Fashion wiping out the Aral Sea

During the one hour we spend on an online store looking for a new outfit, another new area of the Aral Sea gets drier. The Aral Sea in Central Asia is one of the most horrific environmental catastrophes of our times and a sad-but-true example of the role of the fashion industry in the current environmental emergency.

The Aral Sea – once the fourth largest lake in the world with rich biodiversity – has practically dried in a decade. This dry-out is caused by a drastic change in the usage of river water that doesn’t flow into the Aral Sea anymore but is used for growing cotton in the nearby farms of Uzbekistan. To grow 1.47 million hectares of cotton, to be specific. The cotton ends up in Bangladesh and China to produce clothing and other apparel for the well-known Western fashion brands and finally to our walking closets and new outfits on Christmas parties.

Aral Sea

The Aral Sea in 2000 on the left and 2014 on the right. Photograph: Atlas Photo Archive/NASA

The Aral Sea is just one example of the environmental devastation caused by the fashion industry, but it’s a powerful one. In effect, many fashion brands mislead consumers to consider natural materials as a better option for the planet by default, but conventional cotton (as opposed to organic cotton) is actually one of the most unsustainable fibers in the world. Conventional cotton uses a huge amount of water and also a lot of harmful pesticides, which are damaging the health of soil, sea, farmers, and users. And still half of the world’s textiles are made from this material.

Besides the unsustainable water usage, the fashion industry’s carbon dioxide impact (10%) is greater than that of all international airline flights and maritime shipping trips combined. Thus, the fashion industry remains the second-largest industrial polluter, second only to oil. In addition to its environmental ills, there are severe social problems, such as child labor, forced labor, and interns working for free in headquarters worldwide – all closely tied to those fashion brands that are busy selling us not only the cotton-made clothing but images of happiness, belonging, and acceptance. Little they know about those words in their factories.

The problem of buying too much

The problems of fashion are not limited to environmental devastation and modern slavery, but the fast fashion industry causes a lot of stress on our personal lives too. While the fashion brands are loudly suggesting that buying (their products) makes us happy, several studies in social psychology have shown that it can actually make us unhappy. Based on her empirical research, Andrews (1997) argued already two decades ago that consumerism can create strong feelings of unease, stress, and anxiety for people. Fashion, as a one form of non-essential consumption, is fueling consumer society, and fashionistas trying to fulfill their actual needs (which are related to happiness, belonging and acceptance) by buying things that they don’t actually need (which are the excess number of clothes and shoes), are refueling such system.

We might better understand the effects of excessive buying on our personal wellbeing by taking a closer look at those who have decided to give up such a lifestyle. In social psychology and marketing research, those people are called voluntary simplifiers. Voluntary simplifiers are described as people who are “choosing to limit material consumption in order to free one’s resources, primarily money and time, to seek satisfaction through non-material aspects of life”. To date, existing literature stresses that voluntary simplifiers experience a greater sense of control over their lives when they decide to consume less – and live simply. As literature has shown, switching to a simpler lifestyle can lead to happier, more satisfied and fulfilled consumers by improving their mental, physical, social, and economic wellbeing.

While the public conversation has mainly been concerned with improving the production practices of fashion firms, voluntary simplifiers remind us that consumption is also essential in reducing the impact of the fashion system on its environment. Thus both are needed, production and consumption. Co-creation, I might call it.

The (potential) bliss of buying less

It seems that a sustainable life is almost as difficult to define as it is to live.

Hence, I decided to take a personal challenge for this new year and not buy any clothing, shoes, accessories, or other apparel for 366 days. With this challenge, I want to understand better how we can change our relationship with fast fashion as consumers. With this challenge, I want to learn to define sustainable consumption more accurately. With this challenge, I want to gain insight into what fashion and other textile companies can do differently. And with this challenge, I want to encourage also others to rethink their own approach to fashion and sustainable consumption. This Christmas, we can either use those hours in online stores and fashion boutiques looking for a new outfit, or we can choose to free our time and resources to improve some of the defining issues of our time.

Because this is not just a climate change or water pollution issue, this is an enormous cost of life for us, other species, and the planet.