Fast Fashion – Deep Blue Problem: How the Fashion Industry is Hurting Our Oceans

It’s official, in Australia we are obsessed with our beaches. In fact, with 85% of us living within 50km of the coast, heading to the beach is somewhat a national past-time. So it’s not surprising that when asked what environmental issue we cared most about, 36% of Aussies said “our oceans”, making it the number 1 national concern (Mobium, 2018). In fact a whopping nine in 10 of us support a global treaty to combat plastic pollution (Ipsos, 2022).

So I’m sure you’ve heard some of those scary stats. Like the one about how by 2050 our oceans will contain more plastic than fish (Ellen MacArthur Foundation). Or how the equivalent of a rubbish truck’s worth of plastic is dumped into our oceans every minute. And I’ll bet you do your part by sporting a re-usable tote, and carrying a refillable water bottle with you wherever you go.

 

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When it comes to plastic in our oceans, we’re more likely to lay the blame with the big corporates like Pepsi and Coca Cola than we are to wag our fingers at our favourite fashion brands. But many of us don’t realise that the clothes we choose to wear on our backs have a huge impact on the pollution that ends up in our beloved oceans.

But when you look at fashion’s impact on the marine world – from packaging to wastewater pollution, micro fibers and more – you’ll begin to see how fast fashion creates a big blue problem. With the theme of this year’s UN World Ocean’s Day (June 8) being Collective Action, it’s worth taking a look at some of the simple steps we can all take to limit our clothing’s impact on the ocean.

 

How Fast Fashion impacts our Oceans

As Martin Luther King once said, the best way to solve a problem is to start with its cause. When it comes to fashion, the impact on our oceans is not (always) as tangible as a plastic bottle or straw.

But let’s start with one problem we can all easily grasp: the industry’s obsession with cheap, plastic packaging. Think of the last time you bought online, in particular: I’ll bet your clothes came wrapped in a plastic polybag. And it’s not just the online brands that are at fault. Almost all high street chains ship their stock to store, or between stores, in polyester bags. In fact the industry is estimated to use approximately 180 million polybags each year.

 

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Single use plastic bags are like little floating nooses for marine life. Turtles mistake them for their favourite food, the jellyfish, and routinely choke on them. They accumulate in ocean currents called gyres, creating huge plastic blockades between sea life and the sunlight and fresh air they need to nourish them. The largest of these gyres is known colloquially as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s twice the size of Texas. That’s astonishingly large.

And at the other end of the size spectrum, let’s talk microfibers. All your clothing is made of fibers – sometimes wool, or cotton, sometimes polyester. But every-time your clothes are washed, or processed, or died, parts of these fibers break off, producing micro fibers which enter the ocean through wastewater flows.

 

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Researchers have proposed that a single load of laundry has the potential to release hundreds and thousands of microfibers and remnants of chemical dyes into the water supply (Resnick, 2018). Such fibres are so small, that neither your washing machine, nor your local water treatment plant, can catch them. It’s no wonder that there are reportedly more micro-plastics in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way.

So what’s the problem? Such itsy bitsy pieces of polyester fibre are surely too small for a turtle to choke on. Well, it has to do with the food chain. When fish ingest microplastic, and then get eaten by bigger fish, these plastics and toxins concentrate as they moves up the food chain, creating a potential impact on those of us who eat anything to come from the sea. If it doesn’t poison the fish further down the food chain first.

 

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Talking of chains, let’s head back up to the top of the supply chain. As a manufacturing heavy industry, the fashion industry is responsible for 20 percent of global waste water (producing more than half a trillion gallons of the stuff annually). Fashion’s ubiquitous dying and finishing processes put toxins into the waste water, which are discharged – often untreated- into the rivers and waterways flowing into the ocean. The type of toxin, and the level of treatment, depends where your clothes are manufactured, with many rivers in India and Bangladesh in particular now too toxic to support the settlements that surround them.

And the result of all this toxic outflow? Something likely flimsy and poorly made, designed to last a season at best, and certainly no longer. One of the primary issues with the fast fashion industry is the poor quality of clothing it produces, which leads to a (deliberately) limited lifespan and high rate of disposal. In fact, the average consumer throws away 70 pounds, or nearly 32kg, of garments per year (Freeman, 2020). Some 80% of the textiles found in the ocean is clothing, so clearly we’re not doing too great of a job of recycling, re-using or passing along last seasons “must have” looks!

 

Making Fashion not just Green, but Blue

Whilst fast fashion still makes up the bulk of clothing purchased each year, thankfully there are more and more options out there for conscious consumers looking to reduce the environmental impact of their wardrobe. When it comes to “ocean-friendly” fashion, there are a few key things to look for.

 

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With micro-fibers being a (largely) unavoidable by-product of wearing and washing our clothes, looking for fabrics made of more sustainable fibres is an obvious place to start. Whilst organic cotton is often held up as the gold standard, given it is grown without such a heavy reliance on fertilizers, it is very water intensive, and natural fibres are not a practical choice for all clothing, such as swimwear or sportswear. Thankfully, man-made fabrics have been getting an eco-makeover of late too. Lycocell is made from natural bamboo cellulose, making the fibres entirely recyclable, and there are many polyester yarns made out of recycled plastics or even recycled fishing nets these days, such as Repreve or Econyl.

Many such fibres as provide the working materials for a new breed of sustainable, and even “ocean-friendly” brands: independent labels that have built ocean sustainability into their core business model, right from how they produce their clothes, to how they package them, ship them, pay their workers and share their profits. Whilst you’ll always need to be alert to “greenwashing”, looking for brands that use a certified sustainable fabric, have an organic or other industry accreditation (e.g. GOTS), or who have shunned single use plastic packaging is a good place to start.

 

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Fast Fashion may have created its business model on trends that live and die fast, and clog up our landfills faster, but sustainably-minded shoppers should always adhere to the old adage, quality over quantity. If that top or dress looks suspiciously cheap, it’s only because the planet is paying the other half of the bill! Choosing just a few well-made, durable and ethically produced staples or statement pieces will always be better for the environment. Loving your clothes for longer, and making them last, is the best way to keep textiles out of our landfill and oceans. And voting with your wallet will help send a message to the fast fashion industry that sustainability matters!

In the same vein, shopping second hand or thrifted achieves a similar benefit. When you’ve finished with your clothes, consider donating them or taking them to your local textile recycling point to keep them out of landfill. Even if they can’t be re-worn, they can be repurposed or recycled for further usage in other ways.

 

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Lastly, be careful that all your good work doesn’t come out in the wash. To help your clothes last longer, always wash on a gentle cycle, using the lowest possible temperature, eco-friendly detergent and line dry rather than tumble drying. As for those micro-fibers, you may not be able to eliminate them all together, but you certainly can reduce how many of them flow into our oceans. There are now many microfiber capture filters and washing bags on the market than can help keep microfibers in your trash bin, rather than our waterways.

 

This UN World Ocean’s Day is themed Collective Action. Let’s hope that if more of us can commit to these few simple steps, we can save our oceans in style