It’s summer, time to relax and enjoy the weather. Yet with anxieties about the environment at an all-time high, the heat serves as an unpleasant reminder of a climate on the brink of catastrophe. Greta Thunberg has told us it’s not too late to change our ways, though – so what are the facts and dangers, and what can we do this summer to help save the planet?
With festival and holiday season well underway, many of us feel compelled to update our wardrobes. Fashion brands undoubtedly feed into this mindset, too: ever-changing stock, summer sales, Missguided’s £1 bikini promotion. The clothes are tempting, the deals seem too good to be true… and that’s because they are.
The vast majority of fast fashion garments are made from polyester, which is petroleum-based. Huge amounts of fossil fuels are used in its production, and items made from it can take anywhere from 20-200 years to decompose. Tiny polyester fibres, which are shed when garments are washed or broken down, make their way into our waterways and are one of the biggest contributors to the microplastic crisis. Not only do these fibres end up in the water, they end up in the stomachs of fish, and our food chain.
Unfortunately, it is not just the use of synthetic materials which causes environmental problems. The huge scale production needed to keep up with excessive demand means clothes dyeing is now the second largest polluter of clean water in the world, being topped only by agriculture. Of course, this process extends to natural fibres, such as cotton and wool. Non-organic cotton takes up giant swathes of farmland, and demands dangerous chemicals: 0.3 pounds of pesticides are used in the production of every single t-shirt. Fossil fuels are emitted, too: producing a single pair of cotton-based denim jeans gives off the same amount of carbon dioxide as driving 78 miles.
It sounds disastrous, doesn’t it? The scale of the problem means it cannot be fixed overnight, and no single person can solve it. However, you don’t need to harm the environment to get a whole new wardrobe! There are plenty of things we can all do rather than buying into fast fashion culture:
- A large amount of a clothing piece’s environmental impact comes post-production: treat the clothes you already have with care. Wash and dry them less – realistically, most garments can be worn multiple times before needing to be cleaned. (When you do clean them, put on a cool, short wash: less power is used, and less fibres are shed).
- If you don’t wear something any more, donate it to a charity shop, sell it online (sites like Depop and eBay are great!), or pop it in a textile recycling bin (find your nearest one: https://www.recyclenow.com/what-to-do-with/clothing-textiles-0).
- Ultimately, try to avoid buying things you don’t really need. Think of each purchase as an investment, and shop second-hand wherever possible.
Of course, at some point you’re going to need new clothes. Look out for organic cotton, and materials coloured with natural dyes – manufacturers are generally keen to show when they’ve used something eco-friendly! Although generally pricier than high-street stores, there are plenty of sustainable fashion brands. Oxford graduate Grace Beverley recently launched Tala, an athleisure brand which makes its products from recycled materials (https://www.wearetala.com/). Designers like Stella McCartney and Ksenia Schnaider are championing sustainable fashion and new production methods. For guilt-free browsing, ASOS have just launched a “responsible” filter, allowing users to easily view all of the environmentally friendly pieces they carry.
Sadly, the environmental impact of summer doesn’t stop there. As soon as the sun comes out, we’re bombarded with advice about enjoying it safely. Applying sunscreen often comes top of the list, but it might be time to give your sun protection a little more consideration. There has been a recent trend for sunscreen to be marketed as “reef-safe”, however even products with this label can contain chemicals which are toxic to both sea life and humans.
You should try to avoid sunscreens containing oxybenzone and/or octinoxate, ingredients which have both been linked to coral reef damage. A recent NOAA study found that baby corals exposed to these ingredients suffered bleaching, DNA damage, and growth abnormalities. What’s more, these and other potentially harmful ingredients are known as ‘nanoparticles’, which means they are small enough to enter human cells, too – definitely not something you want to take home from your trip to the beach!
To minimise the effect your sun protection has on sea life and your own body, look for products which contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, as they are not nanoparticles and are much less harmful to things like coral. If it’s not too hot, covering up with loose clothes or just staying in the shade are also great solutions. While you should certainly protect your skin from harmful rays, it’s worth thinking about the impact of the products you buy, and whether you could invest your money in something that also keeps the planet’s ecosystems safe.
It’s unrealistic to demand that everyone instantly changes their whole lifestyle – much more achievable are conscious swaps to products that are better for both consumers and the planet. If you’re off to a festival, check your sunscreen ingredients and invest in biodegradable glitter. If you’re craving a shopping trip, take a bus or train and find some hidden gems in charity shops. Enjoy the beautiful weather, and appreciate everything the planet has to offer – just look after it at the same time.
– Amy Bond