Fashion Industry Environmental Impact

In this last year, I’ve been trying to educate myself more and more about how mass consumerism and globalization have been impacting the environment. Climate change is a hot topic and normally blamed largely on the oil industry. We are seeking alternative methods of fuel but it’s obvious that it will take a long time for the world to adapt. The second worst culprit of pollution is the fashion industry. In fact, it has been estimated that 20% of all freshwater pollution is caused by textile treatment and dyeing processes.

As someone who has been involved in the fashion industry for the last 8 years it was a sad realization. With my previous company, I had been working with factories all over the globe to produce garments that were being shipped to Los Angeles, in order for printing. According to Alternet.org, it takes 5,000 gallons of water just to make a t-shirt and a pair of jeans!

I was always under the impression that cotton was the perfect fiber. Harmless fluffy cotton. Further investigation revealed that cotton is one of the most water intensive crops, responsible for nearly 3% of the global water use. This, along with the fact that it is regularly maintained with pesticides that are harmful to the climate, soil, and groundwater. Organic cotton at least doesn’t use any of the harmful pesticides however it does need to be watered constantly. It is much more sustainable but only consists of 1% of the cotton supply worldwide.

Synthetic man-made textiles have seen a lot of improvement in the last few years but still require massive amounts of energy to produce. According to Forbes, virgin polyester requires 70 million barrels of oil to produce. An alternative to this is recycled polyester which uses much less energy because of the reuse of plastic bottles. It also prevents these bottles from going into landfills. The downside to this is that these bottles need to be cleaned by low cost labor in third world countries. This involves shipping tons of plastic therefore using more oil to send it there.

Another impactful sector of fashion is the dyeing industry. Annually, more than half a trillion gallons of freshwater is used for dyeing textile. Besides the incredible amount of water that is being used, lakes and rivers are being affected by the the dumping of chemicals. According to this article by Rita Kant there are 72 toxic chemicals that have been found in water. Unfortunately, 30 of these chemicals can not be treated.

Even the second hand industry is having a negative impact on third world countries. The amount of clothing that is being sent to poorer regions is so abundant that it is causing unemployment in their manufacturing sector. This will have a crippling impact on their local economy.

So what gives? How do we solve this massive problem. We obviously need clothing for day to day use.

It seems as if there is no real solution to ending this cycle. No matter how much the process is refined, there still is an element of pollution. The question is how much? The conclusion that I’ve come up with is that it starts with us consumers. We used to be mindful shoppers who wanted to purchase good quality products that lasted. Today, fast fashion brands are riding the wave of every possible trend and manufacturing product at an alarming rate. In the documentary “The True Cost”, it is stated that in 2015 80 billion articles of clothing are being purchased worldwide. That is a 400% increase from 20 years ago. We as consumers are buying these goods, that are made by low cost labor and wearing them for a single season. These clothes are then discarded to make room for the new items that are ushered in by these big box retailers.

We need to change how we view the cost of our clothing. In order to properly evaluate a product, you must view it from a cost per wear basis. If a sweater costs $180 and you’ve worn it 100 times, thats $1.80 per wear. If you purchase a sweater that costs $40 and it only lasts for 15 wears, that is $2.66 per wear. Higher price doesn’t always mean that the quality is better but it is important that we all do our homework and we realize who we are buying our goods from. From a global standpoint, the clothing we wear is costing us more than it ever has.

As someone that currently owns and operates a clothing line, it is counter intuitive that I’m an advocate of buying less. But we all need to do our part in righting the ship. It is my responsibility to ethically source and manufacture my products and always encourage quality over quantity.