Approximately 6,814 liters of fresh water is needed to grow the cotton to make just one pair of jeans – that is enough water for one person to drink for six years! A simple cotton T-shirt requires 2,700 liters of water – enough for a person to drink for two and half years. This does not even include the water needed during the dyeing and washing processes. Now think of how many pairs of jeans you own, and the number of T-shirts you have, then multiply that with the number of people in the world. Official research shows that the numbers are staggering, and it hopefully will succeed in making you feel a little light-headed. If not, then at least it will gear you into action to solve the problem, one shirt at a time.
The global textile industry uses an astounding five trillion liters of clean water each year. Although almost 97 percent of our planet is covered in water, only a miniscule amount of just 1 percent is accessible to us in the form of a usable water resource. To make matters worse, the textile production process is guilty of putting that mere one percent in danger as well. They are responsible for one-fifth of the world’s industrial wastewater production. And with Bangladesh being the second largest producer of ready-made garments, one can only imagine the danger to our delicate intertwined riverine system. If not monitored, factories can release a carcinogenic mélange of heavy metals and variouss salts that infiltrate our underground water reservoirs, poison our fish and even threaten our agricultural lands, and since we are at the top of the food chain, affect our own health.
A 2018 research by McKinsey exposed that the global textile sector released 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse-gases, which was more than the emissions of Germany, France and UK combined! In addition, with the introduction of nylon and other plastic-based fibers, (the carbon footprint from nylon and polyester is a lot more than cotton) a whopping 342 million barrels of oil are needed every year and increasing steadily as the need for fast fashion and our demands sky rocket. (CFDA, 2017).
Of course, companies such as Walmart, H&M, among many others love the low costs of production due to cheap labor in developing countries, and this has had far reaching consequences from excessive cost-cutting. It makes sense for these clothing goliaths to reduce costs at all corners – you, me, your friends and family, all love cheap clothing. We don’t have to look far for decrepit labor conditions such as the use of risky building sites and materials to maximize profits. Such excessive greed from both the companies and consumers alike, set the foundation for the deaths of 1,132 workers during the Rana Plaza disaster, lest we forget.
So, who do we blame for the exponentially growing environmental and social impacts? just the emperor looking for new clothes, but also the fast fashion companies. Fast fashion is a way of bringing clothes from concept through design, manufacturing, and supply to all corners of the globe, in an exorbitantly short period of time. It makes the clothing items cheap to make, and almost as easy to dispose of as well, due to the low quality. This attests to the fact that our bottomless hunger for change of clothes every season and need of assortment is voraciously fed by fast chain retailers across the world in a vicious and endless cycle. (Just count the number of clothing stores you see in any city around the world or the number of items you have in your closet!)
Fashion moguls such as Zara and H&M, to name a few, constantly “borrow” ideas from the fashion runway and high-end designers and send them off to low-income countries to produce en masse. How else does one get a T-shirt for 200 Taka on the streets or a Zara shoe that looks eerily similar to Adidas Yeezy for less than one-tenth the cost? These clothing items are basically designs ripped-off from the runway and higher-end luxury fashion houses and these fast fashion companies make them available extremely quickly, sometimes in a month’s time. We end up looking expensive, for less, much to the dismay of fashion houses and The Kardashians.
It would be interesting to note what the big data of apparel buying trends of middle-class Bangladeshis are. Anecdotally, my grandmother (for that matter perhaps all grandmothers) used to only give two pairs of tailored new clothes per year to her children, one during each of the Eid holidays and. What we get now are extremely cheap clothes (and cheap quality if you look closely), easy access through on-line retailers and what our wise mothers may call excessive chokher khida or hunger perpetrated by our eyes as opposed to actual need of a clothing item. Just think about this: the average American buys around 68 new articles of clothing per year, within which 80 percent are barely worn and translates into 0.48 trillion USD of clothing being disposed (The New Yorker, 2018). With Global Population inching towards 8 billion, increasing GDP, the Wall Street Journal reported that if our consumption habits do not become greener, the population will buy 63 % more clothing than today to 102 million tons in just ten years. The developing world buys clothes from the rich countries in bulk and these items, almost 80 percent, find their way into dumping grounds in Africa only to be incinerated to release carbon dioxide and other dangerous greenhouse gases. If not burned, then these items end up choking our rivers and oceans, and those made of synthetic microfibers end up in our foods and shockingly possibly even in rain water.
Many may argue, and truthfully, that fast fashion has helped propel our own economy forward; Bangladesh is currently the second largest exporter of garments in the world. But we must be very careful with how much these economic numbers dictate our push towards a middle-income country status while creating an environmental disaster at home and abroad. Thus, the order of solving this challenge remains a monumental task for both developing countries and the western powerhouses. Zara and H&M have pledged to become more ‘sustainable’ but an agenda to reduce the manufacturing of clothes is nowhere to be found in their plans. So, unless our consumption patterns change, the companies will not change. At the end of the day, the onus falls on us, the consumers to change – which begins at our homes. Do we really need all those pairs of jeans? The endless array of sharis that remain to see the light of day, or those ten dress shirts we haven’t worn in past year and a half, since the pandemic started. We truly are a spitting image of the Emperor with New Clothes where we are too afraid to take action regarding the elephant in the room. In the end, all our clothes will end up in a landfill, with the rest of our greed and desires, and if we aren’t careful, the ailing planet will be forced to throw us in there as well.
Shams-il Arefin Islam is an Associate fellow at the prestigious Yale-Berkeley College, and a former Global Scholars Fellow at Yale University. At Yale, he researched various sustainability initiatives, product life cycle analysis and taught seminars on climate change. In Bangladesh he was also a Senior Research Officer for a waste to resource firm, Waste Concern, researching on waste water.