Did you have any idea that at least 10 000 litres of water is used to produce a new pair of jeans?
Besides the manufacturing and dyeing process, this considers the water used to grow the cotton too. Most of us don’t give much thought to the environmental footprint of our clothes. We are embarrassed about the carbon footprint of flying, and there are plenty of off-set schemes for this flight-shame, we eat seasonal produce to reduce food miles and support local crafters, but clothes seem to go under the radar. An ordinary t-shirt requires around 3000 litres of water (8 glasses of water a day for one person for over 3 years) ,produces 6kgs of carbon di-oxide during manufacture, needs 3kg of chemicals and uses 400MJ of energy (which is like leaving a incandescent light bulb on for 3 months or a low energy bulb on for 10 months).
After oil, the clothing and textile industry is the second largest polluter in the world, contributing 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Few people realise this.
The film The True Cost uncovered plenty of social and environmental horrors embedded in the fashion industry. The trend of gathering to swap clothes (and have fun) with friends (called Swishing Parties, or Sip & Swap) is growing rapidly – probably after people have watched the film and been horrified at the impact of their consumption. Do you have your head in a shopping bag?
Shopping for new clothes is such a normalised activity in our society – it is entertainment, rather than necessity. Our consumption of new clothing has doubled since 2000 and, on average, we only keep items half as long.
Clothes shopping is fun! The buzz of excitement and shot of adrenaline as you hand over the cash for something new is addictive. But the high doesn’t last long – very often there is a post-shop slump and you feel glum. That’s when the impulse purchase might be relegated to the back of the cupboard and forgotten.
Of course, we can shift the blame to fast fashion – and the fact that the big brands like Zara have 24 seasons a year rather than four. They are doing their best to tempt us with exciting new designs that is for sure.
But once you know something, you can’t unknow it – so let’s flip through some fashion facts:
- The clothing industry produces more than 150 billion clothes every year (for only 7 billion humans, many of whom only wear second hand anyway).
- Each year 13kgs of fashion waste for each person on the planet is created. That’s a dumping area larger than South Africa – every year.
- The fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined.
- Dyeing is the second largest polluter of water in the world. Leftover water is dumped in ditches and ends up in streams and rivers. 20% of industrial water pollution is caused by dyeing. Without even mentioning the cocktail of chemicals used in the dye process. We don’t usually see the waterways and pollution where clothes are made, so it is out of sight, out of mind. The river near the jeans factory in Maseru runs blue – check it out if you are ever in Lesotho.
- The Aral Sea in Russia has completely dried up from cotton irrigation.
- Cotton farming is responsible for 24% of insecticide and 11% of pesticide use. More than 90% of cotton is genetically modified.
- Leather production. The feed, land, water and fossil fuels used to raise animals for leather production comes at a huge cost to the health of our planet. Clearing rainforest to grow food for cattle to make cheap leather shoes is a bad idea. The leather tanning process is extremely toxic and the waste pollutes natural water sources. Leather tannery workers are at a far greater risk of cancer.
- 60% of textiles are derived from fossil fuels. Polyester has 3 times the carbon emissions than cotton. So, you can’t win there either – even when old coke bottles are turned into yoga pants.
- Micro-fibres – 500 000 tons of microfibre enter the oceans each year – that’s 50 billion plastic bottles. They are contaminating coral reefs and inside all the fish. You might as well nibble on your yoga pants than eat Yellowtail. https://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-microfibers/
- Zara produces 450 million items a year. During the first week, if a design does not sell very fast, it will be withdrawn from stores and a new style will take up the place. This rapid product lifecycle creates an urgency, which increases the chance of each consumer visiting the stores often and shopping.
- 73% of textiles and clothes manufactured will be burned or buried in landfill.
- Only around 12% is recycled – most likely shredded to stuff mattresses or made into insulation or cleaning cloths.
- Much used clothing is dumped in Africa and South America. So, we must deal with the waste?
- If it’s cheap, it means some human somewhere is suffering. Often, even when it is not cheap. Is there anyone who has not heard of or seen pictures of the appalling working conditions in the East? But even here – often things ‘made in SA’ are still produced in less than ideal conditions. A couple of years ago I came across a whole lot of prefabs, in the industrial area of Harrismith, that house Chinese people who work in the jean factory. Not cool.
So now you know. Are there any solutions?
Less is More. Yes, absolutely we must shop less, mend more and buy good quality, well designed, locally made garments that last. But often one would still have the issue with pollution, energy, water.
Pre-loved is a booming industry. Currently fast fashion globally is worth USD 35 billion and the second-hand market USD 24 billion. Experts predict that by 2028 second hand will have overtaken fast fashion – valued at USD 64 billion against fast fashion at USD 44 billion. This is largely driven by younger people who are far more conscious about their shopping, demanding ethical choices. By wearing nothing new, you reduce your impact on the environment – air pollution, water contamination and resource depletion – you look unique and you probably meet great people too.
