The Fashion Industry and Our Environment

I had always considered myself to be  fairly well educated on the environment,  and always tried to do my part to be less wasteful. However, this year I began to specifically research the impacts of the fashion industry on the environment and realized I really didn’t know anything. One of the main factors causing the fashion industry to be so harmful to the environment is our current fast fashion cycle. This is what you see at stores like Forever21 and H&M, where new styles are constantly brought into every store. While I see the obvious problem with these stores, I certainly can’t berate consumers of these brands because I also love to get a good deal, as I’m sure all college students agree. This is a dilemma that designers and consumers will have to face together. Some of my main takeaways from my research were that as consumers, we need to be smarter shoppers in choosing garments that we will REALLY wear for a long time, your fabric choices matter, and garment upkeep is essential. This is a huge issue that effects everyone, and could very quickly become a national disaster if allowed to continue as is. If you are interested in learning more about this very close relationship between Earth and your closet, I have included an excerpt from my research paper on the topic, below. Enjoy!

The production of textiles for the creation of garments accounts for a large part of the industry’s pollution. Some of the most common materials used are man-made and have a large environmental footprint, which are overlooked due to the cheapness of production of synthetic fabrics:

“The… family of man-made fibers is made from plastic and sourced from oil, which has its own implications for sustainability, as oil is nonrenewable and plastics take hundreds of years to biodegrade. And all those blends of wonderful low-maintenance Frankenfabrics we’re now buying – the polyester-viscose blends and the wool-nylon-acetate blends in my own closet, for example – aren’t recyclable, as the technology does not exist to separate the fibers back into their original state.” (Cline 124-125)

Yet even natural fibers can be extremely damaging to the environment. Environmental reporter Stan Cox has explained that the farming of sheep for wool causes soil erosion, water pollution and loss of biodiversity. The use of leather involves the toxic metals of tanning, as well as biodiversity loss. Not to mention that cotton farming generates 22 billion pounds of weed killer a year (Cline 125). So with most popular synthetic and natural fibers each having negative effects on the environment, we must take advantage of less used fibers with bigger environmental benefits. Bast fibers, such as linen, hemp, and abaca, are spun into yarn from stalks of the plant, rather than the flower. While this still requires some water, they can be grown without pesticides because bugs don’t attack the stalks (Kant 26). Organic cotton is an increasingly popular fabric that is more sustainable than its traditional counterpart. It is grown in 12 countries, and is now becoming fairly common in garment production. While it still uses huge amounts of water, it does help to reduce pesticide usage (Claudio).

Image via kmknitwear.com
Image via kmknitwear.com

So notwithstanding the actual choice of fiber, the processes then done to the fiber to make it appear appealing must also be considered. Very few garments would be sellable with natural, undyed fibers. Typical fabrics are bleached or dyed and treated with chemicals in order to make them brighter, softer, fade-resistant and any other quality that the consumer could ask for. Even after chemicals have been applied, these fabrics typically still have to be dried under huge heat lamps, which requires large amounts of energy (Cline 125). And then of course the actual dyes must be applied. Because of this, the textile dyeing and finishing industry is the largest water polluter after agriculture (Kant). Huge amounts of chemicals, including many carcinogens, are dumped into our bodies of water, estimated at about 20 percent of all water pollution (Kant). So not only is the water no longer viable for human use, but these chemicals also pollute the water for the marine life. In addition to water pollution, these chemicals are also dangerous to us as they are known to evaporate into the air and absorb into the skin. It is expected that by 2020, about 60 percent of the human population will be allergic to these dyeing chemicals (Kant). While natural dyes exist that are less harmful, they must be mixed with toxic chemicals to have staying power on the garment, which negates the positive qualities of using a natural dye. This is a section of the fashion industry that is in desperate need of technological advancement in order to further sustainable design options.  Luckily, there is one type of less harmful dyeing that appears as though it will soon be a legitimate option for mass garment production. “Air Dyeing Technology is a dyeing process that uses air instead of water to dye garments with vivid designs and colors, without polluting the water and environment” (Kant). There are many benefits to air dyeing as

Image via conservationmagazine.com
Image via conservationmagazine.com

compared to regular fabric dyeing, including that is uses 95 percent less water, 84 percent less green house gases, and can be washed at any temperature. Air dyeing is already in use at a few companies, helping to create products like double-sided swimsuits and 100 percent recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) t-shirts (Kant). Once again, as this method is continually developed the factor that hinders it most will be price. As factories have already adapted to current dyeing methods, it would be exceedingly pricey to convert to this new method, but I believe in the long run many factories will be able to convert as the technology cheapens. Air dyeing seems to be one of the most promising and reasonable methods of moving the fashion industry towards sustainability.

