The fashion industry has boomed in the last 50 years and Americans today “consume 400 percent more clothing” than in the 1980’s, according to Maxine Bedat, co-founder of retailer Zady. Fast fashion began to emerge in the United States of America (USA) in the 1980’s as a way of responding quickly to ever-changing fashion trends. By the late 1990’s, fast fashion was a phenomenon that had become profitable and successful. As defined by the organisation “The Fashion Law”, the movement is the rapid translation of “high fashion design trends into low-priced garments and accessories by mass-market retailers at low costs”. However, this has come at a cost with Dorling arguing that, “our addiction to buying so many new clothes” now makes the fashion industry the world’s second most polluting industry after oil.
The social and environmental impacts of this industry, both on the communities most closely associated with production and more widely, are significant, and are documented by Naomi Klein in her book ‘No Logo’. Recently these damaging effects have become more widely understood, provoking questions as to how clothes can be so cheap, and sparking popular movements such as the “Who Made my Clothes?” campaign. Currently, however, the success of these movements is limited: for companies to change, there needs to be widespread consumer demand for change, as well as government action, yet, at the moment, there is minimal evidence of this.
This essay will consider, from a social and environmental perspective, the extent to which the fashion industry’s use of land is more detrimental than positive, and what can be done to diminish the negative effects. Three main topics will be analysed: land clearance, fertiliser use and the impact of the disposal of clothing. The social and environmental repercussions of these topics will be examined, as well as possible solutions to diminish their adverse effects. Brands that are taking steps in the right direction, such as H&M and Patagonia, will be compared to brands that are currently seen to be doing very little, such as Zara.
Part 1: Land Clearance
Since World War II, “half the world’s mature tropical forests were cut…mostly to make room for agriculture” and annually 18.7 million acres of land is subject to deforestation to increase the available space for agriculture, which includes growing crops such as cotton to make clothing. This has many negative consequences including soil erosion and eutrophication. Despite these impacts, and the fact that there is plentiful land without trees on which crops can be farmed, deforestation is continuing to occur more rapidly than ever since it is cheaper to cut down forests than reuse already cleared land.
The adverse environmental impacts of deforestation are severe. Trees are crucial in absorbing carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Therefore, when they are felled, there are fewer trees to take in the carbon dioxide meaning it remains in the atmosphere: statistics suggest up to 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation since trees also release the carbon dioxide stored in them when they are cut down. Additionally, if the trees are removed through slash and burn techniques (where the trees are burnt down to clear land for the cultivation of crops), this also releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as well as degrading the soil and increasing the need for fertilisers. These two methods of removing trees add to the ever increasing volume of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere each day. This exacerbates global warming which has far reaching implications such as global temperature increase which causes glacial ice to melt. As a result, as documented by Caroline Rufin-Soler, sea levels rise and cause flooding, especially to low lying islands such as islands in the Maldives., Other impacts of deforestation and global warming include soil erosion, landslides, erratic weather conditions, heat-waves and more damaging wildfire seasons. These effects can ultimately directly impact the crops that are trying to be grown, thus creating a form of harmful positive feedback loop. Although the purpose of the deforestation was to make space to yield crops, the consequences are that it becomes in itself a factor that will, eventually, inhibit and potentially destroy crop growth. These are not, therefore, sustainable techniques and have damaging environmental effects.
Clearing the land for crop cultivation also has adverse social impacts: people living on the land have to be relocated, often forcibly. Schemes such as land grabs mean investors can quickly buy and take control of land and then evict the people living there. According to Oxfam America, more than 81 million acres of global land have been bought by foreign investors with “more than 60% of crops…intended for export” profiting the investors rather than feeding the local people. As a result of the investors’ self-interest, many local people are forced to relocate. By way of example, in Bulebel, Malta, farmers are being evicted from their land in order to accommodate a proposal to extend the Bulebel industrial estate by 120,000 square metres. The farmers were given just one month in which to move, losing their livelihoods in the process. This shows that the land needed and thus cleared, not only has far reaching environmental impacts, but also social.
Whilst this undoubtedly has negative impacts, the extension of the industrial estate could, in the long term, help the economic prosperity of the area since it would need to employ people, potentially the farmers who were forced to evict. However, the likelihood of the farmers being employed is low given they have no relevant experience. Nevertheless, an increase in economic prosperity could enable surplus money to be invested in the local community thereby slightly diminishing the social cost of building this estate. The establishment of a Tenants’ Association is an early sign of progress in this direction.
Whilst it is difficult to stop all land clearance, there are ways in which the impact can be reduced. Considering the fact that almost half the Earth’s land is used for farming, there is plenty of existing land where crops can be grown. The problem with this, however, is that much of the soil has been degraded due to harmful farming practices, such as slash and burn techniques and the use of fertilisers. This means that it is more cost effective for farmers to use untouched land. In order to diminish the extent of the detrimental impacts, it is necessary to improve the soil quality and fertility of the existing land to ensure that crops can be grown. This rejuvenation can occur in forms such as crop rotation, where different crops are planted on the land after the previous ones are harvested, as well as other techniques including contour plowing, strip-cropping or water and sediment control basins. These have long-term rejuvenative effects on the land, improving soil fertility and therefore allowing future crops to be grown. Companies following these sustainable practices can obtain a GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certification; companies which have achieved this include Rapanui, People Tree and Seasalt. Additionally, there are organisations which actively encourage sustainable land use, as well as good conditions for workers. Fairtrade is one such company and “require[s] smallholder farmer and larger hired labour protection set-ups to comply in key areas, such as energy and greenhouse gas emission reduction and soil and water quality”, as well as ensuring workers are paid fairly.
There are also other, shorter-term ways in which the impacts can be reduced, such as regeneration and protection zones. These areas protect land from being exploited from harmful practices such as crop cultivation and farming. In the UK, for example, National Nature Reserves (NNRs) were created to protect some of the “most important habitats, species and geology” in Britain. With 224 NNR sites in England, covering an area of approximately 94,400 hectares, this has protected a large expanse of land that could have otherwise been exploited. This, therefore, prevents warehouses, distribution centres and retail outlets being built on greenfield sites.
Additionally, in the Amazon Rainforest, where extensive removal of trees occurs, the “largest tropical forest conservation project in history” has been launched by the ARPA for Life Partners. The project, known as ARPA (Amazon Region Protected Areas), aims to turn 150 million acres of the Brazilian Rainforest into a combination of sustainable-use and strictly protected areas. The ARPA for Life partners have also created a ‘transition fund’ of $215 million which will be given to Brazil to cover the costs of the project, thereby bypassing any financial constraints on the part of the Brazilian government, if they were not onboard with the conservation efforts. The project inhibits any non-approved actions in the Rainforest thus conserving the area as the removal of trees, tribes and animals living on the land is banned, making it illegal to do so. These conservation efforts are effective in reducing the extent of harm to the environment and socially, thereby protecting it. As a result, this shows that steps can be taken to diminish the detrimental impacts of the land used to cultivate the crops used to produce clothing.
...(download the rest of the essay above)