One of the world’s largest and oldest industrial sectors is the textile and fashion industry. It consumes more water than any other industry except agriculture and emits massive amounts of toxic chemicals into the environment.
The total volume of global textile and fashion production is estimated to be more than 30 million tonnes per year, implying that the environmental impacts of this industry are significant.
During the last 25 years, the textile and clothing industries have expanded at an increasing rate and volume into low-cost Asian and Far Eastern countries. In Finland, for example, the watershed year was 1987, when textile and clothing export figures exceeded import rates for the first time; the following year, these figures were reversed. Today, it is estimated that approximately 95 % of sold garments in Finland are imported; this figure is broadly shared by all Western countries (mostly between 90 and 95 % ). And not only has production moved into long logistic chains, but it has also grown and continues to grow. Between 2002 and 2010, the global textile industry grew by 25%, according to estimates.
Rapid growth in consumption is also visible. For example, in the United Kingdom, fashion consumption increased by 37% between 2001 and 2005 (measured by the amount of clothes purchased per capita).
Efficient mass manufacturing in low-cost countries has resulted in low garment end-prices. Cheap product prices lead to impulse purchases and unsustainable consumption behaviour: overconsumption, very short product use time, and premature product disposal.
The average American discards 31 kilograms of textiles and clothing per year, the majority of which (approximately 85 %) ends up in landfills, and it is estimated that over 900 million items of clothing are discarded in the UK each year.
Fashion markets are oversaturated, and the world is full of not only new fashion items and fashion shops but also unsold clothing, thanks to the extremely efficient mass manufacturing system. Discount sales in fashion stores appear to be a permanent phenomenon. Furthermore, not all new garments reach the market; some are discarded directly from the factory due to poor quality.
Furthermore, because there are too many offerings on the market, which is oversaturated, some garments are never sold to customers from the shop. No one seems to know the exact number of unsold garments that end up in landfills. It is estimated that these unsold garments account for as much as 5-10% of total fashion production. In this risky business, fashion companies try to maintain their brands’ reputations by destroying unsold garments rather than discounting and releasing them into the market in large quantities.
Textile and clothing consumption is estimated to account for approximately 5% of household environmental impact and carbon emissions.
Most textiles do not decompose in landfills (polyester does not decompose at all, while some natural materials do, albeit slowly), and the problem is that they are not designed to be compostable. Many toxic chemicals, colors, and finishings are found in fibres, and most garments are made of blended materials that are unsuitable for composting. Composting is also environmentally problematic because it emits a lot of methane, which contributes to higher greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.