The fashion industry creates global value chains in which various stages of production take place in different countries; complex chains that are inextricably linked and include the design, manufacture, distribution, and retail sale of materials and fashion products to final consumers.
In the fashion industry, transparency and traceability throughout the supply chain appear to be critical in the process of transitioning from conventional to more sustainable production and from a linear to a circular economy.
In a world where global production processes have become increasingly fragmented into complex supply chains with a multiplicity of actors, a high reliance on subcontracting, and a high incidence of illegal work, this is one of the most complex production models with significant upstream and downstream links. Thus, in the fashion industry, transparency and traceability throughout the supply chain appear to be critical in the process of transitioning from conventional to more sustainable production and from a linear to a circular economy.
Without a doubt, the fashion industry has a significant impact on the economy and the environment around the world.
On the one hand, garment value chains are important contributors to the economies of many countries around the world, particularly given the fact that, over the last few decades, a significant portion of the production has been transferred from Europe and North America to emerging and developing countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Turkey, and Vietnam, among others.
On the other hand, this phenomenon, which is largely driven by the search for low-wage labour and the proximity of raw material supply areas, has exacerbated the global environmental impact of the fashion industry, which some believe is the second most polluting sector in the world, right after the oil industry.
However, because of the wide range of products and the fact that they are produced all over the world, it is difficult to estimate the environmental impacts of the sector.
In fact, environmental impacts vary depending on the products, but in general according to a life
cycle analysis it is possible to identify some critical issues.
When it comes to raw materials, the most serious issues that have arisen are those relating to energy consumption, water consumption, soil consumption, and the use of biocides in the case of natural fibres, and those relating to the consumption of nonrenewable resources, emissions into the atmosphere, discharges into water bodies, and, in general, CO2 emissions in the case of synthetic fibres.
Energy and water consumption, use of chemicals, discharge of pollutants into the environment, and production of wastes and hazardous waste are all issues that arise in the course of the transformation processes’ operations.
Transport and Distribution
A significant impact is also felt during the transport and distribution phase, during which the vast majority of textile raw materials and finished products are transported from production countries to end markets, resulting in substantial fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
Consumption of water, energy, and chemicals
Nonetheless, the consumer use phase of the garment life cycle is regarded as having the greatest environmental impact due to the consumption of water, energy, and chemicals for their maintenance, as well as the release of microplastics into the environment during this phase of use.
End life of products
Finally, as previously stated, much attention must be paid to the end life of products, which, with a few exceptions, are still primarily disposed of in landfills or incinerated. As it stands, only 20% of global clothing waste is collected for re-use and recycling, with more than half of all clothing ending up in undifferentiated waste, which is then disposed of in landfills or incinerators after it has been discarded. Reuse and recycling are also confronted with some difficulties.
The export of second-hand clothes from Europe, for example, to other countries, including some East Asian and African countries, can be a threat to local textile industries, as well as an increase in clothing waste in countries that are unable to deal with the increased demand. On the other hand, less than 1% of the materials used in clothing are recycled back into new clothing, primarily due to a lack of adequate technologies for this type of recycling at this time.
Finally, one must consider the waste generated by overproduction, which is necessary because a large proportion of the clothing produced goes unsold, as well as the waste generated by packaging, tags, hangers, and bags.
The Borw Team
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COM (2015) 614. Brussels: European Commission.
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Global Fashion Agenda
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Brussels: European Parliamentary Research Service.
*Featured Image by Vasilis Siampalis