Be a trendsetter.
We are spoilt for choice with all our charity, vintage and second-hand shops in the Midlands. Some of my favourites are:
- Clothes O’holics at Spar Centre, Merrivale
- People’s Choice, Mooi River
- Bend down boutiques – like corner of Harvard St in Howick
- Back on the Rack at Piggly Wiggly, Lions River
- House of Heart Pre-Loved – Hilton 25 Mauch Road 071 496 3542
- G’s Throwbacks – Greendale Centre, Howick
- Hospice Howick Pre-Loved Shop, Mansfield Road Howick
- SPCA stores – Hilton Quarry, Main Street Howick, below Merrivale Spar, Greendale Centre
- Mack’s Thrift Shack in Durban
Gently worn in and comfortable clothes have stories. I absolutely could not resist this old necklace once the stall holder had told me it previously belonged to 90 year old Mrs van Rensburg, who despite her tiny frame, always wore bold jewelry. It is so perfect with my charity shop cardigan – I just want to wear them all the time!
Stretch your boundaries and try things you might not have tried before. Have you tried the hot label HO Spice? (Hospice Shop in Mansfield Road, Howick). Pay attention, there are treasures to be found on these racks. Often you are supporting a charity while shopping – snaring many stylish birds with one ethical stone.
Midlands Barter Markets have been swapping clothes for ages. I got this gorgeous green blouse (which perfectly matches my Woza Moya necklace) and swapped this adorable Zara top for a bunch of mint under the tree on Miller Street Common at Howick Exchange.
Borrow. What are friends for? My friend Phillippa owns a gorgeous Amanda Laid Cherry cocktail frock that I borrow almost every time I need to dress up for something. A couple of friends who are off to a wedding next week have both found gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous, second-hand dresses to wear and we have been going through my jewelry boxes to find the perfect accessories. Absolutely no need to shop.
Revamping thrift is a thing. There are plenty of inspiring Instagram feeds devoted to upcycling clothes – rejean, unmaterialgirl, doodlageofficial, mindfulmending, mendingbeautifully . Even some big fashion houses are using waste materials for their collections. Jeans are cut up and turned into jackets, wedding dresses into coats. Once you start to explore you will be amazed.
My lovely sister-in-law, Sue, looked stunning on her wedding day. Her dress cost R8 – yup R8 – from Hospice (oops, I mean HO Spice). It was so cool that she had to leave the price in for the celebration.
Wild embroidery. Learn some basic sewing techniques. It is really lots of fun to do a little creative darning and get another season out of those jeans that fit you perfectly. Applique is a simple way to give good quality garments a new lease on life. Add a trim to lengthen a t-shirt. Shorten dress to make a blouse.
Trashionistas and Foraged Fashion
At the annual Trashion Show discarded cans, defunct fans, torn magazines and abandoned coffee cups take on a new life at the hands of creative eco-conscious students intent on standing out on the ramp. They gather garbage, dive into recycling bins and pick up sweet papers outside tuckshops to turn into fabulous fashion. In the process they learn new skills and influence their families, neighbours and friends to view waste differently.
Remember that there is no such place as away. Throwing something ‘away’ just means it becomes someone else’s problem and ultimately a problem for our natural world.
Still got that gloomy nothing to wear feeling? Perhaps you need a snack, or tea with friends or even a nap? Or to re-organise your cupboard? Sort according to colours and you are sure to find some new combos. Stick your winter clothes in a box and when you unpack next June you may well be in for a lovely surprise and delighted to wear that orange jumper again. Colour is the bomb! It is impossible to be unhappy in fabulous colours.
Fitting in is overrated. Develop your personal style which will start conversations. I was at a wedding this year where both the bride and groom’s mothers had the same designer dress – luckily in different colours.
We are fortunate that we do have less well-off people around us who can make use of used clothing. But just donating unwanted clothing can make the problem worse. We tell ourselves that it’s not so bad that we’re buying more cheap clothing, because we’re donating it to charity, and someone will be pleased to have it. If we no longer had the option to donate clothing, we would have to face up to our own over-consumption.
You have a choice:
- Do I really need it? Can I make do with something I already have?
- If I absolutely do need it, do I need to actually own it? Can I borrow it instead?
- If I can’t borrow it, can I find a pre-loved version?
- If I can’t get it secondhand, can I get it from a local, ethical, sustainable source?
- If I can’t get it from a sustainable source, can I get a high-quality product that will last a long time?
Slow fashion is a slow journey. Every season you can be better than the last. Fall in love with pre-loved, cherish what you already have and flaunt real fashion. You have made a start.