Anyone who knows anything about fashion or is aware of the current state of our planet knows that the fashion industry is the second largest polluter after oil. According to Danish Fashion Institute report (2013), it accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions. 25% of the world’s chemicals are used for textiles, making it the second-worst polluter of clean water after agriculture. We can all read these facts and say that we understand the impact this industry has on the world. That means even if you’re diligent about correctly separating your recycling, put solar panels on your roof and collect rainwater, and strictly buy local, organic produce, you’re inherently implicit in fashion’s shameful truth just by getting dressed every morning.
Americans toss 14 million tons of clothing each year. That’s an astounding 80 pounds per person. Who’s to blame? Our shopping habits. Every time you swipe your credit card to purchase something from a fast-fashion brand like H&M or Zara, you are contributing to the contamination. Fast-fashion has made clothing so cheap and affordable that we do not think twice before making purchases we do not need. Where regular fashion brands have 4 seasons, companies like H&M have 52. This means, in order to bring in new stock every week, they must get rid of the products that do not sell. So where do these products go?
You know it. I know it. We all know it. Landfills.
On average, a household's purchase of clothing per year requires 1,000 bathtubs of water to produce. A thousand bathtubs of water per household, per year. That's a lot of water! It seems that the industry that always has been and probably always will be on the forefront of design, creates products that are designed to be comfortable, designed to be trendy and designed to be expressive but aren't really designed to be sustainable or recyclable for that matter. But I think that can change. I think the fashion industry's aptitude for change is the exact thing that should make it patient zero for sustainable business practices. We need to start by designing clothes that can be easily recycled.
Getting fashion on the racks as soon as possible has its ups but also has worse negative effects such as harmful chemical usage, large levels of waste production and water pollution. Effectively dyeing fabric is achieved through the use of powerful chemical ingredients which is one of the leading, worldwide causes of water pollution. Also, genetically modified cotton, with the intention of limiting the amount of pesticides used on them are actually increasing the amount exponentially.
By 2020, millennials will be the most numerous demographics in the global workforce, which means fashion businesses must now cater to their preferences, rather than those of Generation X. But while a third of millennials say they are more likely to buy from companies that are mindful of social responsibilities only a tiny proportion of all consumers are willing to pay more for a sustainable product.
Sustainable fashion is slow fashion. One reason fast fashion is so popular is because of its affordability. A lot of sustainable fashion pieces can be a pricier because they are made with better materials. These pieces will last longer and are better quality. However, not all-sustainable fashion is expensive! Sustainable fashion includes anything purchased from a thrift store, or any vintage clothing item because instead of purchasing something new and cheaply made, you are purchasing something that will not end up in a landfill.
How can we help?
We can begin by educating ourselves and others. Choosing an eco-friendly fabric is complex as there are pros and cons to all fibre types. Garments, which are labelled as being made from natural fibres, are not necessarily better than synthetic, as fibre choice is only one part of a complex picture. Fibres still have to be spun, knitted or woven, dyed, finished, sewn and transported – all of which have different environmental impacts.
For example, choosing organic fabrics is better than choosing non-organic fabrics in terms of the chemicals used to grow the fibres, but organic cotton still requires high amounts of water and the impact of dyeing it is higher than the impact of dyeing polyester.
For most of the types of clothes we have in our closet the average lifespan is about three years. Now, I'm sure there are many of us that have gems in our drawers that are much older than that, which is great. Because being able to extend the life of a garment by even only nine months reduces the waste and water impact that the garment has, by 20 to 30 percent.
Designing clothes that are easily recyclable. There's no fix-all, and there's no one-step solution. But we can get started by designing clothes with their death in mind. The fashion industry is the perfect industry to experiment with and embrace change that can one day get us to the sustainable future we so desperately need.