New possibilities are being explored, which will redefine how we purchase our shoes, belts and bags. One of my favourites from NEONYT was Pinatex, an innovative natural textile made from pineapple leaves, which allows farmers to fully utilise their crops. It offers an exclusive look and can be used as an alternative for leather in textiles as well as fashion. 

We’re discovering new sciences but not forgetting about materials that have been used for centuries. Cork is one of the most sustainable materials out there, as the trees soak up C02 and you don’t need to cut it down in order to produce the final product. In its rawest form, the material is durable and can be applied to almost anything. The Portuguese are the pioneers of cork, so I was happy to see this material being applied to fashion across Europe.” 

How do you see circularity can be implemented in the fashion industry?

[Circular economy or circularity is an economic system aimed to create a closed-loop setting, minimising the use of resource inputs and the creation of waste, pollution and carbon emissions]

JS: “There are many ways we can implement circularity into the fashion industry and I truly believe people’s mentalities are shifting. If you asked me to lease a pair of jeans 5 years ago, I would think it was a crazy idea, but now I see the environmental benefits. It’s time to rethink what we consume and how we produce. Most of us were not at the boom of the industrial revolution, nor at the birth of fast fashion, however, it’s our job to tidy up the mess. Luckily we’re innovators and imaginative thinkers, who’re coming up with clever ways to deal with waste. In terms of circularity, we need to be asking the following question: what happens at the end of a products life?

I understand that established companies see this as an impossible task, but now there are several businesses to partner up with that can assist with circularity. During NEONYT I attended a talk with Ina from Circularity.ID, which is a digital platform that holds material and product data. It’s basically an information carrier that shows a product’s entire history. This data becomes accessible to stakeholders in the fashion ecosystem at any point in time to access and handle products in a circular economy. It’s very technical but the foundation is helping brands achieve total transparency, circularity, longevity and recyclability. 

On a personal level, I believe we can all adopt circularity into our wardrobes. In Porto, we have many beautiful vintage stores and swap market events, which enables us to be creative with our clothing. Mindful Step Tours offers a tote bag making workshop and teaches the basics of sewing that can be adopted into anyone’s life. I discuss a lot of this on the sustainable fashion tour, it’s very interesting to listen to people’s views on the industry. I’d love to hear from you, the reader! Feel free to get in touch and join us for a tour in Porto!” 

Clothing can be used as an expression for change, for fairness and for the support of our planet. After awareness action should follow, so here you can find resources to measure your impact and recommended actions. 

How will you clean your closet?

It is extremely important to understand your own impact. ThreadUp is an US-based online thrift shop that developed a quiz through which you can measure your personal footprint and assess your impact.

To help you transition to a cleaner choice here are a few things you can do: 

  • Buy less: we buy 10 while our grandmothers bought 2. Fix, repair, patch, restyle what you already have.
  • Buy second-hand: thrifting is cool!
  • Buy from sustainable brands: look for natural fibres, organic cotton, low chemical use, low water consumption, etc. 
  • Rent or borrow: you don’t need to own it!
  • Watch out for your washing: choose well your detergents, do fewer loads per month, wash at lower temperatures and prefer line-drying.
  • Shop local: you will support the economy around you and avoid transportation emissions.
  • Close the loop: companies like H&M accept receiving old garments, regardless of the brand, and take care of the reuse or recycling of your clothes, avoiding its early end on landfill. 

How will you clean your closet? Let us know in the comments!


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