Safia Minney: fashion’s impact on the earth

People Tree in Bangladesh
Vanishing Lands in Bangladesh by Miki Alcade

Photo: Miki Alcade

In an exclusive extract from her new book - Naked Fashion - the People Tree founder looks at the environmental damage caused by modern fashion – and sketches out a radical new way forward

It seems like a very small thing to us, choosing a t-shirt or a dress made of organic rather than conventional cotton. But it can make a big difference at the other end of the chain. The environmental impact of fashion is something that needs to concern us all. What’s clear is that fashion’s environmental footprint at the moment is unsustainable. The evidence is overwhelming. For example, the British clothing and textiles sector alone currently produces around 3.1 million tonnes of CO2, two million tonnes of waste and 70 million tonnes of waste water per year – with 1.5 million tonnes yearly of unwanted clothing and textiles ultimately ending up in landfill. This means that we each throw away an average of 30 kilos a year.

We need to consume less fashion and wear our clothes for longer, while the fabrics and clothes that we do buy need to have more ‘value added’ – benefiting not only the farmers but also as many artisans as possible in its transformation to clothing. Fair Trade can make a big difference here. Fair Trade takes a long-term view, working in partnership with producers and enabling communities to ‘invest’ in environmental initiatives and diversify. It recognizes that, if farmers are given even half a chance, they will protect the environment. After all, why would people whose lives are so dependent on the resources of their natural surroundings, destroy their environment? The answer is that they only do so when driven to it by low prices, unfair terms of trade and the insecurity that comes from not knowing where your children’s next meal will come from. They only do it when there seems to be no alternative.

Fair Trade, social businesses and new economics are leading the way in showing how we can protect the environment and help the poor feed themselves. Supporting low chemical inputs, transitional and organic farming is also vital. Polyester, the most widely used manufactured fibre, is made from petroleum. The manufacture of this and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil and releasing millions of tonnes of CO2. With oil supplies dwindling, we have to find alternatives to oil-intensive farming methods now, before it’s too late. Organic farming takes 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per acre per year out of the atmosphere.

Water is another vital resource being over-consumed by the fashion industry. And, as water scarcity becomes as big an issue as global warming, this is critical. Conventionally grown cotton is one of the most water-dependent crops to be grown. It takes over 2,000 litres of water to produce the average t-shirt with conventional cotton. Organic and Fair Trade cotton has helped to reduce water consumption by over 60 per cent in the Indian state of Gujarat, by supporting farmers who invest in drip irrigation.

The conventional cotton industry has a devastating effect on farmers and the environment. Heavy pesticide use reduces biodiversity, disrupts ecosystems and contaminates water supplies. Worse still, pests exposed to synthetic pesticides build up a resistance to them so that, each year, farmers have to buy and use more pesticides to grow the same amount of cotton. Not only does this increase the annual damage to the environment, it means the farmer gets less and less profit from the crop. These pesticides also harm the farmers and their families. Many of the chemicals used in cotton farming are acutely toxic. Around 10 per cent of all chemical pesticides and 22 per cent of all insecticides used worldwide are sprayed on cotton crops. Cotton growers typically use many of the most hazardous pesticides on the market, many of which are organophosphates originally developed as toxic nerve agents during World War Two. At least three pesticides used on cotton are in the ‘dirty dozen’ – so dangerous that 120 countries agreed at a UNEP conference in 2001 to ban them, though so far this hasn’t happened.

The World Health Organization estimates that three million people are poisoned by pesticides every year, most of them in developing countries. When pesticides leak into the environment, chronic poisoning can affect entire communities. Symptoms of chronic poisoning include numbness or weakness of arms, legs, feet or hands, lethargy, anxiety and loss of memory and concentration. Young women are particularly vulnerable – exposure to pesticides can affect the reproductive system, causing infertility and spontaneous abortions. In the light of all this, any support we can give to small farmers growing organic cotton is vital. Organic cotton is grown as a rotational crop alongside organic foods that are often consumed by a farmer’s family, with the surplus sold locally. But cotton farmers in India trying to make the transition to organic often struggle to do so because the soil takes five years to recover its yields as it is weaned off agrochemical methods. They desperately need more support from the government. The only support at present is coming from NGOs and advocacy organizations – and from consumers prepared to pay a Fair Trade premium and to insist on organic cotton.

If we pay farmers a higher price for their cotton, they will be able to diversify their crops, use less polluting farming methods and protect the environment. Though it must be said that an even greater service to small farmers – and 99 per cent of cotton growers live in the Global South – would be if world prices were not kept artificially low by the glut of cotton on the market caused by the US government’s extraordinary subsidies to its own farmers. In 2002, for example, US cotton was being dumped on the world market at 61 per cent below the cost of production. As this suggests, there are huge forces at play here. The same global trading system that keeps so many of the world’s people poor also destroys the environment. The economic and accounting system we have today only measures financial outcomes, not the social and environmental bottom lines. Our present system pursues short-term profit, propelling environmental destruction and widening the gap between rich and poor.

Faced with these huge issues, it is easy to throw up our hands in despair and feel powerless. But at least in the area of supporting Fair Trade fashion, organic fabrics, second hand and upcycled clothes, we have something clear and positive we can do.
Fair Trade and organic fabrics currently account for a tiny percentage of the total amount of cotton sold worldwide. We have a lot to change! But every time you opt to support Fair Trade, organic or second hand clothing you are making a difference.


Naked Fashion, £14.99, is published by New Internationalist and People Tree. See or for more information

Artwork by Mina Nakagawa

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