Addressing a stubborn problem like climate change requires all-out efforts. It does not make any sense if we, on the one hand, make the global energy system increasingly clean and on the other, over-consume resources.
Every year, the Earth Overshoot Day comes earlier than the previous one. The ramification is that we consume more ecological resources in a year than the amount the earth can sustainably replenish.
Notably, the Earth Overshoot Day in 2020 was observed in August, much ahead of the closing of the year, despite the huge disruptions led by Covid-19. In 2021, the occasion was observed on July 29. It clearly depicts that our present resource consumption pattern is unsustainable and an overhaul in that regard is pertinent.
The fashion industry, for instance, is already under serious scrutiny for being resource intensive and for increasing overconsumption through fast fashion trends. Perhaps, many people are oblivious of the quantity of water required in processing a pair of jeans. The quantity is a worrisome 10,000 litres, as calculated by the UN.
As we change an old pair of jeans and purchase a new pair, an additional 10,000 litres would be consumed. Available data states that the fashion industry uses around 1.5 trillion litres of water per annum. It is also a major polluter of water at all stages of the value chain. Notably, wastewater is, at times, not treated before being released into the environment.
Meanwhile, 884 million people across the world do not have access to safe drinking water, according to WHO and UNICEF. Many countries are already water stressed and meeting the water demand of additional people will only compound the prevailing problem.
Needless to say, energy is required for producing and delivering safe and drinkable water to households. Moreover, both thermal and electric energy is required for the production process in the fashion industry.
With our increasing addiction to fast fashion, energy consumption and associated greenhouse gas (GHG) emission will only increase, negating our efforts to address climate change. But the story does not end there.
Once we discard the old items, we only increase wastage in our dumping sites. More often than not, the majority of these waste items are not recycled and emit methane in the landfills, contributing significantly to human induced climate change.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated that the yearly GHG emission of the fashion industry is equivalent to 10% of the global carbon emission. According to a World Bank report, this emission is even more than what is combinedly generated by international flights and maritime shipping.
Furthermore, the top 15 textile polluters of Europe reportedly produced textile waste of 2,000 tons in 2018, with each country's contribution ranging from 14.934 to 465.925 tons. Per capita textile waste, in the said countries, varied from 2.1 to 14.8 kg, of which, approximately 10% was recycled while around 60% was landfilled, with the possibility of methane emission.
Six countries spent quite a high amount on new clothing, with average spending per person standing at over $1088. Per capita spending on new clothing in Austria even crossed $1360 during the same period.
A cursory look at the per capita income of some poorest countries and the annual expenditure on clothing in developed countries, of which, quite a significant part is eventually wasted, poses the question as to how the world would achieve sustainable development by 2030 while leaving no one behind.
In fact, with the rising income of people and more affordability, the trend today is to buy more textile items than ever, even when many people have no dearth of outfits in their wardrobes. Brands, changing collections, and online marketing are tempting people to over-consume. The obvious result is the clearing out of entire wardrobes to discard old and unused clothing, which eventually end up in landfills, without being recycled, leading to rising carbon emissions.
Limited natural resources, environmental impacts of the fashion industry and the urgency to limit global GHG emissions requires that the fashion industry change soon. The industry, including raw material producers, textile producers, apparel manufacturers and brands should find ways to be greener by putting in place the new approaches throughout the value chain.
Both renewable energy and energy efficiency should be embraced by the fashion industry at a more rapid pace than what the prevailing scenario is. The fashion industry should also concentrate on reducing water consumption, as the current level of consumption is unsustainable to say the least.
Treating water before discharging it to the adjacent water bodies is a logical responsibility of the industry. However, government regulations remain the key for ensuring recycling, landfill management and the discharge of processed water.
Consumers should realise that fashion items are necessary goods and should treat them as functional items instead of considering them as status symbols. Consumers should also recognise the environmental impacts of their fashion items and should be ready to pay the environmental costs.
Consumers, while purchasing their wares, should consciously ask the manufacturers whether sustainability measures have been properly considered in the production process. Similarly, consumers should consider buying only what they need.
Notably, the fashion industry stakeholders, supported by the United Nations framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), created the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action in 2018.
While manufacturers, brands and large companies will be central to this effort to contribute to attain the temperature goal of 1.5°C, consumers should behave responsibly by not adding new wares to their wardrobes unnecessarily.
Shafiqul Alam is an environmental economist.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.