Blog #16

Plastic Fashion: How Much is your Wardrobe Damaging the Ocean?

How can something as supposedly innocuous as the clothes you’re wearing be damaging our oceans? The fashion industry is more harmful than you might realise, causing two main problems for our oceans: excess waste, and plastic fibres/toxic chemicals leaking out into waterways. Worryingly, research shows that these microfibres are entering our food supply too.

A growing number of high street retailers now offer environmentally-friendly clothing lines, but what does this actually mean and do their actions go far enough? Are retailers and consumers doing enough to reduce the impact of the fashion industry on our oceans? Here, we look into the issues surrounding our throwaway fashion culture, the problems it can pose for our oceans, and what can be done to combat it.

What are the main issues that the fashion industry poses to our oceans?

Here’s the lowdown on them and how they affect our seas:

Excess waste caused by our throwaway culture

So called ‘fast fashion’ has an enormous impact on our resources, oceans and the wider environment. There are two main elements that come into play with fast fashion: speed and cost. The industry is constantly reactive to new trends, bringing in collections from celebrities and other big names to boost profits and encourage sales; little regard is given to quality or longevity. This leads to clothing that has a short shelf and is soon discarded, or pushed to the back of the closet. It’s thought the value of unworn clothing in the UK totals around £30 billion, and around 30% of our unwanted clothing also ends up in landfill!

Pollutants from clothing enter waterways

This brings us onto the second main issue: pollutants from clothes themselves, and from clothing production processes, enter into our waterways. Microfibres get into water systems every time we wash our clothes, with just one synthetic fleece jacket releasing an average of 1.7g of microfibres every time it’s washed! It’s thought that plastic fibres are making their way into shorelines where waste water is released, and subsequently, into fish’s stomachs – that means into our food supplies too.

It’s not just the materials, either. Production processes can be incredibly damaging for the environment. In fact, textile dyeing is second only to agriculture as the largest global polluter of clean water – many of the bright colours used in fashion are incredibly toxic due to the chemicals used. Producing the raw materials comes at a cost too, with cotton growers using high amounts of pesticides to prevent crop failure.

What are retailers doing to solve the damage caused by clothing? More importantly, is it enough?

An increasing number of retailers are also offering more environmentally friendly clothing lines, that allow consumers to have a clearer conscience when shopping.

Let’s take a look at three high street retailers who are offering more conscious clothing to see what they’re doing and how far their commitment to planet-conscious fashion goes.

Case study 1: New Look

New Look have now launched ‘New Look Kind’, which is their promise to be more ethical and environmentally friendly. It’s encouraging to see that they are promising to use responsibly sourced cotton, and to increase their use of recycled polyester usage by 25% – though it would be interesting to see timescales on this one. They have also made a commitment to reduce the amount of plastic they put out into the world by 25% over the next six years.

The conclusion? This is really promising to see, and we hope there will be regular updates on the progress New Look is making. They could definitely go further with their commitment to reducing plastic, though – how about 50%, guys? Or maybe 75%?…

Case study 2: Marks and Spencer

M&S is one of the veterans of environmentalism, and they’ve been working on business sustainability for more than a decade. They have numerous policies backed up by facts and reports (all available on their website), and they collaborate across the board with other retailers and organisations. Their cotton is sourced more sustainably, and the chemicals they use during dyeing processes are carefully regulated. Plus, none of the waste from their stores, offices or warehouses goes to landfill!

The conclusion? Nice one, Marks and Spencer. This company is definitely leading the way on sustainability. Sadly, their business doesn’t seem to be in great shape and last year, profits continued to plunge. It seems that we’re not always willing to pay more for quality clothing, which is also a contributing factor to fast fashion, waste, landfill and pollutions.

Case study 3: H&M

H&M are pioneering ‘conscious products’ – that is, clothing that contains at least 50% sustainable materials. This is available on their homeware range as well, offering more sustainable options across the board. They also offer a clothes recycling scheme, where shoppers receive a £5 voucher for every bag of clothing they bring into the store to recycle.

The conclusion? This is great, thank you for giving us the option to shop more consciously, H&M! However, we’d love to see more sustainable materials used – something they are apparently working towards. And how about making all your products sustainable? Sure, it would be a long and difficult journey, but we hope this will be one of the retailer’s aims in the near future.

What else can be done to help?

It’s great to see that fashion retailers are beginning to move towards more ethical, more planet-friendly solutions, but at the moment, it’s just a drop in the ocean. Many of the retailers mentioned above offer one line of ethical clothing – but why stop there? Wouldn’t it be incredible to see shops offer eco-friendly materials and production processes for all of their clothing lines?

There’s also talk of a new 1p clothing tax to encourage retailers to cut down on the amount of waste they produce. The proposed scheme would see retailers being charged a 1p tax on every garment they sell, discouraging the cycle of low quality, throwaway fashion that is worn a handful of times before being discarded. This tax would be used to fund a £35 million annual recycling scheme. Currently, we buy more clothes per person than any other European country, so changing our attitudes and our purchasing patterns is essential.

Other countries are also beginning to take steps to reduce the waste created by the clothing industry. Many goods that are returned to shops end up being destroyed rather than resold, but France is now putting a ban on this. Edouard Philippe has pledged that within the next four years, there would be a crackdown on the destruction of unsold goods and consumer products – clothing included. It’s thought that £576m is wasted each year on products that are thrown away, so this step will make an enormous difference if enforced properly.

In the meantime, you can contribute by ensuring you shop as conscientiously as possible. Buy conscious clothing lines, or look at purchasing quality clothing that will last. There are products too that will help collect and contain microfibres in your washing machine. It’s important for us, for oceans and for marine life that we all do what we can.