World Environment Day, History and Perspective

Since 1972, World Environment Day has taken place on June 5th with the goal of encouraging people around the world to celebrate our planet and seriously think about ways in which we can make it a healthier place. This year, the theme is “Connecting People to Nature” with hopes of getting everyone to appreciate the outdoors and the beauty that the Earth has to offer. While appreciating our environment is a great start, I think it is also incredibly important to understand how it is being harmed.

We all know about the oil industry as the number one most harmful industry for our planet. It is responsible for many environmental issues such as greenhouse gas emissions that destroy the ozone layer and affect our air, oil spills which harm animal habitats and our oceans and so much more. But why are we only talking about how to reduce our carbon footprint? Are we so uncritical that we accept this as our only major concern for our environment? Growing up, I would never have guessed that we all support the 2nd dirtiest industry in the world- fashion.

Personally, going to the mall and shopping for clothes is one of my favourite hobbies. I get to spend time with friends, find some cute outfits, and maybe even some great deals. When you think about where you purchase your clothing, your initial thoughts are probably not focused on how the item was made or the journey it took to get into your hands. Instead, you see the price tag and question if the $150 Nike shoes are worth it, or if you should just check out the buy one get one 50% off deal at H&M. Interestingly enough, next to oil, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions and that is no small or positive feat. Not only does the industry produce greenhouse gas emissions from cheap fibres and other pollutants, it damages soil and water across the world, inevitably influencing animal habitats and the health and well-being of humans. In simple terms, when we hurt the environment, we are only hurting ourselves.

To explain the many ways in which fashion is destroying our Earth, let me take you on a quick tour of the toxic journey many of our clothes take.

World Environment Day, sustainability, cotton facts, cotton clothes

The Toxic Journey of Cotton Clothes

Infographic by Min-Ku Han

Step 1: The Cotton Farm

Sadly, for many items the journey begins immediately with the farming of cotton. Aside from chemically filled synthetic fibres such as polyester and nylon, cotton is the most commonly used material in the fashion world. The plant itself requires an overwhelming amount of water: more than 20,000 litres is needed to produce just one shirt and a single pair of jeans. Rainwater alone does not seem to be enough. In areas where cotton is grown, there is evidence of freshwater withdrawal from sources such as rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water. It is dangerous to use more freshwater resources than are naturally provided because doing so can not only negatively affect ecosystems, but clean water is a necessity for humans and is especially lacking in many developing countries. Cotton farms are prevalent in regions of Africa, the Americas, and Asia and in many of these countries their access to clean water is slim. For example, 85% of the Indian population could be provided with 100 litres of water every day for a year of the water that is used to grow cotton there. Cotton should not consume this much water, but it is being used inefficiently and because the region’s cotton is grown in are generally quite dry.

Despite the cotton plant needing extensive amounts of water, it is also heavily reliant on fertilizers and harmful pesticides and insecticides. Unfortunately, the cotton plant is one of the most chemically infested crops and because of ineffective irrigation strategies, run-off into other lakes and streams from the land occurs frequently. These pesticides are harmful to our air in similar ways to carbon emissions and can affect aerial animals and humans as well. Since cotton uses up a lot of water, that also means more water infused with chemicals. However, it isn’t exactly necessary to use these pesticides as there is organic cotton that doesn’t require these chemicals. Farmers believe that it is important to keep weeds and other pests and insects away from the crops, but they do not always realize the negative impacts of certain methods of keeping away a few bugs.

Step 2: The Factory

When the cotton hits the factories, there are many steps to create the final garment. One of the most polluting steps, however, is the dying process. Any of your clothes that are wrinkle and shrinkage-free, waterproof or sweat-proof (which most are), have definitely gone through some sort of dying or finishing process. Azo dyes are mainly used for clothing but are also used for other things such as food and paper because they are very cost-effective. However, Azo dyes are known to be toxic and potentially carcinogenic, and during the dying process, not all the dye makes it onto the clothes. In fact, the amount of dye that is lost and put into the environment ranges between 10 and 50%. Think about how much toxicity our environment must endure because of faulty techniques. Not good at all. The ‘finishing’ stage of dying the clothing is where the excess dye is taken off and put into water systems, directly affecting ecosystems and causing the illness and death of many animals, especially fish and other aquatic species. So, it’s obvious something needs to be done about these toxic chemicals being put into our clothing as well as into the environment, but it doesn’t seem like a new way to do this has been found.

Step 3: From the Stores to the Landfills

You must be thinking that this whole process is over right? What else could possibly happen after the clothes have been made? When you’re in Hollister or Walmart buying these items, you’re also not likely thinking about how long you will keep this product or where it’s going to end up when you’re done wearing it. Most of us are told that when we are done wearing our clothes, we should drop them off at one of those red Salvation Army boxes (or the like) and they will be donated to people in need. While this is somewhat true, not all clothes that are donated end up with a new owner and not all clothes are in the condition to be donated. So, where do they go? They go to rot in landfills like everything else we throw away.  Around 85% of the clothes we buy end up in the landfill and do not decompose well. Moreover, while the clothing sits, it releases toxins such as carbon dioxide and methane, which makes sense when you think about all of the chemicals that were used to make it.

From the cotton plant to the dying process to the landfill, the environmental impact of the modern fashion industry is substantial and it will continue if we don’t do something about it. Of course, it is difficult to tell textile companies to not use harmful chemicals and to not genetically modify or use pesticides on cotton. But there are some things we can do. Try to buy things made from organic materials and try to avoid synthetic fibres; Try to reuse your clothes and make the most that you can out of them before you donate them to a thrift store. In respect of World Environment Day, try to understand where your clothes come from and how they are made so that you can make better-informed decisions. These efforts will serve everyone better in the long-term.

We all need to take action daily, and not only appreciate our environment one day of the year but care every day of our lives.

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About the Author

Kendra is currently studying English and Professional Writing at York University. She enjoys playing soccer, reading and writing short stories and articles in her spare time. She has written her own short novel and in the future hopes to become a professional writer and use her creativity with words in new and fresh ways.

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