Our planet needs some love. Fashion. Fast fashion, to be exact, is hurting our planet and the people in it. The fashion industry is the second dirtiest in the world, next to oil & gas. The good news? More and more people are now choosing sustainable clothing options. We’re beginning to realize that fast fashion becomes fast trash.
Fifty Seasons a Year (srly?)
Whether it’s high-waisted jean shorts, two-piece pant suits, or pineapple print button down, trends seem to cycle in and out weekly. Styles, colors, and prints are marketed and changed every season. What’s more, the fashion industry isn’t limited to four seasons. The need to stay competitive has led to fashion micro-seasons that number 50-100 a year. People have become conditioned to believe that they must wear the latest trend and that clothing is disposable.
The average consumer bought 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2000, but kept them half as long. ~McKinsey & Company
The Spell of Convenience
As a 23 year old woman, I can understand what’s driving this trend. Just recently I bought a new pair of shorts from one of the many fast fashion stores. I remember thinking, “these probably won’t last long but it doesn’t matter because they’ll be out of style before they fall apart.” I realize this is a terrible mentality. And yet, it’s what happens when we’re looking for convenience. It’s also explains why fast fashion impacts our planet to such a high degree. Every purchase and disposal of clothing is a burden on our planet’s resources.
Fashion + Commerce
Fashion existed long before commerce did, and satisfies deep human needs; a sense of self and sense of belonging or differentiating oneself from a group. At its root fashion is not unsustainable. Rather, it’s our current way of pursuing commerce, which is unsustainable. ~Lynda Grose, Fashion Isn’t the Problem, the Industry Needs to Change
In order to better align the beauty and artistry of fashion with everyday commerce, we must first understand the impact of the fast fashion life cycle.
Fast Fashion: A Look Behind the Curtain
Here’s an example of the journey our clothes make before they end up in our closet.
There are many steps involved in the process that lead to fast fashion’s impact on the planet. Starting with raw materials, clothing dye, textile manufacturing, clothing construction, shipping, retail, use and disposal, the fashion industry creates a large footprint from beginning to end. Pesticides to grow the cotton, toxic dyes, transportation
pollution, water and the eventual discarding of the clothes add to the impact.
1. What it Takes to Grow Raw Materials
Cotton and polyester are the two most used fibers in fashion. Polyester is made by chemical reaction involving coal, air, water and petroleum. This process uses a large amount of energy, usually supplied by petroleum or coal.
A study performed by MIT estimated that polyester production releases 706 billion kgs of green house gases every year, equal to 185 coal plant emissions.
Cotton, the most common natural fiber, makes up 33% of the fibers in textile industry. It has a huge environmental footprint as it requires higher levels of pesticides and water. With the high demand for cotton, Ukraine has already started to experience issues from the large amount of water needed to grow it.
The Aral Sea water levels are 10% of what they were 50 years ago due to rivers having been diverted for irrigation. China, India, USA, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey and Brazil are also textile supply chain countries with regions of high water stress.
2. Clothing Dye: Sending it Down River
Many of the dyes made for the clothing industry leads to the dumping of chemicals into nearby rivers. Dye run off often contains many heavy metals and chemicals harmful to aquatic life and people living down river. New technologies have been invented to mitigate this impact but they are expensive. Many of these locations are in poor areas and these new technologies aren’t a realistic solution. With sizable textile factories lining its shores, Indonesia’s Citarum River has become one of the most polluted rivers in the world. It is an open sewer containing lead, mercury, arsenic and a host of other toxins.
3. Textile Factories: Time to Look at Waste and Safety
Textile factors are often detrimental to both the environment and the locals who work there. Excess fabric is a byproduct of pattern cutting and it creates significant waste. Same goes for high water usage and chemical waste involved in the manufacturing process. Think about the shirt you are wearing. If your shirt was cut from a square of fabric, think about how much extra fabric is left over. It is cheaper for factories to throw away excess fabric than it is for them to maximize use.
The increased demand for cheap, fast fashion as resulted in more and more factories opening in developing countries. Young women 18-24 primarily work at these factories, making as little as $3 a day. These sweat shops are hire underage workers for long hours, low pay, and horrible conditions. The death of over 1,000 workers in Bangladesh 5 years ago, caused by the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building, drove the government to shut-down 18 garment factories over growing safety concerns.
