Pollution occurs at each stage of a fashion product’s lifecycle, posing a threat to biodiversity.
What’s going on?
Pollution is a by-production at every step of a fashion product’s life cycle – from sourcing raw materials to an item’s end of life.
As a result, the industry’s pollution occurs in a number of different forms. The majority of pollution impacts occur during textile manufacturing processing, however.
With around 20% of global industrial water pollution traceable back to the textiles industry, water pollution is significant and multi-faceted in its impact. [source] From chemical contamination of drinking water to the spread of microfibres in the world’s waterways, it affects all aspects of water ecosystems.
Weak regulation and poor infrastructure in some countries where companies along the fashion supply chain are based – which allow wastewater to be dumped into streams and rivers, for example – is a significant challenge. It is also a danger to nature, biodiversity, and humans health.
With thousands of chemicals used across the fashion supply chain, chemical pollution of land and water is a big problem.
Many agrichemicals used in the cultivation of natural materials are toxic and their impact on biodiversity on land and sea can be hard to see. Chemicals used to produce clothes can indirectly harm, too – disrupting hormone systems, harming liver health, or causing cancer. [source]
Once in waterways, chemicals accumulate to the point where light is prevented from penetrating the surface. This reduces plants’ ability to photosynthesise which lowers oxygen levels in the water, killing aquatic plants and animals.
A closed-loop approach is needed to keep chemicals used in clothing production in the production system and prevent leakage into the environment.
Chemicals that are released into oceans and land need to be properly managed under restrictions to prevent any damage to soil, water, and wildlife.
Microfibres – which are released from clothing during consumer wear and washing – is a growing concern, though evidence of the scale of the problem they pose is inconclusive. Recently, this has inspired several new consumer products – Guppy Friend, for example, which collects microfibres during a wash.
Finally, discarded fashion products are another source of pollution. On average, consumers throw away 60% of their clothes within a year of buying them.
- Global cotton production accounts for just 2.5% of agricultural land globally, needing 200,000 tonnes of pesticides and 8 million tonnes of fertilisers, which account for 16% of all pesticides used and 4% of global nitrogen and phosphorus fertiliser use. 
- Washing, solvents, and dyes used in manufacturing are responsible for 1/5 of industrial water pollution. 
- The fashion industry uses around 93 billion cubic meters (21 trillion gallons) of water annually – enough to fill 37 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. 
- Along with finishing, dyeing is the most polluting and energy-intensive processes involved in making our clothes. 
- Washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year – equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles. 
- Around 35% of all micro-plastics in the ocean come from synthetic textiles, which contribute to 31% of plastic pollution in the ocean. 
- An estimated 1.7 million tonnes of textiles are consumed in the UK each year, 1.1 million tonnes of which is clothing.
- An estimated 36% of all textiles consumed in the UK in 2017 were collected for re-use and recycling while 55% went to landfill/incineration.
- On average, each person in the UK consumes 26.7kg of clothing and home textiles each year, far higher than other European countries. Germany is the next highest, averaging 16.7kg per person.
- In the US, an estimated 85% of all textiles go into the garbage each year. 
- Globally, 73% of the materials used to produce clothing are landfilled or burned at the end of their life, while less than 1% of old clothing is used to make new clothing. 
Getting nature positive
Target, VF (owner of The North Face and Jansport), Nike, and Gap have all introduced Manufacturing Restricted Substances Lists (MRSL) and Restricted Substances Lists (RSL) to eliminate the use of some chemicals that harm workers and consumers.
Such lists are an excellent first step as a MRSL restrains what can be used in the manufacturing process and an RSL dictating what can be in the final product.
There are solutions to these challenges, however.
Inspired by steps fashion companies are already taking, we’ve compiled suggested actions to help you on your journey to getting nature positive.