FASHION IN A FLASH:
THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF FASHION
Written By: Derek Martin
Published: November 13, 2020
How much do you think about what you’re wearing? For most of us, this crosses our mind every morning as we’re getting ready for the day. More thought may go into it for a special occasion. What we are thinking about though is what we’re draping around our bodies. We rarely, if ever, think about how our clothes are made and how that impacts our planet.
For this article, we’re highlighting a subsection of the fashion industry that most college students are well versed in, fast fashion. Fast fashion refers to fashion companies that mass produce cheap clothing for a constantly changing retail space. In the past, apparel companies would unveil seasonal lines of clothes; spring, summer, fall, and winter. Now, almost weekly, new clothes are hung up on racks across America to entice consumers to buy more. Stores like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21 have been quick to cash in but Target, Walmart, and others who offer low cost apparel should be included in this categorization.
The fashion industry is a $2 - $3 trillion dollar a year business and fast fashion is a growing segment of that. In 2019 Zara had sales of $21.9 billion  and H&M had sales of roughly $27 billion (converted from Swedish Kroner) . The growing trend of cheap clothes is best seen when compared to changes in consumer prices over time. According to a McKinsey study, consumer prices in the US rose 55% between 1995 and 2014 while the price of clothes dropped by 3% and more than 100 billion new articles of clothing are produced each year !
The fast fashion industry employs millions of people, from textile factories to retail outlets, it makes huge profits for corporations, and people obviously enjoy shopping and getting new things. So what’s wrong with a booming industry? The problem is the human and environmental toll of the fashion industry isn’t visible to the consumer and it is not reflected at the checkout counter.
On the labor side, nearly no apparel is manufactured in the US. I challenge you to find an item of clothing in your closet that contains a tag that says “made in the USA”. Since workers who make our clothes don’t work in the US, they aren’t protected under US labor laws. The countries where the clothes are made have lower protections in terms of wages, working conditions, labor rights, and hours worked. Textile workers can be exposed to toxic chemicals (more to come on that later), long hours, work in unsafe conditions, and earn low wages. There has been little incentive for factory owners to put worker’s safety first as can be seen from the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, India where almost 1,200 employees were killed and another 2,500 injured. The day before the collapse, workers fled the textile factory due to cracks in the walls, which the owners assured them were not a problem and forced their employees back to work. There has been some progress to fix labor issues in the fashion industry due to international public pressure placed on companies who do business with these apparel and textile factories but significant concerns remain.
However, the environmental impacts of fashion are still largely unknown to everyday consumers. Let’s take a look at a few figures. Each year, we emit 1,714 million metric tons of CO2, use 141 billion cubic meters of water, and use 38 million hectares of land to produce the world’s clothing . Those are huge figures so let’s take a look at some figures that are at a smaller scale. One pound of fabric generates about 23 pounds of greenhouse gases . According to Levi Strauss, a pair of their 501 jeans uses almost 1,000 gallons of water throughout its lifecycle
Lifecycle impacts of a pair of 501 jeans.
Photo credit, C&EN
Consuming vast amounts of resources to make our clothes aren’t the only environmental issues, the amount of chemicals required is also troubling. From the beginning to the end, chemicals are a part of every stage of the process. Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are used to grow cotton. Dyes like Azo dyes provide vibrant colors. Wrinkle resistance comes from formaldehyde, stain resistance from phthalates, and water resistance from polyfluoroalkyl. Chlorine bleach and nonylphenol ethoxylates are present while cleaning our clothes. Besides just being a mouthful to say, these chemicals have been linked to all sorts of harmful human health impacts. Textile workers are exposed to high concentrations of these chemicals further endangering them. Many of these chemicals are commonly dumped into the waterways near the factories, threatening marine life and those who live around these facilities who depend on the same waterways to sustain their lives.
River near a textile facility in Tirupur, India. Photo credit, The Designers Studio - https://tdsblog.com/what-a-thirsty-industry-fashion-is7474-2/
Synthetic fabrics that have inundated the fashion world, like nylon, polyester, spandex, etc. are made from fossil fuels. So our ever growing appetite for athletic-casual clothes is increasing our dependence on fossil fuels and exacerbating the climate crisis. When washing these kinds of clothes, they break down and shed millions of particles of micro-plastics into our water system. Scientists have even found micro-plastics in the rain !
Fast fashion is not known for the quality of its clothing and many items fall apart after a few uses. This has led to an increase in the amount of textiles ending up in a landfill. In 2018, Americans threw away over 17 million tons of textiles . A report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation equates this to about one garbage truck worth of clothes being thrown away every second .
Thankfully, there are many things we can do to reduce these problems. The obvious first option is to reduce the amount of apparel we buy. By cutting back, we can reduce the overall level of resources used and chemicals dumped into our water and air. This doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating all clothing purchases, which is fairly unrealistic, but buying a few higher quality clothing items instead of many cheaper items. If you do need to buy new clothes, can you find clothes that are made from natural materials and/or those that avoid harmful chemicals? Doing some research to buy find brands that are transparent about their operations, the conditions under which their clothes are being made, and their sustainability efforts. Buying from these brands will incentivize the marketplace to adopt these practices. Buying second-hand is also an eco-friendly (and currently trendy) way to satisfy the shopping itch without buying new. An added bonus is that you avoid exposure to the residual chemicals found on new clothes. Mending clothes and clothes swapping are also great ways to extend the life of clothes.
We need to take a hard look at what we’re purchasing and ask ourselves, do I really need this?