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When we think about climate change, images of smokestacks and car exhaust likely come to mind, not our clothes closet.
But what we wear has a huge impact on the environment, a fashion sustainability advocate says.
“From a climate change perspective, you’re looking at carbon and energy,” said Kelly Drennan, executive director of Fashion Takes Action, a non-profit organization she established in 2007 to advance sustainability in the fashion industry through education, awareness and collaboration.
“So basically 60 per cent of our clothing is synthetic textiles, which is plastic — the raw materials that go into making those clothes are oil, petroleum so the production of those clothes has a tremendous impact on climate change.”
Then there are other impacts such as water usage and landfill pollution.
According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, the $2.5-trillion fashion industry is the second-highest user of water worldwide.
“It takes 10,000 litres of water just to make a pair of jeans. That’s more than enough water for somebody to survive off off four years,” Drennan said in an interview Wednesday from Toronto.
As far as waste is concerned, 85 per cent of textiles are sent to landfills, about 21 billion tonnes a year, the United Nations report said.
Drennan will speak Thursday evening on these issues at Dalhousie University’s college of sustainability.
While clothing is obviously something we can’t do without, our “fast fashion” culture leads to massive over-purchasing and under-use.
“We buy 60 per cent more clothes than we did 20 years ago and we keep them for half as long,” she said. “The average garment is now only worn seven times. . . .
“The brands make it so easy for us to buy multiples of something in many different sizes and then ship back what we don’t want or what doesn’t fit because it’s free to ship it and than that also contributes to the waste problem.”
The huge spike in online sales in the last decade has driven a corresponding increase in shipping-related greenhouse gas emissions.
So clearly our clothes can be blamed for lots of environmental impacts. What can we do about it?
Drennan referred to Fashion Takes Action’s consumer advice program called “7Rs for fashion lovers.”
Topping that list is reuse, which can involve swapping your clothes with friends or donating clothes to a thrift or consignment shop.
“Basically just extending the life of your clothes for as long as possible and that also comes down to caring for our clothes,” Drennan said “Because we spend so little on clothes because of fast fashion, we tend to not care for them as much as we used to.”
And we can avoid clothing products such as denim and leather, which are the two largest polluting fabrics in the industry due to the amount of chemicals that are used, Drennan said.
(Denim companies such as Levis have responded to these kinds of environmental criticisms with “use and reuse” programs.)
Drennan is also encouraged by reuse programs offered by companies like Value Village and the use of recycled polyester for clothing products by manufacturers such as Patagonia.
“The circular economy is a big part of fashion now,” she said. “We’re starting to see a lot more companies reducing the amount of waste that they’re producing and maybe working with a third-party collector to responsibly use and recycle these goods.”
Drennan’s public talk will be held at the Ondaatje Theatre in the Marion McCain building at 6135 University Ave. at 7 p.m.