Fast Fashion reliance on fossil fuels is eating up global carbon budgets and polluting our water

It turns out that recycling all those plastic water bottles into fleece isn’t enough to solve the problems of “fast fashion”.  An eye-opening report released on February 3 documents the scope of the environmental damages caused by the global fashion industry, and makes recommendations for government regulation and consumer action.

Fossil Fashion: The hidden reliance of fast fashion on fossil fuels lays out the scale of the problem:

“The global fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Research from the European Environment Agency has highlighted that textiles are the fourth largest cause of environmental pressure after food, housing and transport. The fashion industry is responsible for a significant share of global water pollution, consumes more energy than shipping and aviation combined, and by 2050 is anticipated to be responsible for 25% of the world’s remaining carbon budget. Furthermore, our clothes release half a million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles.”….. “Without prompt and radical legislative action and a considerable slowdown, fast fashion’s quest for cheap clothing will create untenable volumes of waste and toxic microfibres, and emit more carbon than the planet can handle.”

 

The report provides detail statistics related to production, recycling, and the environmental and pollution impacts, summarized by this overview:    “Production of polyester has grown ninefold in the past 50 years, and the fibre has been widely adopted in the fashion industry as a low-cost material that allows brands to churn out a never-ending variety of cheap items ….Polyester is cheap, costing half as much per kilo as cotton, and has cemented itself as the backbone of today’s throwaway fashion model. The trends speak for themselves, with the average consumer buying 60% more clothing compared to 15 years ago, yet wearing each item of clothing half as long. Polyester’s flexibility as a material has seen it creeping into other materials too, with blends such as cotton and polyester increasingly being used, creating another set of problems when it comes to waste management. ….Recycling will not solve fast fashion’s problems, nor will it curb the exponential growth in the use of synthetic fibres. Currently, less than 1% of clothes are recycled to make new clothes, and the share of recycled polyester is declining; while it accounted for 14% in 2019, this will in fact decrease to 7.9% of overall polyester production by 2030. Furthermore, virtually all recycled polyester in clothing comes not from recycled garments, but from recycled plastic bottles.”  …. Recycling also does nothing to solve a problem both microscopic and enormous: microfibres. These tiny fragments of plastic shed from our clothes when we wash them, wear them or throw them out, and leak into our bodies and the natural world. Microfibres are found throughout ocean ecosystems, with a recent study discovering that 73% of microfibre pollution in formerly pristine Arctic waters is from synthetic fibres that could be coming from textiles. Graver still, microplastics have even been found in the placentas of unborn babies, affecting the human body in ways that are not yet fully understood.”

The main recommendations in this report deal with environmental/sustainability/pollution regulation in the EU – coinciding with January 2021 EU consultations for a strategy “Roadmap” to “shift to a climate-neutral, circular economy where products are designed to be more durable, reusable, repairable, recyclable and energy-efficient” in the Covid-19 recovery.  Canada, like the EU, is mainly an importer of fast fashion, so the relevant recommendations from Fossil Fashion are those for the consumer. Relying on individual action and purchasing power, they call for people to stop compulsive shopping and buy only from brands which have made a clear and transparent commitment to sustainably sourced supply chains.  The report also calls for consumers to join in “raising awareness of the issues surrounding fast fashion, and use their voices to highlight issues such as greenwashing, exploitative practices, environmental harm and unsustainable consumption.”

Fossil Fashion was published by the Changing Markets Foundation, whose focus is  the environmental impacts of  the fashion industry. In November 2020, they also published Dirty Fashion: Crunch Time, which updates their 2018 campaign to evaluate and rank individual fashion brands.  Another advocacy group, the Clean Clothes Campaign,  collaborates with Changing Markets and focuses on human rights and working conditions in the global fashion industry. Their latest report was released in January 2021, with a focus on the EU:   Fashioning Justice: A call for mandatory and comprehensive human rights due diligence in the garment industry .

How “clean” are clean energy and electric vehicles?

Several articles and reports published recently have re-visited the question: how “clean” is “clean energy”?  Here is a selection, beginning in October 2020 with a multi-part series titled Recycling Clean Energy Technologies , from the Union of Concerned Scientists. It includes: “Wind Turbine blades don’t have to end up in landfill”; “Cracking the code on recycling energy storage batteries“; and “Solar Panel Recycling: Let’s Make It Happen” .

