Fashion is one of the fastest growing industries in the world, producing more than 80 billion items of clothing each year. However, this industry is responsible for a staggering amount of waste – almost 92 million tons end up in landfills each year, with global textile waste at around 70 pounds per person. In addition to waste, the fashion industry generates 5-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and uses large amounts of non-renewable resources to produce clothing.
With all of these problems, what can we, as consumers, do to decrease our environmental impact? Here is a comparison of three different types of fashion and their environmental impacts: fast fashion, thrifting, and eco fashion.
Fast fashion is clothing produced by mass market retailers very quickly that does not necessarily take into account the impacts on the environment or human health. The products tend to be cheaply made, using poor materials and cheap labor, all so that they can sell you a $5 shirt. That $5 fails to take into account the workers in sweatshops barely making enough to live on, who are forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions. It also does not reflect the enormous amounts of pesticides and water that go into growing the cotton, or the toxic chemicals used to dye the garments. Fast fashion is responsible for the majority of resource depletion and greenhouse gas emissions of the fashion industry. Some major companies that use this approach are Forever 21 and H&M, but most international, cheap clothing is fast fashion.
Some of the major environmental impacts include:
- Microfiber pollution: Microfiber is a synthetic fiber used in clothing production. One polyester garment contains millions of plastic microfibers. Almost 1,900 microfibers can be rinsed off of a synthetic garment every time it is washed, and these microfibers can end up in aquatic ecosystems. Microfibers do not break down and are responsible for the death of up to 100,000 marine animals per year. These small, almost invisible fibers are trashing our oceans and killing our marine life.
- Chemicals: Chemical use is widespread in clothing production. Pesticides are used when growing non-organic cotton and linen for clothing. The use of these chemicals can cause soil and water pollution while it is growing and they can stay on the fabric after it has been turned into clothing. Additionally, chemicals like formaldehyde are used to create clothing that doesn’t wrinkle or become mildewed and dyes for clothing contain hazardous chemicals such as PPD. These pesticides have been linked to cancer, water contamination, soil degradation, and animal death.
- Carbon Dioxide production: The creation of a new article of clothing requires a lot of energy and resources. One new polyester t-shirt creates an average of 5.5 kg of carbon dioxide, while a new cotton t-shirt produces 2.1 kg of carbon dioxide. This adds up to 0.72 billion tons of carbon dioxide produced by the fast fashion industry per year.
- Resource use: The fast fashion industry produces 20% of global waste water due to the treatment and dying of textiles. On average, one cotton t-shirt uses 2,700 liters of water. One textile mill can use 200 tons of fresh water per one ton of dyed fabric. Very little of Earth’s water is usable, and this industry is using up a lot of it.
Thrift shopping is buying second hand clothes at greatly reduced prices. There didn’t used to be much variety among thrift stores, but thrifting has become much more mainstream and popular, which is great because it has so many benefits.
First, thrifting reduces pressure on resources and the pollution associated with clothing production. The greatest positive environmental impact that thrift shopping accomplishes is that it significantly extends the lives of garments. Extending the lifespan of a garment by a only a few months could lead to a 5-10% reduction in the carbon, water, and waste footprints of that item. It also decreases the production of new garments, which reduces greenhouse emissions, resource consumption, and chemical pollution. The transportation costs of second-hand clothing is much less than new clothes, because it is usually from the same community it is being sold in versus being internationally transported.
And, for your wallet, it is much cheaper! You might find a $50 sweater for $10, or a $30 shirt for $3. It may take a little more work to find what you are looking for, but when you do find it, it will be worth it!
Not all thrift shopping is the same, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. A great way to see what is available in your area is going with a couple of friends to multiple thrift stores to find the best deals. There are some stores like Goodwill where all items are donated, not washed, and not organized on the rack. Benefits of this type of store is that their clothes tend to be very cheap and you can find great items of clothing with a little more effort than needed at a department store.
There are others stores like Plato’s Closet, where they buy clothes from people, wash them, and organize them on the rack. The clothes at this type of store are generally a bit more expensive, though still much cheaper than buying them new.
There are also websites where people go to thrift stores for you, then sell you those clothes at a higher price. Whatever type of thrift store you go to, they are all cheaper than buying new clothes and much better for the environment.