4. Transport: Your Clothes Are World Travelers
When is the last time you bought something that was “made in the USA”? With more than 60% of clothing manufactured in developing countries, our clothes are already world travelers before they reach retailers. As regulation and costs continue to rise, many clothing companies look to move operations overseas. Not only can they pay workers pennies to the dollar compared to wages in the USA, but they can also skirt around the limited or non-existent environmental regulations.
A single large container ship can emit cancer and asthma-causing pollutants equivalent to that of 50 million cars. ~The Guardian
Plane, train, boat, truck and arriving packed in plastic, these clothing items have a huge a environmental footprint before they even reach your local retail store.
5. Retailers: Viva la Plastic
I’ve worked in retail and have seen firsthand how clothes arrive at the store. Items are individually packaged in plastic, as if each needed a hazmat suit to protect it from the plague. Every time we stocked our shelves, we were left with at least three trash bags full of plastic. My store was small, so this only happened 3 times a week. On top of it, we give you a bag to take home. Think about that. These clothes arrive in a bag. We throw out that bag. Then we give you a new bag to take with you. It’s easy to see why so much waste is created before we even ware the clothes!
6. Second Hand: Show the Love
Since fashion styles are constantly changing, clothes aren’t designed to last long. That means clothing doesn’t make it to second hand locations. Only about 20% of used clothes end up being sold in second hand retailers. The rest end up stacked in landfills. American send 10.5 million tons of clothing to landfills every year.
When you buy something old and previously-loved, you’re extending its lifespan and reducing its carbon footprint. ~Emily Farra, editor Vogue
What Can You Do?
What to hear something great? The tips and tricks included below will not only help our planet, they will help your wallet, too. Here are a few ways you can do well for yourself and do good for our planet. Go green and get rich!
Kick the fast fashion habit. Instead of buying a bunch of poorly made cheap and disposable clothes, invest in some well made long lasting classic pieces. Become aware of the clothing brand’s ethos. Are they just in it for the profit? Are they fair trade? Do they protect the environment or pollute it? Support those companies that focus on sustainable manufacturing and are not only taking steps to limit their environmental impact but also support the well being of their workers.
If everyone switched from buying new clothes to buying used, we could save 165 billion lbs of CO2. This is the equivalent of all the car exhaust in LA for 4 years! We could also save 350 billion kilowatt hours of electricity (the equivalent of powering 32 million homes per year!) And we could save 13 trillion gallons of water (all the water needed by California over 14 years!)
Join the second hand clothing trend. In the past 5 years, used clothing purchasers have increased from 11% to 24% and the trend continues to grow. As 77% of millennials prefer to buy from environmentally-
conscious brands, they are leading the thrift trends. Everyday we see more and more options to buy second hand, from local consignment shops to online thrift stores.
Buying a used garment extends its life on average by 2.2 years which reduces carbon, waste and water footprint by 73%. ~ThredUp
I tried ThreadUp and was happy with the quality and large variety. Here’s a picture of a sports bra and top I bought for 70% off retail!
The good news? Brands are waking up. At the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2017, the Global Fashion Agenda called on fashion brands and retailers to sign a commitment to accelerate the transition to a circular fashion system. The system looks at 4 action points:
- Implement design strategies for cyclability.
- Increase the volume of used garments collected.
- Increase the volume of used garments resold.
- Increase the share of garments made from recycled post-consumer textile fibres.
After just one year, 93 companies, representing 207 brands and 12% of the global fashion market, have committed to set a target for 2020 on one or more of the four action points.
4. Take Baby Steps + Shop With Your Heart
Because we’ve made our voices heard, companies are stepping up. Now is your chance to support companies that are working toward aligning fashion with commerce. Here are a few final tips:
- Don’t get sucked into fast fashion.
- Buy for beauty, authenticity and longevity. Our clothes should last.
- Shop secondhand stores.
- Support stores that promote sustainable shopping.
Fashion can be beautiful and timeless, an expression of our creativity. Use your money to create the kind of world you want to see. You’ll feel good in your clothes when you shop with intention.
Photo by Demetrius Washington