Image via commonsensewithmoney.com
Image via commonsensewithmoney.com

Luckily, we are beginning to see large-scale brands converting some or all of their products to a more sustainable model. In 2004, Wal-Mart began to sell organic cotton women’s shirts at Sam’s Club, and is currently one of the world’s largest buyers of organic cotton (Claudio). The fact that Wal-Mart, one of America’s largest companies, has begun to make small steps is hopeful, yet we must keep in mind that these more sustainable offerings are a miniscule percentage of their products. But the fact that it is possible for them to sell this type of a product at this level is a good sign that consumers are becoming aware of their need to buy organic cotton over regular cotton. Other brands are taking larger steps by converting huge amounts of their products to eco-friendly materials. Patagonia, a major casual wear brand, has been selling fleece garments made from postconsumer plastic bottles since 1993. They are able to do this by taking the bottles made of PET, melting them, and reconfiguring them into fibers that can be woven and used as fabric. They are one of the only clothing retailers to do this, and by far the largest, in the world. Patagonia claims that in the years between 1993 and 2006 they saved 86 million soda bottles (Claudio). Through taking advantage of textile innovations through the use of PET, Patagonia is able to recycle, as well as prevent, the creation of more waste through a more intensive textile production process.

Image via fashionising.com
Image via fashionising.com

Another brand with similar goals is the shoe brand Melissa. Melissa is a distinctive Brazilian line made up of shoes made only from a patented, flexible recycled plastic, which is still recyclable (Cline 210). “The company runs on a closed loop system, recycling its factory’s water and waste; they also recycle overstocked shoes into the following year’s collection” (Cline 210). Melissa is unique in their approach to sustainable design. While their designs are all made of a PVC material, they are able to sustain it through recycling. Their hugely innovative business model of reusing unsold products for new products is beneficial as both a business strategy and as an ecologically sustainable practice.

A major misconception about the fashion industry that has a huge environmental cost is our belief of “recycling” garments. While about 48 percent of us simply throw away unwanted clothes (Lyday), many of us make the attempt to give our clothes another life by giving them to charities such as Salvation Army. But because most charities of this type don’t actually donate the clothes, but donate the profits from the clothes, our efforts usually aren’t as beneficial as we believe them to be. Due to the extremely poor quality of the garments that Americans are choosing to purchase, many have little to no value once donated, and essentially can’t be reused. Out of all of the clothing that is left for charities to take care of, less than 20 percent of these actually end up being sold through the thrift store. About 50 percent is of such unsellable quality that it is sent right past the thrift store. In fact, the quality of donated garments has become so poor that a whole industry has been born out of it.

Image via royalusedclothing.com
Image via royalusedclothing.com

The wiping-rag industry is able to use some of our unsellable clothing into industrial rags, but still many garments go to the landfill (Cline 128). For any garments you donate that are in poor condition, the best you can hope for is for them to be sold in mass for eight cents a pound to be used as an industrial rag (Cline 130). This system is operating at almost all resale shops, so these percentages add up to huge amounts of waste.

  Since consumers can’t be forced to spend more money on higher-quality, sustainable products, we have a few more possibilities to increase our reuse of garments. The first, and simplest, is for consumers to maintain their purchases, no matter the initial quality of the product. In many cases, this means learning basic sewing skills such as attaching buttons, and resewing torn seams, as well as keeping up the garment’s cleanliness. In many other cases, especially in specialty cases such as shoes and handbags, professionals must be paid to repair purchased items for you. The main reason that consumers refuse to do this is the rock bottom prices of cheaply made products. America has seen a plummet in shoe prices as all but 15 percent of our shoe production has moved to China. “People have started to think that since they can get a new pair of shoes for $60, why get them repaired for $50?” (Cline 132). While this logic makes sense in the short-term, in the long-term consumers are constantly paying money for new poorly made products, instead of paying a little more for upkeep on higher quality products. Not only would this strategy lead to more value to the customer, but it would allow the products to later be reused. A maintained product can be resold, saving precious resources from being wasted.

In the long run, both designers and consumers must adapt to the reality that the current state of the industry, focused on fast fashion that is cheap and trendy, is completely unsustainable. Americans are currently spending the smallest percentage of their income on clothing that they have ever spent. We are buying low- quality products in mass, which makes us lose sight of their value to us (Smith). This buying trend is quickly wasting and polluting our limited resources.

“The only way the slow fashion movement can succeed is if it produces clothes that surpass what’s available from chain stores or hyped designer labels in terms of quality, creativity, and uniqueness, as well as in the experience of buying it and wearing it.” (Cline 209)

So as fashion designers adapt to the slow fashion method, consumers must also adapt. When making a purchase, buyers should consider how they will feel about the product in a year, or five years, instead of next month. When products are designed and bought, the value of the product must be fully evaluated by its cost, instead of its price.

Image via trendhunter.com
Image via trendhunter.com

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