The Hefty Price of Fashion
And the Uncomfortable Truth About its Impact on our Environment
The latest trend in the fashion world is not exactly en vogue. In fact, it’s an ugly cloak on our environment. Our hunger for new, cheap, items creates a feeding frenzy between retailers and merchants with designers churning out collections more frequently, steering toward a trend of seasonless designs.
Known as ‘fast fashion’, it not only refers to designs that run from the catwalk to consumer but also from consumer to landfill with the U.S. alone sending 80 billion pounds of textile waste each year to landfills.
The fashion industry carbon footprint (CF), the amount of greenhouse gases released in the manufacturing of new products, is second only to the oil industry, and is greater than all the international flights and maritime shipping combined.
The garment industry leaves one of the largest water footprints (WF) on the planet. From field to factory, a staggering amount of water is used in the production of all garments and textiles making it the third largest user of water globally — nearly one-tenth — after oil and paper. And it’s also the second worst polluter of water after agriculture.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organization whose mission is to drive fashion trends to a ‘circular’ economy where all items are never thrown away, but are recycled and reused, estimates that every year $500B is lost due to clothing that is barely worn, not donated, not recycled, or ends up in a landfill.
So what is the real cost of the clothes in your closet? Do you have clothes that have hardly been worn? Clothes with tags still on them? Shelves overflowing?
Take a look. Now, consider the resources and toxic effects that went into making each piece:
1.It takes over 2,000 gallons of water to produce two pounds of cotton. That’s enough cotton for just one pair of jeans and one t-shirt. 50% of all the fibers used to make clothes are cotton. While we’re at it, the growing of cotton accounts for nearly one-fourth of all the pesticides used globally.
2. 70–100 million trees are logged each year for fabric and rubber.
3. Nylon production releases nitrous oxide, a gas that is 300 times more damaging than CO2.
4. More than 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester each year.
5. Many countries where garments are made have loose regulations that allow toxic wastewater from the textiles to be dumped directly into rivers and oceans.
6. 90% of leather goods use highly toxic chemicals such as chromium to tan leather.
7. Washing one single polyester garment can shed 1900 individual microfibers into our water supply that ends up in the ocean.
To Dye For
Would you slip on that fabulous cocktail dress if it caused cancer? That great ‘new’ smell that we breathe iscaused by formaldehyde to prevent mildew, wrinkling and parasites during shipping–especially those shipped from China.Consumers should also be wary of any fashion labeled “easy care”, “wrinkle-free” or “shrinkage-free”. Azo dyes, which are used in black clothing and denim, have been linked to cancer.
Flourinated chemicals, among the world’s most toxic, have strong evidence showing their long-lasting impact on the environment. Fashion brands continue to use them! Even though they know how toxic they are, they don’t have alternatives. India and China are two of the world’s biggest perpetrators of dumping untreated wastewater into streams and rivers.
It can take up to 200 tons of water to dye one ton of fabric. That’s more than double the amount of water a human consumes in a lifetime!
The World Bank estimates that 20% of the world’s pollution comes from fabric dyes and when leached into the water systems results in the death of marine life, ruining of soil, and poisoning of drinking water.
What can we do?
It’s time to get creative and stop buying so many clothes! The solution will have to be led by both the consumer and the fashion industry, a team effort. As consumers we must become more aware of not just what looks good, but what IS good for the environment. Buy quality items that last longer and wear them more than a handful of times. Choose organic and natural fibers.
Imagine owning the world’s largest closet AND helping the environment. Rent. Don’t own. We have embraced the rental world as we rent our homes, cars, music, and movies, to name a few. Rent the Runway, for example, a company known for leasing high-end dresses and attire, has now been valued at $1 billion. The RealReal is a luxury consignment store that sells everything from clothing to jewelry to home décor. Can’t afford a designer wedding dress? Rent one. It saves cash, space in your closet, and you can truly wear the dress of your dreams.
Many eco-friendly designers are making the shift to high-quality and sustainable fashions.
Stella McCartney, known as ‘the queen of sustainability”, is a vegetarian brand, and uses no fur or leather, uses reengineered cashmere and ethically-sourced wool, organic cotton and recycled textiles. Rag and Bone has launched a denim-recycling program. After jeans are donated, the denim is recycled and turned into insulation for homes. Eileen Fisher has created a signature fabric that is dyed without hazardous chemicals and collaborates with environmental conservation initiatives. Steph Gabriel is the founder of the swimsuit line Ocean ZEN that is made from recycled fishing nets and plastic.
Levi’s has a stringent commitment to sustainable denim by significantly reducing water use. Their goal this year is to make 80 percent of their products using a ‘water-less’ technique. They are also aiming to reduce their carbon footprint by 25%.
Patagonia is ranked as one of the world’s most ethical companies, and is a source of inspiration for all to follow as they reject fast fashion by creating high quality, long-lasting apparel. They offer a repair and reuse program and even discourage customers from purchasing too many of their products. They collect and refurbish old gear, which is made of recycled products.
Clothes giant Zara just released a new eco-friendly collection in December 2019. Look for the ‘join life’ tag that means that that item was made from raw materials or recycled items.
In March 2019, the UN launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, which will coordinate efforts to make the industry less harmful — reducing its negative environmental and social impacts.
Practice the five R’s:
Read labels. Look for brands and designers that are doing their part to protect our environment.
Be a trendsetter and break the fast fashion habit because every decision we make impacts our planet.