The glaring problem with Canada’s solar sector and how to fix it” (National Observer, Nov. 2020) states that “While solar is heralded as a clean, green source of renewable energy, this is only true if the panels are manufactured sustainably and can be recycled and kept out of landfills.” Yet right now, Canada has no capacity to recycle the 350 tonnes of solar pv waste produced in 2016 alone, let alone the 650,000 tonnes Canada is expected to produce by 2050. The author points the finger of responsibility at Canadian provinces and territories, which are responsible for waste management and extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations. A description of solar recycling and waste management systems in Europe and the U.S. points to better practices.  

No ‘green halo’ for renewables: First Solar, Veolia, others tackle wind and solar environmental impacts” appeared in Utility Drive (Dec. 14)  as a “long read” discussion of progress to uphold environmental and health and safety standards in both the  production and disposal of solar panels and wind turbine blades. The article points to examples of industry standards and third-party certification of consumer goods, such as The Green Electronics Council (GEC) and NSF International. The article also quotes experts such as University of California professor Dustin Mulvaney, author of Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice (2019) and numerous other articles which have tracked the environmental impact, and labour standards, of the solar energy industry.

Regarding the recycling of wind turbine blades:  A press release on December 8 2020 describes a new agreement between  GE Renewable Energy and Veolia, whereby Veolia will recycle blades removed from its U.S.-based onshore wind turbines by shredding them at a processing facility in Missouri, so that they can be used as a replacement for coal, sand and clay in cement manufacturing.  A broader article appeared in Grist, “Today’s wind turbine blades could become tomorrow’s bridges” (Jan. 8 2021) which notes the GE- Veoli initiative and describes other emerging and creative ways to deal with blade waste, such as the Re-Wind project. Re-Wind is a partnership involving universities in the U.S., Ireland, and Northern Ireland who are engineering ways to repurpose the blades for electrical transmission towers, bridges, and more.  The article also quotes a senior wind technology engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S. who is experimenting with production materials to find more recyclable materials from which to build wind turbine blades in the first place. He states: “Today, recyclability is something that is near the top of the list of concerns” for wind energy companies and blade manufacturers alike …. All of these companies are saying, ‘We need to change what we’re doing, number one because it’s the right thing to do, number two because regulations might be coming down the road. Number three, because we’re a green industry and we want to remain a green industry.’”

These are concerns also top of mind regarding the electric vehicle industry, where both production and recycling of batteries can be detrimental to the planet.  The Battery Paradox: How the electric vehicle boom is draining communities and the planet is a December 2020 report by the Dutch Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO). It reviews the social and environmental impacts of the whole battery value chain, (mining, production, and recycling) and the mining of key minerals used in Lithium-ion batteries (lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite and manganese).  The report concludes that standardization of battery cells, modules and packs would increase recycling rates and efficiency, but ultimately,  “To relieve the pressure on the planet, …. any energy transition strategy should prioritize reducing demand for batteries and cars… Strategies proposed include ride-sharing, car-sharing and smaller vehicles.”

Plastics in a circular economy: Canadian and global updates

In Oslo on October 23, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the UN Environment Programme  published the first annual Progress Report on the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment .  Part 1 provides a high-level overview of the Global Commitment and its achievements; Part 2 profiles of the programs reported by some of the 400 businesses, organizations and governments which have signed on to the Global Commitment since it launched in 2018. An overview of the Global Commitment, including a list of all participants, is here .  The Progress Report states that  the aim of  the Global Commitment is to: “eliminate the plastic items we don’t need; innovate so all plastics we do need are designed to be safely reused, recycled, or composted; and circulate everything we use to keep it in the economy and out of the environment.” This first progress report sets a benchmark against which progress can be measured, and clearly calls for an increase in the ambition level, particularly to go beyond recycling, to encourage elimination and reuse.   The Press release and summary is here .

Recent actions to reduce Plastic waste in Canada:

The Canadian government is not a signatory to the Global Commitment, although at least one Canadian organization, Sustainable Prosperity Institute at the University of Ottawa, is a signatory, and  the global  Progress Report  provide other examples of  initiatives by Canadian businesses and the provincial government of British Columbia.

Plastic waste is a high-profile policy issue for Canadians, though nearly 90% of plastic waste in Canada is not recycled, according to the  Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Market and Waste,  commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada and released in June 2019.

plastic water bottles In October 2019, Greenpeace Canada conducted an audit of 13,822 pieces of plastic waste collected in volunteer shoreline clean-ups and  identified the top five plastic polluters  in Canada as Nestlé, Tim Hortons, Starbucks, McDonalds and Coca-Cola. CBC summarized the findings and the wider issue of plastic pollution in “Nestlé, Tim Hortons named Canada’s top plastic polluters again”.

