Marine Life and the Fashion Industry: What’s the connection? And how can we help?

Onesta Journal

Marine Life and the Fashion Industry: What’s the connection? And how can we help?

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Water covers 71% of our planet and is home to over two hundred thousand marine species (that have been discovered so far). The ocean produces half of the worlds oxygen and helps to regulate our climate and weather patterns. Around 3 billion people in the world rely on wild-caught or farmed seafood for their main source of protein. Marine environments and marine life are amazing! They are also one of the most important resources this planet has.

So how does the fashion industry affect marine life?


Oil Spillages

Most common fabrics used in the fast fashion industry are made from petroleum, a non-renewable fossil fuel. Polyester, for example, is the world’s most commonly used fibre, making up more than

65% of fibres used in the textile industry. Polyester is made from coal, petroleum, air and water; the petroleum part is taken from crude oil. Similarly, nylon is a fibre also derived from crude oil, which is then put through a chemical process to create the stretchy fibres that make it a fabric. In 2015 alone more than 330 million barrels of oil were used to make polyester, nylon, and other fibres. That’s enough to fill more than 21,000 Olympic swimming pools! This usage of oil contributes to the devastating effects of oil spills throughout our oceans. Spills happen all the time, and they can happen anywhere oil is drilled, transported or used. These spillages cause harm wherever they happen, or however big they are. Young sea turtles can get trapped in oil or mistake it for food, dolphins and whales can inhale it, affecting their lungs, immune function and even reproduction. Spills massively degrade the oceans' ecosystems and can ultimately condemn the wildlife who are dependent on these ecosystems.

Toxic waste

Did you know that the fashion industry is responsible for up to one fifth of industrial water pollution? In China alone, it’s estimated that 70% of the rivers and lakes are contaminated by untreated toxic wastewater produced by textiles. Textile dyeing is the biggest cause; dyeing clothes to get the most vivid colours requires a huge amount of water and chemicals which ultimately end up being dumped in nearby rivers and lakes. A total of 72 toxic chemicals including lead, mercury and arsenic were identified in China’s water have come from textile dyeing, and 30% of those chemicals can’t be removed from the waterways. This turns the water a horrible and unnatural black colour, some of these coloured waters becoming the combined size of 50 Olympic swimming pools. These chemicals are extremely deadly and harmful to aquatic life, with some chemicals accumulating to the point that light is blocked out, this can be known as an ocean dead zone.

Ocean Dead Zones

An ocean dead zone is an area that has extremely low oxygen or sunlight, which leads to the animal and marine life suffocating to death or for those that survive, they end up permanently leaving the area. These dead zones are caused by excessive pollution from human activity causing organisms like algae to grow and block out sunlight or use up most of the oxygen when they decompose. There have been over 400 dead zones recorded in the past decade, which has almost doubled each decade since the 1960s. But how does this connect to fashion?

The vast majority of fibres that are used to create clothes are produced quickly and in large quantities, being treated with human pesticides and toxic chemicals. These chemicals are washed off the fields into our waterways, or the chemicals seep into the soil and into other crops.

It doesn’t stop there... when the fibres are woven and dyed a very high amount of water is used with a load of different chemicals. Due to the need for quick production, factories do not have the resources to effectively manage the waste that is created so again it ends up in our waterways. Read more about the toxic chemicals in clothing production in our previous blog here. But it isn’t only the production that can contribute, because of the quick production and lack of quality control, there is a big decrease in durability and longevity of the clothes themselves. When they are washed, the poorly made fibres breakaway from the clothes and end up again being washed away into waterways. This pollution contributes to the creation of dead zones in our oceans, putting the marine life at constant risk.


Garment Shipping

We may consider the transportation of ourselves, cycling to work rather than driving or choosing to walk shorter distances, but very few people consider how their clothes are transported. Over 90% of clothing that is bought on the UK high street is imported. Some of our clothing is more well-travelled than we are! 90% of global trade is done through ships and this accounts for 3-4% of human-caused carbon emissions each year. Unfortunately, this is actually the most carbon-efficient mode of transport (and the cheapest). The ‘marine roads’ are the pathways frequently travelled by ships when transporting goods and these become worn down and subject to excessive pollution just like any road on land. It is not just the accidental spillage of oil that causes pollution for marine life but the emissions and exhaust that ships are always producing. Ocean acidification is an outcome of this pollution. It occurs when carbon dioxide is absorbed by seawater, lowering the pH of the water and decreasing the amount of necessary minerals that marine organisms need to build their skeletons and shells! This specifically impacts shellfish and coral, both very important parts of the marine ecosystems. Another impact of shipping is the sound pollution. Ship engines can be heard hundreds of kilometres below the surface and in all other directions. This can cause physical damage but also can interrupt the communication of marine life and alter their feeding behaviours. But the impact of fashion doesn’t stop when it reaches us. 


Over half of new fabrics contain plastics like Polyester and Nylon. Every time these items are washed, they release small pieces of plastic that are less than 5 millimetres wide called ‘microplastics’. That may make us think that they aren’t so bad. How can something so small be such a big issue? It has to do with how widespread it is and the sheer amount of microplastics out there. Microplastics have been found in places that are remote and have little to no human life. They are in our food, our water and also inside us! When we wash clothing (or when it slowly breaks down in landfill) it sheds these tiny particles which make their way into the oceans and rivers. There they are eaten by fish or birds which can cause them health issues. If they survive, they can end up on our plate. The pieces that don’t get eaten by animals can find their way into our drinking water. It is thought that textiles contribute around 35% of microplastics polluting the oceans. In fresh and saltwater polyester does not degrade at all in the first month. This leaves these particles floating around, readily available to be snapped up by unsuspecting marine life.

So, we can see that every step of the fashion process has an impact on marine life. What do we do now?


What Can You Do?

The first step everyone can take is to learn more about what causes marine pollution. Reading blogs like this is helpful.

The second step is adapting your clothes buying habits. Limit your purchasing spend, but if you do buy new, do you research and only purchase from responsible brands who use natural dyes, low impact fabrics and have a transparent, ethical supply chain in place. Buy locally made if you can to reduce the miles on your clothes.

Try and be conscious of how you are washing your clothes. Wash your clothes at a lower temperature on shorter cycles and invest in a guppy bag (or equivalent) to help stop the spread of microplastics.

Lastly, we can all use our voice to campaign for change and social media is a great way to voice your opinion and help strive for change. The fashion industry is a big contributor to water waste and pollution, if we all work together then we can help to change this industry to start restoring and conserving the environment.

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