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The Real Price of our shirt – the fashion industry and climate change


by Hagan Brown


Climate change has not been new to our ears, floods and hurricanes happening around the world while our skin feels the heat in the atmosphere is obvious that climate change exists. Climate change continues to attain its publicity since scientific organizations cannot halt the broadcasting of how terrible human, plants and other organisms’ existence will be when the earth is not kept within its suitable temperature limits. Climate change is a just a part of the 9 planetary boundaries which are responsible for judging the health of our planet. The main question here is, how is the health of our planet?



The 9 Planetary Bounderies

Climate change- human activity or natural activity?


According to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change refers to the state of the climate that can be identified (for example using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. Which basically refers to the change in climate over time whether due to natural availability or as a result of human activities.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) associate climate change to direct and indirect human activities that changes the global atmosphere in addition to natural climate variability observed over some time period unlike IPCC’s definition.


In picturing the impacts of climate change, ocean acidification which destroys the ecosystem cannot be left out, same applies to the loss of snow cover, abnormal precipitation patterns, rising of sea levels, loss of biodiversity, droughts, floods, wildfires, food shortages and health issues needs to be mentioned. Due to these adverse impacts, the Paris Agreement was developed to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change.


Aftermath of hurricane Harvey (2017) source: sciencenews

Scientist connected these climate changes aftermath to the increase of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere of which methane (CH4), Nitrous oxides (NOx), Carbon dioxide (CO2) among others forms part. CO2, is the highest percentage of GHG in the atmosphere due to the growing burning of fossil fuel to produce energy. The concentration of CO2 was known to be 250ppm before the industrial revolution, now, it is over 400ppm which has passed its ‘tipping point’ 350ppm.


The fashion industry


The fashion industry is a top backer of climate change. With $1.9 trillion being spent on apparel and footwear globally in retail sales in 2019, and $121 billion spent on Chinese girls and women’s apparel market in 2018, the real value of the fashion industry is felt by the planet. This industry has been responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emission besides consumption of large volumes of water and energy.

Its contribution to climate change can be vividly analyzed through Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs). LCAs considers the environmental impacts from all the processes which involves raw material sourcing, material processing, manufacturing, distribution, use and disposal or recycling. This assets helps to account for all inputs (materials and energy) and how they contribute to climate change.


Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

Considering a 70% polyester and 30% cotton $15 long sleeve shirt, its raw material, cotton, contributes between 0.3-1% of climate change. The application of fertilizers releases NOx, clearing of forest for cotton production and cotton transport (at least one-third of cotton produced are transported from its country of origin) have huge impacts on the climate. When trees are cut down, their stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere (1). Alike, the production of polyester releases twice or more CO2 compared to cotton.


Nylon, a typical underwear/sportswear material has gradually obtain a stand in fashion in recent years. Nylon, part of the polyamide family, is produced through condensation polymerization to form a large polymer. This large polymer is broken in smaller portion, melted and drawn into fibers that are later woven to produce fabric.

Besides, being a high water consuming process, nylon is an intensive energy process which releases NOx which possess a 310GWP (Global Warming Potential) which traps long-wavelength radiations that are reflected from the earth surface.


Thereafter, the production of the garment continues to consume more energy and the addition of chemicals in the dying process releases of gases into the atmosphere. After production, the shirt is being transported to various wholesales and retails centers. These logistics processes also releases CO2, NOx into the atmosphere, adding up to the climate change process.


The user phase sits at the top as the highest contributor in the industry. Consider the shirt is laundered once every week, which equals 52 laundered times in a year. Aside it’s enormous water consumption, consider the energy used during washing and drying.


A study reported the entire lifecycle CO2 produced by a Levi’s jeans was the same as that produced by an average car driven for 111km.

Textile waste at landfill sites source: EcoMENA
84% of clothes produced are not recycled worldwide and when these textile end up in land fill sites, they produce methane during decomposition which is 21 times more than CO2’s GWP13.

Similarly, the disposal or recycle phase of which the massive weight of clothing waste falls under due to fast fashion, discounted sales, high consumption pattern of global middle-class, is troubling global resources and fueling climate change. The $15 shirt is just a tiny part of this waste yet an integral part.


In 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of United States of America displayed data related to textile generated, landfilled, recycled and so on. Out of 16.890 million tons generated, 66.01% (11.150 million tons) were landfilled and 15.2% amounting to 2.57 million tons were recycled. Moreover, 84% of clothes produced are not recycled worldwide and when these textile end up in land fill sites, they produce methane during decomposition which is 21 times more than CO2’s GWP13.


Now, the simple question that each individual has to answer, “What is the true price of our shirt? $15 or our planet?”


*** Looking for solutions?***


We have wrote already about some fashion companies that are doing great efforts to solve problems and become sustainable and circular, avoiding to put more waste and pollution in our Planet.


Check our past articles:

https://www.zerowasteshanghai.com/post/the-fashion-industry-s-struggle-to-keep-up-with-the-green-wave

https://www.zerowasteshanghai.com/post/seven-most-sustainable-shoe-brands


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Reference

(1) file:///C:/Users/elias/Downloads/cotton-and-climate-change%20(1).pdf




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