Recent Actions on Plastic Waste:

On October 31, the government of Nova Scotia passed Bill 152, the Plastic Bags Reduction Act , which also addresses other single-use plastics.  This follows plastic bag bans by Prince Edward Island and some municipalities.

The government of British Columbia issued a  Plastics Action Plan Consultation Paper which discussed four options for regulatory amendments, including single-use bans and extended producer responsibility. The  consultation process was extended to September 30, with amendments to the regulations promised by the end of 2019.

In Ontario, where waste management has played an outsized role in the Conservative government’s Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan , an August 2019 government press release announced next steps for recycling and plastic waste management.  The government had appointed a Special Advisor on Recycling and Plastic Waste, who released recommendations in his report Renewing the Blue Box: Final report on the blue box mediation process . The report calls for a transfer of responsibility for the consumer stream Blue Box program to a new producer responsibility system across the province by December 31, 2025. These concluding remarks typify the business approach of the exercise:

 “Investment in research and innovation to create the jobs from the recycled materials should be an interministerial responsibility. Garbage and recycling are not just an environmental issue – they are also economic opportunities…. … More than 99 percent of the plastics collected by the city of Toronto are sold to recyclers right here in Ontario, going to facilities in Shelbourne, Sarnia, and Toronto. Steel and glass collected by Toronto’s recycling programs are processed in Hamilton and Guelph, respectively. This is a prime example of recycling creating jobs and adding value to Ontario’s economy.”

Earlier actions:

The federal-provincial body, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME), approved the Phase 1 statement of  a Canada-Wide Action Plan on Zero Plastic Waste in June 2019.  Phase 1 focuses on product design, single-use plastics, collection systems, recycling capacity and domestic markets. The Council promises to release Phase 2 of the Action Plan in 2020, focusing on preventing plastic pollution in oceans, inland lakes and waterways, advancing science to monitor the impacts of plastics pollution within the environment, consumer awareness, clean-up and global action.

Also in June 2019,  the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development released The Last Straw: Turning the Tide on Plastic Pollution in Canada,  the result of a consultation  which received nine briefs and testimony from 41 witnesses (some of which were environmental groups, and none of which were labour unions). The Last Straw made  21 recommendations , calling on the federal government to take the lead on developing standards for plastic products made or sold in Canada, as well as on  a national model recycling system and an extended producer responsibility framework for plastics.  Other recommendations:  Canada should establish a more ambitious goal of reaching zero plastic waste by 2030;  commit to banning harmful single-use plastic products – specifically  straws, bags, cutlery, cups, cigarette filters and polystyrene packaging.

CUPE LOGOAt the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)  National Convention in Montreal in October, one of the environmental resolutions approved by delegates was a call for a ban on single-use plastics , according to Notes from the Floor . (Online access to the Resolutions is restricted to CUPE members) .

CUPW logos joint-statement_enIn April 2019, the Association of Postal Officials of Canada, the Canadian Postmasters and Assistants Association, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, and the Union of Postal Communications Employees  reached a formal agreement   with Canada Post to collaborate to reduce Canada Post’s environmental footprint. The initial focus of activities will be towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, waste and single-use disposable plastics from Canada Post operations. In early 2020, the parties will publish an action plan for 2020-2022 , with agreed- upon targets for 2020-2030.

Canada’s  Circular Economy Leadership Council published a Policy Brief in the winter 2019  – with recommendations for government action. The Council includes advocacy groups such as IISD and the National Zero Waste Council, as well as corporations including Unilever, Walmart, Canadian Tire, and IKEA.

vision for plasticsIn February 2019, the Sustainable Prosperity Institute released A Vision for a Circular Economy for Plastics in Canada: The Benefits of Plastics Without the Waste and How We Get it Right.

Amnesty International campaign calls for better mining, manufacture, and disposal of electric vehicle batteries

golf electricWhile the Nordic EV Summit   in March 2019 showcased progress on the adoption of electric vehicles, Amnesty International used that backdrop to  issue a challenge to leaders in the electric vehicle industry –  to produce the world’s first completely ethical battery, free of human rights abuses within its supply chain, within five years.

It is not news that the mining of  cobalt and lithium, the two key minerals in batteries, has been linked to human rights abuses, environmental pollution, ecosystem destruction and indigenous rights violations.   Amnesty was amongst the first to document the child labour and human rights abuses with a report This is what we die for   in 2016,  updated in  2017 by an article,  “The Dark Side of Electric Cars: Exploitative Labor Practices”.  More recently, “Indigenous people’s livelihoods at risk in scramble for lithium, the new white goldappeared in The Ethical Corporation  (April 9), describing the human rights situation in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, which hold 60% of the world’s lithium reserves. The environmental impacts of deep-sea mining are also of concern.

