By Gaby Lohner
If you’ve ever shopped at an H&M, Zara, Urban Outfitters, Forever 21, or any shop similar to these, you have participated in the newest fashion trend — no, not the resurgence of chokers — “fast fashion.” Fast fashion consists of runway-to-closet looks, the trends that pop up and disappear in the blink of an eye. Millions of people buy this disposable, cheap clothing, for which life-cycles last a little more than a month. The fashion industry in the United States alone makes around $250 billion annually, and much of this attributed to the companies that capture the fast fashionistas. Journalist Elizabeth Cline sums the phenomena up well, saying “because of low prices, chasing trends is now a mass activity, accessible to anyone with a few bucks to spare.”
For whatever reason, the fashion industry seems forgotten when environmental impact comes up, despite being the industry that consumes the second most water and is responsible for 10 percent of global carbon emissions. On top of that, the fashion industry is a leader in pesticide usage, toxic runoff, and many other undesirable metrics. Unsurprisingly, fast fashion is a significant perpetrator in these environmental evils.
It is easy to ignore fashion when thinking about the big environmental culprits. We can see firsthand how dirty coal and oil are. For the fashion industry, the effects are more spread out along an extensive supply chain. Numerous steps are taken to get clothes into our closets – from growing the fibers to shipping goods from warehouses. For this reason, the environmental damage this industry creates is spread out with respect to location and culpability. The increase in fast fashion has only exacerbated this problem by increasing the demand, and thus the speed of production, for clothing.
Let’s walk through a basic fashion supply chain and the effect each step has on our Earth.
According to the Ethical Fashion Forum, the fashion industry uses 22.5 percent of the world’s insecticides and 10 percent of pesticides on only 2.5 percent of agricultural land. Many of these pesticides are dangerous to animals and humans. In addition to pesticide use, growing the cotton to meet our wardrobe desires uses a ton of water. The production of just one t-shirt takes 2,700 liters of water. To an average American, that’s around 40 showers.
Organic cotton offers solutions to some of the issues created by traditional cotton growth mechanisms. The cotton produced by these organic methods is of the same quality as traditional cotton, but the farmers focus on sustainable land use, quality of soil, and reduction in water and pesticide use. Organic cotton is used by a number of companies today, such as Patagonia, H&M and Nike, but is not yet an industry norm.
Many chemicals are used in the dyeing and softening of cotton and polyester clothing. Additionally, dyeing clothing is one of the more water-intensive processes in the supply chain, seeing as many of the dyes are watered down at a dye-to-water ratio of 1-to-30. While waterless dyeing is in the works and already being offered by some companies, it is not a widespread process. However, local artisans are taking their own steps to promote what they hope is the future of dyeing fabric.
The next step is to actually put the good together – to create the piece. This is increasingly done overseas as more companies outsource the production of their goods. While much of the criticism of outsourcing is based on the supposed loss of American jobs and the poor working conditions within foreign factories, the environmental impact of outsourcing is often forgotten. Carbon emissions are tied to the burning of coal, which occurs frequently in factories. China and India are two countries that have seen an extreme rise in carbon emissions, which parallels their industrialization and their popularity in outsourcing. Only 2 percent of clothing purchased by American consumers is made within our borders. It is almost as if, along with moving the production of goods across seas, we are sending our environmental impact there as well.
Shipping and Packaging
The final step of this condensed fashion supply chain is shipping the finished goods to a warehouse or retailer. As they are coming from across the world, you can guess that this movement is neither cheap nor environmentally friendly, whether the companies choose to use airplanes or cargo ships. This process is fast and frequent to meet rising consumer demand. Oftentimes each item is individually wrapped in plastic, as you may have seen in stores or when you order clothes online. This plastic use in itself is horrifying, seeing as plastic contains chemicals dangerous to humans, such as DEHP, is made with petroleum, and is not biodegradable.
Out with the Old
While recycling or donating your old clothing may seem like the perfect way out of this environmental crisis, it unfortunately does not work as well as everyone would hope. Only 0.1 percent of clothing can be recycled, and a measly 10 percent of donated goods are resold or given to charity. According to a 2012 report from the EPA, 84 percent of discarded clothing was sent to a landfill or an incinerator. These landfills have a heavy price environmentally and in cold, hard cash – New York spends $20.6 million annually shipping textiles to incinerators. You may not think of the impact when you throw away a shirt or a pair of pants the same way you do when you throw away a plastic bottle or Styrofoam container, but the impact is existent. Fast fashion has made us as a population more likely to throw out clothing. As each season changes or new trends emerge, it is easy to throw out the top you got on sale for $7, something you likely would not do with a more expensive designer brand.
So, What Do I Do?
Ultimately, the responsibility is the consumer’s. It is important to recognize that companies work to the will of the consumer. If enough people are asking for fair trade and organic clothing, the request will be met, whether through existing companies or the creation of new ones. This won’t stop the fast fashion dominance of Urban Outfitters or Zara — it’s too cheap, easy, and fashionable. But if everyone were to take the extra time to see where their clothing comes from and think about the lasting impact that it has, maybe we could collectively make a difference. Think before you buy: let’s stop letting the fashion industry slip through the environmental cracks.
If you’re ready to shrink your environmental footprint, and look good doing it, here are a few brands that focus on sustainability and fair trade: