HOW TO REDUCE A CARBON FOOTPRINT
The critical impact our obsession with stuff is having on the planet
Table of Contents
THE CARBON FOOTPRINT OF FAST FASHION
If you were to wander into Ghana’s capital, Accra, today – a looming mountain would appear in the distance, flanking the city. Rising up from dust, it may appear monumental or fantastical – a chunk of landscape standing proud above the city. But, as you move closer, the mountain would take its shape; layer upon layer of rotting textiles would appear; M&S and H&M blouses sticking out their label-tongues would gasp from suffocation; cows would attempt to graze, whilst the air would be thick with smoke from burning outfits. Upon the haze clearing, you would see this landmark for what it is: a putrid peak of discarded clothing, formed from the tectonic shifts of overconsumption.
Mountains do not form without movement. This particular movement, fast fashion, accounts for 10% of global pollution; and, if nothing changes, by 2050 will be responsible for over a quarter of the globe’s carbon footprint. These statistics are astounding when we consider how fast fashion is still relentlessly marketed and consumed.
It is ‘the norm’ for influencers to perpetually be promoting new clothing lines, unpacking vast bags of clothing, and to never be seen in the same outfit twice. This persistent marketing makes us feel as if we too must always be in a new outfit, changing our wardrobes, and keeping up with the incessant current of trends. Rather than supporting us to reduce a carbon footprint, these promotions encourage us to consume more.
Whereas fashion houses used to have perhaps two seasons a year, brands nowadays have up to 52 ‘micro-seasons’ a year. But where are these clothes coming from? Cheaply made, and draining the earth’s resources, these clothes are poor quality (making them harder to repair and more likely to be thrown away), inexpensive (if a bikini only costs £1 – how much are the garment-workers being paid?) and made by people (85% garment workers are women) in the Global South who in most cases do not receive a fair living wage or acceptable working conditions. Violence and exploitation in these industries is still rife. So, whilst Boohoo and PLT adorn their t-shirts and litter their campaigns with platitudes from ‘girl boss’ to ‘women power’, the women making their clothes do not make enough money to live off and are often at the receiving end of all manner of abuse.
While it may seem that fast fashion companies are trying to improve (such as PLT’s recent launch of a second-hand marketplace for PLT items), often these initiatives are simply just greenwashing us – providing us with seemingly sustainable ideas about reducing a carbon footprint, so that whilst our heads are turned, their unethical practices can carry on unnoticed and unchecked.
Once we receive these clothing items, packaged in their plastic, we often wear them once or twice before discarding into landfill (around 300-350,000 tonnes of clothing go to landfill each year, that’s £140 million worth). Natural materials such as linen and cotton cannot break down properly in landfill conditions, but when they do start to decompose, they release huge amounts of methane. Synthetic materials will take hundreds of years to break down. (This is why we choose to usual natural materials such as linen in our products wherever possible)
SOMEONE ELSE'S WASTE
To try and combat this waste crisis, and reduce our carbon footprint, many of us will take our clothes to charity shops. This is important and helpful; many social causes rely on these shops for their funding. However, not all of our clothes will end up hanging from these rails; in fact, many (the figures say around 40% but this could be more) are shipped abroad.
This is where we may end up in Kantamanto Market, Accra, where we met at the beginning. This market is overflowing with our cast-off clothing; tidal waves of H&M skirts and Zara tops swell this web of streets. These garments are known as ‘Obroni Wa’wu’: dead white men’s clothes. Here, huge bundles of clothing arrive every day, bound tightly in orange plastic. Local traders buy these packages ‘sight unseen’ before they are sold at incredibly low prices by salespeople in the market. However, because they have no idea what is inside these bundles, and the quality of clothing is so poor nowadays, the local people are losing money. Often, the garments are ripped, stained, soiled; it is not worth the skilled tailors who work in the market to fix them because it will cost more to repair than they will get from selling. On top of this, the oppressive weight of old clothes is putting the local textile industries out of business.
At the end of the day, any clothes that are not worth selling, or could not be sold, are left in the streets for huge lorries to pick up and deposit on to the growing mountain bordering the city. Those clothes that are left end up washing into the waterways with monsoon rain, strangling the drainage system and causing flooding (which in turn causes public health disasters). These matted twists of clothing then swirl into the sea and form monstrous limbs that choke aquatic life. When they wash to shore, they tangle together and form deep-rooted anchors in the sand that are near impossible to rip out: coined ‘tentacles’
There is cruel irony here. Materials that are produced in Eastern Africa, sewn into clothes in places such as India and Bangladesh before being sent to Europe, The United States and Australia, will end up back in the originating countries, polluting the natural environment and destroying local economies. There is a feeling of ‘out of sight out of mind here’; we think that when we discard an item it disappears; but it certainly isn’t out of sight or mind for the people living behind the clothing mountain of Accra.
Whilst local talented and skilled creatives are coming up with innovative ways to redirect unwanted clothing from landfill – and the work of the OR foundation is having a brilliant impact – the question remains, why are these countries having to deal with our overconsumption problem in the first place?
This issue is captured with subdued anger by Paolo Woods, who photographed local people living in Port au Prince. Here, huge numbers of discarded fast fashion arrive each year, putting local skilled tailors out of work and resulting in low quality, ridiculously sloganed t-shirts becoming the everyday attire of the community. To view these photos, click here.