In addition to the mining of raw materials, battery manufacturing has a high carbon footprint, with most of the current manufacturing concentrated in China, South Korea and Japan, where electricity generation remains dependent on coal and other polluting sources of power.

Finally, the issue of electronic waste, including batteries, has been the subject of several  reports:  From  the International Labour Organization :  in 2012,  Global Impact of E-waste: Addressing the Challenge and more recently,  Decent work in the management of electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) , an Issues paper produced for a Global Dialogue Forum on Decent Work in the Management of Electrical and Electronic Waste in April 2019.  The 2019  report provides estimates of the workforce involved in some countries – led by China, with an estimated 690,000 workers in 2007, followed by up to 100,000 in Nigeria , followed by 60,000 in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  The report deals mainly with occupational health and safety issues and includes an overview of international  e-waste regulation, as well as case studies of  the U.S., Argentina, China, India, Japan, Nigeria.  Similar discussions appear in  A New Circular Vision for Electronics Time for a Global Reboot , released by the E-waste Coalition at the 2019 World Economic Forum, and in a blog, Dead Batteries deserve a Second Life published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development on April 9.evcobalt-lithium-V2_1-supply-chain

Clearly, there are labour and environmental problems related to lithium-ion batteries and the green vehicles and electronic devices they power.  Recognizing  all these concerns, the new Amnesty International campaign is calling for:  improvement in human rights practices in mining, and  a prohibition on commercial deep-sea mining; disclosure and accounting for carbon in manufacturing, and for legal protection and enforcement of workplace rights such as health, equality and non-discrimination; finally for products to be designed and regulated to encourage re-use and penalize waste, with prevention of  illegal or dangerous export and dumping of batteries.

Business looks at climate change: Davos publications include auto manufacturing, electronic waste

The overall theme of the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos Switzerland in 2019 was the 4th Industrial Revolution. Climate change issues were top of mind in discussions, as the annual  Global Risks Report for 2019  had ranked the top global risks to the world as  extreme weather and climate-change policy failures.  Discussions, speeches, blogs and reports are compiled on the themes of The Future of the Environment and Natural Resource Security and Climate Change   .  Highlights include : “6 things we learned about the Environment at Davos” , an overview which highlights Japan’s pledge to  use its G20 Presidency to reduce plastic ocean pollution; the launch of a new organization called Voice for the Planet  to showcase the youth climate activist movement: and  a pledge by 10 global companies have to take back the electronic waste from their products.  Also of interest, the speech by Greta Thunberg, who is at the centre of the new youth climate activism – “Our House is on Fire” ; and “Why income inequality is bad for the climate”,  a blog by the President of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation.

WEF Reports of interest: Improving Traceability in Food Value Chains through Technology Innovations, which offers technology as a means to make the current industrial food system safer (and possibly more sustainable).   Shaping the Sustainability of Production Systems: Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies for competitiveness and sustainable growth  discusses the coming world of manufacturing, focussing on the electronics and automotive industries of  Andhra Pradesh, India and the automotive industry in Michigan U.S.A., including a discussion of Cobotics 2.0 (collaborative robots) , Metal 3D printing, and “augmented workforce”.

new circular vision for electronics - 2019 reportThe circular economy was also discussed, with a spotlight on electronic waste, which is estimated at 50 million tonnes of produced each year currently.   A New Circular Vision for Electronics Time for a Global Reboot  was released by the E-waste Coalition, which includes  the International Telecommunication Union (a UN organization), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and others.  The report, summarized here,  is an overview of  e-waste production and recycling, and includes a brief discussion of labour conditions, calling for upgrading and formalization of the recycling industry as a “major opportunity”. It states:  “the total number of people working informally in the global e-waste sector is unknown. However, as an indication, according to the ILO in Nigeria up 100,000 people are thought to be working in the informal e-waste sector, while in China that number is thought to be 690,000.” As for the dangers… “using basic recycling techniques to burn the plastic from electronic goods leaving the valuable metals (melting down lead in open pots, or dissolving circuit boards in acid) lead to adult and child workers, as well as their families, exposed to many toxic substances. In many countries, women and children make up to 30% of the workforce in informal, crude e-waste processing and are therefore particularly vulnerable.”  According to the report, the International Labour Organization is scheduled to release a new report in March 2019, to be titled  Decent work in the management of electrical and electronic waste.