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Fashionably Irresponsible: The Impact of Fashion Trends on Global Ecosystems
While the price on the tag may be low, the price we pay in environmental damage remains impossibly high
09 July, 2021

Fast fashion: quick, affordable and constantly changing. Fast fashion is defined by the University of Queensland, Australia as “cheaply produced and priced garments that copy the latest catwalk styles and get pumped quickly through stores in order to maximise on current trends.” The fashion industry moves huge volumes of these products every day using mass appeal and easy availability. While the price on the tag may be low, the price we pay in environmental damage remains impossibly high. High water consumption, carbon emissions and plastic nanoparticles are all pressing concerns for our eco-oriented world. However, new research in biochemistry is starting to iron out the environmental issues associated with buying a cheap shirt.

This kind of fashion considerably adds to the average person’s waste production, as the University of Queensland further states that “the average UK shopper only wears 70 percent of what’s in their wardrobe and throws out 70 kilograms of textile waste annually.” Furthermore, cheap materials, mass production, and quick turnover rates of the product itself generate about 20% of all global emission and release over 500,000 tonnes of microplastics into the oceans every year, as per the UN Environment Programme Report. Microplastics are notoriously difficult to detect, and often bioaccumulate in the marine ecosystems, which eventually leads to us ingesting these particles. To make matters worse, these plastics often act as “sponges” for other water pollutants, and release their own toxins into whatever system they enter.

New research has emerged in 2020 in an attempt to remedy the issue of pollution in the textiles/fashion industry. A new method for producing textiles has been derived from kombucha, which promises to be eco-friendly. This new material and its manufacturing process takes advantage of the bacteria found in kombucha, which produce bacteria-derived cellulose. The cellulose is then introduced to glycerol and stearic acid, which forms the final product: coated hydrogel bacterial cellulose (cHGBC). This material, made entirely from biodegradable components, is highly durable and elastic, and is suitable to use in a sewing machine. Additionally, the fabric that was formed from this material is flame retardant, which expands its potential use for high-temperature applications. This new material is a potentially perfect candidate for a mass production application such as fast fashion. Furthermore, the manufacturing process itself is ready for scaling to industry production levels, as it utilises many fermentation technologies already available today. Cheap, eco-friendly, plastic free: a seemingly perfect solution for fast fashion.

Although this cellulose-based fabric can eliminate traditional fabrics in clothing, leather garments such as boots and accessories still remain a problem. Leather production, although fully biodegradable, poses a problem through its emissions. Overall, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation determined that livestock accounts for 14.5% of global emissions per annum. Research by Mogas-Soldevila et al. published in May of 2021 researched the potential of 3D printing leather-like silk as an alternative to leather. Silkworms produce the necessary protein for this material. Through the addition of acetic acid (vinegar), sodium alginate (produced by algae), and chitosan (a byproduct of shellfish), a composite silk material is formed. This material is able to be extruded as a polymer, and is thus perfectly suitable for 3D printing. In addition, 3D printing results in less material wasted per item, as it allows for tight control of material use and precision in manufacturing. As a final touch, the technology is already scalable to industrial volumes, and may in fact result to be cheaper than traditionally sourced leather.

As can be seen, fast fashion has a clear issue with sustainability. However, the recent advancements in sustainable textiles is a clear demonstration of the work we must do to transition to a sustainable model for clothing. The elimination of cattle farming for leather and the use of toxic polymers in favour of biodegradable and clean synthetic materials will further help contribute to lowering emissions. The next time someone goes to buy a new shirt, they can hope they will not be able to get one that further destroys nature and our precious ecosystems.

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