Fast fashion’s carbon footprint is monumental; the energy and water it takes to make these new garments, the pollution from the creation and transportation process, the huge numbers entering landfill releasing methane, the clothes clogging our oceans and beaches, the microplastics being shed – without even considering the impact the industry has on humans and on animals.
THE CARBON FOOTPRINT OF HOMEWARE
Fast fashion is not alone; there is a growing, related industry emerging: fast homeware/interiors. During the pandemic, when we were all spending so much more time within our own four walls, companies profited from our claustrophobia by introducing their own homeware lines (Misguided, Boohoo and PLT all formed their own homeware sections in 2020/2021). Similarly to clothing, influencers are now showcasing homeware hauls, encouraging us to be constantly updating our living spaces and buying new items, rather than reducing our carbon footprint. Everything must be aesthetically perfect, and perpetually new. To combat this, here at Old Green we hope to encourage a lifelong love affair with the items in your home, creating products from recycled and repurposed materials which will last a lifetime, can be used in a multitude of ways, or can be reused.
The interiors industry has become inundated with products being shipped from distant factories and made from toxic and unsustainable materials. When the supply chains are this long and elusive, we end up feeling quite alienated from the items that end up in our hands.
Arguably, the largest consumer of fast homewares is generation rent; as it is so difficult to buy our own properties, so many of us move from one rented accommodation to the next. When we don’t own our own living spaces, it can feel hard to make them feel personal (when we are barred from painting walls for example). Portable pieces offered by fast homeware brands are an easy, accessible way to decorate our homes and make them feel like ‘ours’. However, this comes at a huge cost – to the environment, to the people making them, to the animals harmed in the process.
So many of our discarded homeware pieces will end up in landfill, lying alongside their clothing cousins; 391,000 non-clothing related textiles were chucked in landfill in 2017; every year in the UK almost 22 million small items of furniture are thrown away. Your average piece of furniture produces around 47 kilograms of CO2 (for sofas, that is 90). Our carbon footprint is exponentially growing as our thirst for newness becomes ever harder to satisfy.
DO I REALLY NEED THAT?
The truth is, the word ‘fast’ could be placed in front of anything these days: fast fashion, fast interiors, fast homeware, fast food. The stream of stuff is unrelenting; we want everything to be cheaper, arriving faster, loading more quickly. We are producing too much (a lot of brands overproduce by up to 40%), and we are consuming too much (we are buying 60% more clothing than 15 years ago).
The bare skeleton of consumerism is that these big corporations make us feel as if everything good about life is outside of us, that we must keep pounding this bonkers treadmill in order to keep chasing those external fragments of joy. But this is rubbish – I mean literally, and figurately, rubbish – we don’t need any of these things. When we keep attaching contentment and validation to that Boohoo dress, or that ornament from PLT, our happiness never arrives; it just becomes further and further out of grasp. Outsourcing our joy to tangible possessions makes us forget that peace, and contentment, can be found at any-time. They are already deep within us.
In a world that is obsessed with our reinvention, it is rebellious to choose another way. Our inboxes are engulfed with tips for new-year resolutions, make-up to change our faces, outfits to transform our bodies. Like a never-ending Dr Who, we must regenerate constantly.
But this is the myth of the new.
What if we are enough just as we are?
LITTLE BY LITTLE
These explosions of environmental information can often leave us feeling overwhelmed and paralysed – where do I begin? Can I even make a difference? What’s the point?
Knowledge should be liberating, not constraining. We live in an imperfect world; for many, shopping at fast fashion outlets such as Primark might be the only way to buy clothing for their families, charity-shop thrifting may be too time consuming/restrictive in terms of sizing, the loom of sustainable/ethical companies may feel too expensive or overwhelming.
When we feel numbed by fear, it can feel difficult to make any positive changes at all. Shopping more slowly, and reducing your carbon footprint, neither be pressurised or scary – it can feel empowering, exciting, inspiring. We really do have the power to make a difference; every time we spend our money somewhere, or choose to support a certain brand, we are voting for the sort of world we would like to see. Every little change counts. Therefore slow, steady changes in your shopping may lead to a more sustainable relationship with consuming.
When we shop mindfully, and are more connected to the supply-chain, we are likely to want to take better care of our items. For example, if we buy a piece of furniture made by a local carpenter, and we can see the hard-work and love put into it, we may be more likely to take good care of it, make it last, and keep it in our families for years to come. These pieces become story-capsules, and we when we become their guardians, we occupy a chapter in their story. When we slow down, love what we already own, and shop thoughtfully & compassionately (for animals, for people, for planet), we are reducing our carbon footprint, and nourishing ourselves too.
These are our motivations here at Old Green. We have a relationship with every step of the supply chain. From the candlewicks (natural, pure cotton & paper) to the candle-lids (designed by us and made in Somerset using organically dyed waste wood), to our matches (with wood sourced from sustainable aspen forests, with absolutely no toxins/sulphur dioxide emitted) to our repurposed glass (obtained from local pubs and bars)
– we source everything as locally, sustainably, naturally, and ethically as possible. Even our natural firelighters are made using the remnants of old OG candlewax stirred through with wood shavings – closing the loop within a kind economy.
Opposing the disingenuous nature of the ‘female boss’ rhetoric at places such as Boohoo, here at OG our small team of brilliant women really are empowered to work creatively, flexibly & in ways that support us and our needs.
And there is so much to celebrate! Rental sites are growing, ebay searches for eco-friendly & sustainable furniture pieces are increasing, second-hand clothing is gaining popularity.
We can be a part of the change.