World Environment Day: The Trouble with Fast Fashion and Air Pollution

This week’s #EthicalHour chat was focused on air pollution which is the theme of this years World Environment Day (which is today!).

It made me realise how little I know about air pollution and it got me thinking about how fast fashion could be contributing to this global problem. Of course, it’s no surprise that yes, it is.

Why Should We Care About Air Pollution?

World Environment Day and Air Pollution

I listened to a really interesting podcast about air pollution yesterday, and read a few articles, and there were some facts and statistics that jumped out at me:

  • In Hackney, 8 and 9 year old children have been found to have smaller lungs. Air pollution is literally affecting their development.
  • In polluted areas, diesel particles can be seen in cells from the lungs.
  • Drivers and passengers inside cars are not protected from traffic emissions.
  • It has been shown that there has been a 40% increase in psychosis in more polluted areas. There has also been an increase in dementia in these areas too.
  • 95% of the London’s population live in areas that exceed the World Health Organisation’s pollution guidelines by 50% or more.
  • Not all air pollution is man-made. Dust blown from the Sahara desert can sometimes account for high levels of air pollution in the UK.

Air pollution isn’t a problem limited to cities either, which is definitely something I previously thought. You can actually check a pollution forecast in the way that you’d check the weather, and it shows that the coast and countryside are no different to most of the rest of the country. I was really surprised by that.

Fast Fashion Strikes Again

Fast fashion contributes to air pollution

I’ve written before about fast fashion, it was the catalyst for changing my sewing habits and also this blog changing direction a bit. We all know about the garment workers who work in unsafe conditions for a pittance; we know about stores offering fashion for less than a cup of coffee therefore encouraging a throwaway culture. I could go on, but not today. Today I’m interested specifically in air pollution, and guess what? Fast fashion is a baddie in this arena too. (I know, you’re shocked, right?)

Polyester: It’s everywhere and that’s not good

Let’s look at polyester. That man-made fabric which is a favourite of many a fast fashion brand (and sewist), with 60% of garments in stores being made from it. Polyester has got to be my least favourite fabric ever. It’s quite the environmental war criminal from production to when it inevitably ends up in landfill. (Sadly many of my fellow sewists don’t agree though, because it’s cheap). But why is polyester so bad?

Firstly the production of polyester involves plenty of chemicals. Air and water are used to make polyester, but then along come two fossil fuels: coal and petroleum, each with their own respective ways of polluting. Coal, when burned, creates an immense amount of pollution and the resulting smog contains carbon dioxide. Petroleum plays its part it by surrounding us with carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide and nitrogen oxides. Makes you want to take a deep breath, doesn’t it?

Landfill contributes to air pollution

When polyester garments end up in landfill eventually, their crimes don’t stop there. Oh no, it just sits there, contributing literally nothing to any nutrient cycle, and slowly decomposes releasing lovely Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere.

It’s not just polyester…

Polyester isn’t the only fabric that causes air pollution from its creation though. The creation of any fabric or garment can create air pollution. Processes such as heat setting, dyeing, printing and finishing all release emissions too.

Plus we have to consider the pollution being created from actually shipping all this fast fashion junk over to the UK, or wherever you are in the world. These clothes can even cause air pollution after you’ve donated them to the charity shop if they’re taken over to countries such as Africa to be sold.

It’s all a bit depressing really and can easily make use feel, as consumers, that there’s nothing we can do about it.

But there is!

Together we can #BeatAirPollution

  • Choose clothing made from natural fibres
  • Choose locally-made clothing with a lower carbon footprint
  • Buy clothes to last
  • Buy fewer items of clothing
  • Go shopping less often
  • Consider vintage and second hand clothes
  • Keep clothing out of landfill by re-fashioning it, giving it to someone else to wear or re-purposing it if it’s beyond wearing.

Together we can #BeatAirPollution!


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