Intensive irrigation of cotton plantations in the deserts of the western Soviet Union prevented water reaching the Aral Sea, leading to the drastically low levels we see today. Milosz Maslanka/Shutterstock
The drying up of the Aral Sea in central Asia, formally the fourth largest lake in the world, is associated with the irrigation of cotton fields that dry up the rivers that feed it.
This has decimated biodiversity and devastated the region’s fishing industry. The processing of natural fibres into garments is also a major source of chemical pollution, where factory wastewaters are discharged into freshwater systems, often with little or no treatment.
Organic cotton and Woolmark wool are perhaps the most well known natural fabrics being used. Their certified fibres represent a welcomed material change, introducing to the marketplace new fibres that have codified, improved production standards. However, they still contribute fibrous particles into the environment over their lifetime.
More generally, fashion’s systemic low pay, deadly working conditions, and extreme environmental degradation demonstrate that too often our affordable fashion purchases come at a higher price to somebody and somewhere.
Slow down fast fashion
It is clear then that a radical change to our purchasing habits is required to address fashion’s environmental crisis. A crisis that is not defined by plastic pollution alone.
We must reassess and change our attitudes towards our clothing and reform the whole lifecycle of our garments. This means making differently, buying less and buying second hand. It also means owning for longer, repurposing, remaking and mending.
Fashion’s role in the plastic pollution problem has contributed to emotive headlines, in which purchasing plastic-fibred clothing has become highly moralised.
In buying plastic-fibred garments, consumers are framed complicit in poisoning the oceans and food supply. These limited discourses shift accountability onto the consumer to “buy natural”. However, they do little to equally challenge the environmental and social ills of these natural fibres and the retailers’ responsibilities to them.
The increased availability of these “natural” fashion products therefore fails to fundamentally challenge the industry’s most polluting logic – fast, continual consumption and speedy routine discard. This only entrenches a purchasable, commodified form of environmental action – “buying natural”. It stops the more fundamental reassessment of fast fashion’s “business as usual”, that we must slow.
Authors: PhD Researcher in economic geography, University of Nottingham.
PhD researcher in the Geography and Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, University of Nottingham and