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The environmental costs of creating clothes

From the pesticides poured on cotton fields to the washes in which denim is dunked, making 1kg of fabric generates 23kg of greenhouse gases on average, reckons McKinsey, a consultancy. Because consumers keep almost every type of apparel only half as long as they did 15 years ago, these inputs go to waste faster than ever before. More than half of the fastest-fashion items made are chucked away within a year of production. But such rampant retail therapy costs the earth.

Global clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014 as garment firms’ operations became more efficient, their production cycles sped up and shoppers got better bargains. Global clothing sales came to $1.8trn in 2015, according to Greenpeace, up from $1trn in 2002. Fast-fashion brands such as Zara, owned by Spain’s Inditex, now offer more than 20 lines a year; Sweden’s H&M manages up to 16. Making do and mending is out of fashion.

It is not just the volume of clothes that have changed; processes have too. Cheap materials, such as polyester, are cheaper than natural ones. So almost all apparel today is made of a mix of materials—very often including polyester. Recycling requires separating it out, and that is is difficult. For one thing mechanical methods of recycling degrade fibres. And chemical methods are too expensive to be commercially viable; few clothing companies bother to research them. Shipping second-hand clothes off to countries in Africa and Asia is also a bust. Even if local markets are large enough to absorb them, the poorer quality of polyester-mixed garbs means they do not last.

Most big fashion firms do not bother to measure environmental impacts. But a few, stung by the industry’s previous scandals, are taking pre-emptive action. H&M has eliminated toxic per- and polyfluorinated chemicals from its lines (which are used to make garments waterproof). It is also the company which buys the most “better cotton”—cotton grown under a scheme to eliminate the nastiest pesticides and encourage strict water management. Nike, an American sportswear giant, knits certain shoe lines, rather than piecing them together. This reduces waste by 60%. Patagonia, which makes hiking and outdoor gear, may have the most helpful idea, at least for its customers, if not for profits. It encourages shoppers to buy only what they need, and helps to mend older items so they last longer. Encouraging people to do more with fewer items of clothing would help the planet most quickly. Good business practice will never go out of style.