Fashion is not only what you wear to show off your personality, it’s also a worldwide industry associated with runways, models, and expensive clothes. It can be tough to keep up with the latest fashions when fashion is constantly changing, so we often find ourselves discarding old clothes for new before we necessarily have to. As Eileen Fisher, a clothing designer, said when receiving the Positive Impact Award, “The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world… second only to oil,” She revealed that fashion is a comparatively complicated business. It involves long and varied supply chains of production, raw material, textile manufacture, clothing construction, shipping, retail, and eventually disposal. The carbon footprint of fashion is enormous. Carbon footprint is defined as the estimated impact on climate change of a certain object. When assessing the environmental impact of each garment, the pollutants are obvious – the pesticides used in farming cotton and other materials, the toxic dyes used in manufacturing, and the huge amount of waste generated. But what’s less obvious is the number of other resources that go into fashion – including water usage, farming, processing, manufacturing, and shipping
Nowadays, “fast fashion” focuses on speed and low costs to produce new collections as often as possible, brands like Forever 21 or Zara come up with a new collection on a weekly basis. In the pursuit of low production costs, companies took advantage of a lack of environmental awareness, a loose environmental regulatory system, and the low cost and low-quality materials in developing countries. Polyester is the most common and popular fabric used for fast fashion productions. There are many benefits of polyester, including high tenacity, good durability, and great insulation. However, when polyester garments are washed, they shed microfibres that add to the increasing levels of plastic in the ocean. These microfibres easily pass through sewage and wastewater treatment plants and flow directly into the ocean. Since the material does not biodegrade, microfibers not only threaten ocean ecosystems but also harm human beings according to the bioaccumulation rule.
Vibrant colors and prints are appealing to fashion lovers, but they often require a huge amount of toxic chemicals to produce. In fact, textile dyeing is the second largest source of water pollution in the world after agriculture. Some of the chemicals are strictly regulated because they are toxic, bio-accumulative, carcinogenic, and disruptive to human hormones. In addition, toxic chemicals used in growing cotton also cause serious problems. Although cotton seems like a smart, natural choice – Being that it is the world’s most commonly used natural fiber – pesticides and high water usage tell a different story. A documentary, called The True Cost, told the story of a U.S. cotton farmer who died from a brain tumor and serious birth defects in the children of Indian cotton farmers. Most cotton that is used today is genetically modified to be resistant to the bollworm pest, thereby improving yield and reducing pesticide use. However, this may lead to prosperity in pesticide-resistant worms, which have to be treated with more toxic pesticides and more water that would be even worse for the environment.
According to World Wildlife Organization, it takes up to 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt. While only 2.4% of the world’s cropland is for cotton farming, cotton farming consumes 10% of total agricultural chemicals and 25% of insecticides. Uzbekistan, the world’s sixth leading producer of cotton, is an example of how cotton can have such a negative impact on a region’s environment. Two rivers that were originally diverted for cotton irrigation, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, have been reduced to less than 10% of their water level 50 years ago. If the fashion industry continues this trend of fast, cheap clothing to keep up with rapidly changing styles, the Earth’s safety is at risk.
According to World Resources Institute, consumers have been buying 60% more clothing than in 2000, and only keeping it for half as long Because of the fast fashion trend, global textile consumption is estimated to be more than 30 million tons a year, which causes serious social and environmental problems across the supply chain. Not only has textile consumption increased over the past few years, but clothing waste has also grown significantly. Low-quality fabric and the change in consumer habits have created more non-biodegradable waste, which contributes to our planet’s already staggering waste management problem.
The carbon footprint of a single clothing item has also greatly increased due to the rise of online shopping. According to The Carbon Trust, clothing accounts for about 3% of the global production of carbon dioxide emissions per year. For that reason, more and more clothing companies have been raising awareness of “sustainable fashion.”
But, can fashion really be sustainable?
According to the World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainability is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Sustainable fashion first emerged in the 1960s, when consumers became aware of the negative impact that clothing manufacturing had on the environment and demanded that the industry change its practices. Although eco-fashion was opposed at first, the anti-fur campaign of the 1980s, followed by ethical clothing interests later in the late 1990s, have successfully raised awareness towards environmental sustainability in fashion. Compared with fast fashion, sustainable fashion is part of the slow fashion, which is mainly about good working conditions and reducing environmental destruction. It challenges the fast fashion standard by breaking down existing boundaries – rather than focusing on profits and costs, it considers the social, natural, and economic “price” paid for fashion production. Currently, there are no industry norms for sustainable fashion, the concept simply encompasses a variety of terms such as organic, green, fair trade, sustainable, and eco-friendly.
It is the responsibility of fashion companies to change their production, distribution, and marketing practices and strategies to favor sustainability. Whether it is about making longer-durability clothing, setting up recycling systems, or using environmental-certified textiles, the ultimate goal is to increase a company’s sustainability performance and encourage more sustainable production. It is also the responsibility of consumers to change our shopping habits. One way to do this is to keep our clothing longer, and not dispose of it carelessly. That means buying higher quality products and repairing items that can be fixed instead of throwing them away. Another good habit is to do research before shopping. Make sure the company you are buying clothes from is working on improving their environmental practices. The 2018 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report stated that 75% of fashion companies have improved their environmental and social performance over the past year. Brands like Stella McCartney, Adidas, Patagonia, and Toms are advocates when it comes to sustainable fashion.
Stella McCartney, founded in 2001, is evidence of the fact that being fashionable doesn’t have to harm the environment. McCartney was first well-known for turning down a job at Gucci because she didn’t want to work with leather, and refused to sell her fragrance in China because of demands on animal testing. Stella McCartney set a good example for other companies in 2003 when it launched a vegan-friendly fragrance and powered all of the UK stores with renewable energy. “I don’t eat animals, so why would I kill them for fashion?” said Stella McCartney herself in an interview. In their 2017 Autumn/Winter collection, the advertisement photos were shot at a landfill in Scotland to highlight the issue of disposable consumer habits. “The idea we had with this campaign is to portray who we want to be and how we carry ourselves; our attitude and collective path,” said McCartney. Sustainability was and always will be the cornerstone of the brand, from designing, to choosing the fabric, to store decorations, the company purposefully makes an effort to advocate for and protect the environment.
As one of the leading companies in sportswear, Adidas teamed up with Parley for the Oceans in an effort to repurpose the million pounds of plastic floating in our oceans. Parley for the Ocean is an organization that removes discarded plastic bottles from the ocean and recycles them into usable materials. According to a 2015 study, an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the oceans every year. The notorious “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” for example, is constituted of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge, and other debris which are caught in the North Pacific Gyre’s currents. Adidas has found a way to take the waste out of the ocean and repurpose it into jogging shoes. The company has committed to reducing their waste production and water use at least 20% by 2020.
As more companies in the fashion industry come up with sustainable plans for the future, “sustainable fashion” has become its own trend. A mobile app called Good On You shows how sustainable the brands are. Transparency information including environmental impact, labor conditions, and animal welfare is provided on the app so that consumers can research a brand before purchasing its products “Shopping ethically just got a lot easier,” says Refinery29. Indeed, choosing a brand that cherishes the environment is more important than shopping from those that only care about profits. Protecting our planet is not a unilateral effort. While consumers make more sustainable choices about their clothing, companies should also pay more attention to furthering “sustainable fashion” by making long-lasting products, fair working environments, and certified textiles. By supporting sustainable fashion, you can make a difference every time you shop.