However, it is important to note that only a small portion of clothing is sold second-hand; the majority of clothing is worn once and then thrown away. Thrifting can mitigate some of the effects of fast fashion, but it does not shift the market away from its unsustainable fashion practices.
Eco fashion is a focus on clothing that takes into account the environment, the health of the consumer who will wear the clothes, and the working conditions of the people involved with making the clothes.
Eco friendly brands are intentionally trying to lessen their environmental impact; they are trying to change the way the fashion industry operates and make it into a more sustainable process. However, you have to do your research; not all companies who claim to be eco-friendly actually are. Some companies “greenwash” their products; they deceptively make them appear to be more environmentally friendly than they actually are. To find actual eco companies, look for specific claims that are backed by a certification. These can include organic, fair trade, and certified B corporations. These claims are verified, whereas “natural” and “eco-friendly” are not. Also, look at the history of their environmental commitment; what have they actually done to help improve the environment, instead of just giving it lipservice. Finally, check where the product is sourced from; the more local the product is made, the less environmental impact it has. These products are usually more expensive than the majority of fast fashion products, but they are much higher quality and will last for longer.
Eco fashion brands have different ways to become more sustainable, so their impact can vary greatly. Here are a few quality brands that take different approaches to the sustainability question.
- Teeki. Teeki produces athletic wear made from recycled plastic water bottles, recycled polyester, and organic cotton. All of their garments are made in the USA. Every pound of clothing produced conserves the equivalent of half a gallon of gasoline.
- Patagonia. Patagonia is an outdoor clothing company that places sustainability at the forefront. Many of their products are produced using materials that require many less resources, including hemp, organic cotton,recycled nylon, and 100% recycled down. Their worn wear program aims to increase the life of all of their products by reselling them. Consumers sell back their used clothing, and Patagonia fixes it up and resells it at a reduced price. They also heavily invest in grassroots environmental activism, and some of their products are fair trade certified.
- Indigenous. Indigenous is a men’s and women’s clothing company that emphasizes organic materials. They use all organic cotton, and in doing so they save 400 pounds of pesticides of the land every year. They also use low impact dyes free from chemicals. Due to their production process, every year, they save 13 million gallons of water and 45,600 lbs of CO2. They also focus on using natural materials like cotton and tencel (wood pulp) instead of synthetic materials like microfibers.
No matter what, fast fashion has got to go. We need to fundamentally change the way the garment industry works, and shift it towards environmentally friendly practices.
The best way that we, as consumers, can help this is to vote with our dollar by purchasing clothing from environmentally sustainable brands. If you have the financial ability, purchase environmentally ethical clothing that was made as locally, with organic and recycled materials, and with a production method that produces less greenhouse gas emissions and consumes less resources. If you do not have the financial ability to do this, buy high quality second hand clothing. For the fast fashion clothing you have right now, try to extend its life as long as possible. Wear it gently, and mend it if tears instead of throwing it away. Try to shift your mindset away from the idea of clothing as disposable, and try as much as you can to support companies that are doing the same.
About the Authors
Brooke is a first year college student at the University of Virginia, planning to study Global Sustainability and Environmental Science. She has been interested in environmental sustainability ever since she was a kid, when she and her family would spend the summer camping in national parks across the country. She became involved with Turning Green as a Project Green Challenge Finalist in 2018, and will intern for Turning Green in Summer 2019. Brooke wants to work in an environmental nonprofit that focuses on community engagement around environmental issues and creating grassroots environmental solutions. On her campus, she is involved with several sustainability-related organizations involved with issues such as plant-based advocacy and plastic waste reduction. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, yoga, and traveling.
Madison is a first year student at the University of Virginia, where she hopes to double major in Civil Engineering and Global Sustainability. She has been passionate about protecting the environment ever since she was very young, due to numerous summers spent hiking and camping in National Parks all over the United States. She became involved with Turning Green in 2017 after participating in Project Green Challenge for the first time and is excited to work closer with them to help educate people about sustainability. Madison is the advocacy leader for Veggies of Virginia, the vegan club at UVA, and believes strongly in the power of a plant based diet and the intersection of sustainability and compassion. She is also an active member in Sustainability Advocates, a group that implements different projects on the UVA campus to educate students about environmentally friendly choices. In her free time, Madison enjoys hiking, reading, and cooking.