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14 December 2018 Cleaning up couture: what’s in your jeans?

Today you made a decision that could change the face of the planet. You decided what to wear.

When was the last time you looked in your wardrobe and couldn’t find…

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Today you made a decision that could change the face of the planet. You decided what to wear.

When was the last time you looked in your wardrobe and couldn’t find anything suitable?

Screen stars on Netflix wear stunning but different couture in every episode. Celebrities boast cutting edge design, always pictured in a new outfit. Are you keeping up? Don’t worry. The latest news is that you don’t have to.

If you listen to Deputy Mayor of Paris—and Parisians would know—Antoinette Guhl, as stated in the report A New Textiles Economy: “Circular is the new black! We need a fashion industry based on three principles: clean, fair and good.”

Our clothing is an expression of individuality. We use it to make ourselves unique as well as provide comfort and protection. But the environmental cost of our clothes is adding up.

The industry’s environmental footprint is immense. It extends beyond the use of raw materials. Combined, the global apparel and footwear industries account for an estimated 8 percent of the world´s greenhouse gas emissions.

Lifecycle assessments show—taking cotton production, manufacture, transport and washing into account— it takes 3,781 litres of water to make one pair of jeans. The process equates to around 33.4 kilogrammes of carbon equivalent emitted, like driving 111 kilometres or watching 246 hours of TV on a big screen.

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Our clothing is an expression of individuality. But the environmental cost of our clothes is adding up.

Even just washing our clothes releases plastic microfibres and other pollutants into the environment, contaminating our oceans and drinking water. Around 20 per cent of global industrial water pollution is from dyeing and textile treatment.

Yet globally, the industry wields considerable power. It is worth US$1.3 trillion, employing around 300 million people along the value chain.

UN Environment’s Llorenç Milà i Canals, Head of the Life Cycle Initiative, said fashion presents a massive opportunity to create a cleaner future.

But steps must be taken to involve everyone involved in the value chain to address environmental hotspots; define and take bold action on them.

“All actors must play their part in redefining the way value is generated and kept within the apparel sector, moving away from disposable apparel to a sector that generates and sustains value for society without polluting the environment,” he said.

As consumers, this means buying less. Some studies estimate that the average garment is worn ten times before being discarded. Demand for clothing is projected to rise two per cent a year—but the number of times we wear them has dropped one third compared to the early 2000s. 

This waste costs money and the value of natural resources. Of the total fibre input used for clothing, 87 per cent is incinerated or sent to landfill. Overall, one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or incinerated every second.

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Some studies estimate that the average garment is worn ten times before being discarded.

There are steps we can all take today. Like checking materials are durable and keeping them for longer. Reducing the amount of clothes we buy, reusing and buying second hand items and recycling. Wash them less and smarter: use concentrated liquid soap rather than powdered detergent, which is abrasive and washes more fibers into water.

But while our attitude towards our clothing needs a rethink, so too does the way in which our clothes are produced. Collectively, on a large scale, reducing our environmental footprint requires cutting resource consumption and designing pollution out of clothing altogether. 

The fashion industry is starting to take note.

A Pulse survey of decision makers from all industry segments confirms that sustainability is climbing up corporate agendas. Of executives polled, more than half said sustainability informed their strategy—up from last year.

Innovative new technology can play a part in cutting resource use. Cotton and recycled polyester still put a strain on the environment, so finding and developing new sustainable materials is key to reducing natural resource consumption.

In the meantime, developing countries—with a nascent textile industry —have an opportunity to build circular models into production from the start. They can set the bar high for the rest of the world to follow suit.

Ultimately, the key to a sustainable future lies in radically rethinking the way we consume and use clothing, and disrupting current business models. That means buying less. And it means putting pressure on our fashion industry to design a more responsible product.  

 

Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly next March, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing towards a sustainable future for our planet.

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