Did you know that the fashion industry is considered to be one of the most polluting industries in the world? We all love fashion, enjoy it, wear it, buy it. But how are the clothes everyone is wearing the reason of the enormous greenhouse gas emissions and bad environmental impact? If you are interested to find out about this very important subject, please continue reading the article.
This term was first used in the early 1990s to describe one of Zara’s business models and it has been a major drive of consumerism ever since them. It dominates the industry right now. Fast fashion represents the rapid production of cheap clothing that are supposed to meet the most recent fashion trends but also be accessible to people who are not able to purchase high-end fashion models.
As you can guess, this trend became very popular and the amount of the new garments bought by customers tripled during the 60s, leading to the 90s model being proclaimed as fast fashion. However, the need for more cheap clothes also caused the need for more resources that would be processed in a quicker and cheaper way. The rapid production of those clothes caused the rapid increase of pollution.
Today more than 80 billion items are produced each year. The main type of pollution they cause is waste pollution because most of these clothes are thrown away and soon replaced with cheap clothes. People can afford cheap items and they want more and more of them but since they are made of cheap synthetics they pollute the environment when they get rid of them. It is expensive or impossible to recycle them and the impact they have on the nature is devastating.
Another bad aspect of fast fashion, besides the production of bad fabrics, is also the use of cheap labor. In order for companies to cut costs, they decided to outsource their labor to economically developing or already poor countries. In those countries labor laws are far more flexible. There have been many scandals related to labor conditions; however, the most criticized aspect of this industry is child labor that even though banned, is still in usage in the poorest countries. The famous documentary The True Cost explores these issues and how the basic safety measures are disregarded.
The second bad aspect that we already mentioned but will cover in more detail now is – the encouragement of the production of lower quality clothing. In order to produce more items the quality and durability have to be pushed aside which means less or no natural fiber. Synthetics are not able to dissolve or recycle which results in huge landfills of discarded clothes all around the world. Additionally, since these clothes have synthetic materials, they are not as comfortable as for example cotton or wool. People will most likely throw them away and go on to buy other item which is as cheap as the previous one. According to the 2014 report, around 10.46 million tons of clothing ended up in landfills in the US. Even if some of these items find their ways to charity shops that does not mean that they are passed on because the volume of clothing they receive is always too high for them to accept everything.
And let us now go over the question of production. How are all these clothes produced and are there any environmental costs associated with it?
Since there is a continuous increase in the amount of clothes that are produced each month, that means that they are no longer made from natural materials. We mentioned synthetics versus cotton and wool. Those materials, including silk, were the main fibers in the past. Nowadays, the companies have switched to inexpensive synthetic textile fibers such as polyester and nylon. The first is probably the most popular and widely used fiber in fashion today. More than 60% garments use it which comes down to 21.3 million tons of polyester around the world. What makes this fiber so popular is not only the cost but also the fact that it dries quickly and it does not get wrinkled as cotton. The increase of polyester consumption jumped 157 % from 2000 to 2015. If you do not know what polyester is, it is a combination of petroleum, coal, air, and water.
When coal is burned, it creates a heavy amount of air pollution that consists of carbon dioxide. And it is not only the production of this material that is polluting the environment, it is also the fact that it is non-biodegradable that adds to the list of it being really bad for us. It can never concert to the state it was originally found because it is not natural. Which means there won’t be any natural cycles, when you wash it there are micro plastics in it that are falling apart and entering the water system. This pollutes your own water system plus the oceans, including the fish that can absorb them in their body fat, so you basically end up eating these micro parts of plastics. This process is called bio-magnification.
However, let’s not forget that even natural fibers can pollute. For example, cotton. This fiber has been used for centuries, but it can contribute to pollution via agricultural pollution because nowadays it requires pesticides and large amounts of water for it to be made.
As for wool and leather, since they are made of sheep and cattle that are ruminants (mammals that ferment plant-based food in their digestive systems) that also means they produce methane, which is a potent gas.
What Are Eco-Friendly Clothing Materials?
- Bamboo is on the rise as a type of fabric that is environmentally friendly. It is also biodegradable and sustainable. There is no need to use pesticides and it is a nice alternative to cotton. Also, bamboo is breathable, antibacterial and soft. What more would you want?
- Organic cotton is becoming popular as well. This cotton does not contain pesticides and when you wash it there are no toxins that get released into the water system.
- Wool – but still not 100% environmentally friendly as we mentioned above.
- Tencel – made from sustainable wood pulp
Clothing Materials to Avoid
Here is a list of materials that should be avoid if you would like to help fight the pollution in the world but also contribute to your own health.
- Polyester, made from petrochemicals.
- Vague tags such as “wrinkle-free,” “antimicrobial,” “cling-proof,” “waterproof,” or “easy care.”
- Rayon, which is not sustainable, as it is treated with irritants like sulfuric acid.
- Nylon and acrylic fabrics, which can be carcinogenic.
- Acetate and tri-acetate fabrics, produced with environmental contaminants that could cause hormone disruption.
- Vinyl, PVC, or artificial leather, which contribute to toxic pollution.
Even though these materials have been promoted as the best choice, you should also take into consideration the fact that the production of organic cotton remains less than 1% of the global production due to the fact that it is hand labored weeded. The same applies to bamboo fiber, the conversion of it to fabric is similar to the production of rayon even though there are no pesticides included. There is a difference between “rayon bamboo” and pure bamboo which many manufacturers hide.
We have talked in detail how fashion industry, most specifically fast fashion, contributes to the environmental pollution and human exploitation around the world, but let’s also take a look at alternatives. We mentioned specific fabrics but let’s take a look at the so called movement “sustainable fashion” that has become trendy recently. What does it mean and how can it help?
Sustainable fashion is a process and movement that advocated the change of fashion products so they put focus on social justice and ecological integrity. This is more than just taking care of textiles and products. It addresses the whole system, including the production and finances.
There are many textile fabrics that simply dump the untreated chemicals into rivers, making them the most polluted rivers in the world and killing off many animals plus endangering humans. The most polluted rivers in the world include the Ganges River in India, Citarum River in Indonesia, Yellow River in China, Sarno River in Italy, and Buriganga River in Bangladesh. Most of them are inhabitable for fish and animals which is terrible because many people depend on rivers for drinking water or a source of food. What is alarming is the fact that many people diagnosed with cancer happen to live in those areas. The pollution is making us sick or to be more precise – we are making ourselves sick.
Last but not least, according to the 2018 study, the global fast fashion accounts for an estimated 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. It is believed that the amount of synthetics products is not going down – it will triple by 2030 and the only way we can slow this down is by raising awareness and letting people know that we are slowly killing the planet and ourselves by mass producing things that we do not really need.
To sum up, we have talked about the pollution within the fashion industry, the so called fast fashion, which materials are the most toxic and some alternatives to them. Apparently the best way to reduce the pollution would be to use recycled and vintage clothing; however, it has been estimated that this will be difficult because there is a constant increase in the production of clothes because people keep buying and buying and the companies need to make profit.
The important thing is to be aware of all this and if every person decides to contribute, even in a small way – by donating clothes to charities, buying sustainable fashion, perhaps then the pollution and exploitation might get reduced at least a bit.
That is all, if you have any questions or thoughts to share, please let us know and thanks for reading!