The True Cost of Fast Fashion
By: Sarah Wilson
Some aspects of our carbon footprint are easy to identify, such as flying, commuting with a gas-powered vehicle, using single use plastics, etc. But when it comes to our clothing, the impact is not as apparent. As the price of clothing has declined, people are buying more of it, but they are tossing it out sooner, considering it “disposable” due to its low cost and quality. “Fast fashion” has made clothes more affordable, but at a significant environmental cost.
The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of all carbon emissions and is a more significant source than all international air travel and maritime shipping combined, according to the UN Environment Program. In the 1960’s 95% of clothing destined for the American market was made in the USA. Now it is less than 3%. These textiles may be produced in one country, assembled and sewn elsewhere and then transported into the US market.
One quarter of all pesticide use in the U.S. is used on cotton crops. In the U.S.,cotton ranks in third place in terms of pesticide use after only corn and soybeans. A Life Cycle Assessment published by the Textile Exchange concluded that one ton of conventional (non-organic) cotton fibre produces 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Global cotton production releases 220 million metric tons (MT) of carbon dioxide.
The fashion industry is the second largest consumer of water worldwide. It takes about 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt. That’s enough water for one person to drink at least eight cups per day for 3 ½ years. It takes about 2,000 gallons of water to produce one pair of jeans, or enough to sustain for one person at that level for 10 years. Cotton is a highly water-intensive plant.
The dying of textiles is the second largest source of water pollution in the world, because the water leftover from the dying process often makes its way into ditches, streams and rivers, accounting for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.
The popularity of clothing containing polyester has skyrocketed. We like the “stretchiness” and easy care of synthetic fabrics. However washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year – the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles, according to the World Economic Forum. Many of those fibers are polyester, a plastic found in an estimated 60% of garments. Producing polyester from fossil fuels releases 2-3 times more carbon emissions than cotton and polyester does not break down in the ocean. It is estimated that 35% of all microplastics (very small pieces of plastic that never biodegrade) in the ocean came from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester.
Some manufacturers have been using recycled plastic in clothing and footwear which, although better than using virgin polyester, still requires much more energy than hemp, wool or cotton, according to a 2010 report from the Stockholm Environment Institute.
What happens to the clothes that a fashion company doesn’t sell? Too often, it is dumped. Instead of selling, re-using or donating unsold clothing, retailers destroy it so that its brand maintains exclusivity. According to the World Economic Forum, 85% of all textiles go into the waste stream each year, 60% ends up in landfills, and 25% is incinerated. This is the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes being burned or dumped every second.
Some Good News: What can we do as consumers?
- Buy quality clothing that will last for many years. Several responsible manufacturers will repair and refurbish their products so that they can continue to provide value to their owners. Patagonia, for example, is a leader in helping their customers continue to get value from their clothing for many years, accepting items for repair and hosting repair events to teach consumers how to do simple repairs themselves. Barbour accepts their waxed jackets back for repairs and refurbishing over their lifetime.
- Select clothing made with natural fibers as much as possible. Organic cotton has a lower carbon footprint and uses much less water. Natural fibers have less impact when produced and don’t contain microfibers which will get into the water, air and soil.
- Biocouture, or fashion made from more environmentally sustainable materials, is drawing interest. Some companies are researching creating textiles using waste from wood, fruit and other natural materials. Others are trying alternative ways of dyeing their fabrics or searching for materials that biodegrade more easily once thrown away.
- Wash your clothes in cold water, which uses less energy.
- Hang your clothes to dry, which not only uses less energy, but is quieter and avoids microplastics being sent into the air through your dryer vent.
- Donate unwanted clothing to thrift stores, or to non-profits who in turn donate the clothing to thrift stores, such as Savers in Brookfield, CT.
- Organize a clothing swap with family members or friends.
- When it’s time to purchase clothing, check out used and vintage clothing first. Thrift stores in our area include Goodwill (Baldwin Place), Love In Action (Yorktown), Katonah Thrift Shop, Once Upon a Child (Baldwin Place), Eagle Eye Thrift Shop (Brewster). Online sources for used clothing include ThredUp.com, Tradesy and Swap.com.
The latest fashion trend isn’t a seasonal color or a must-have style: It’s the concept of sustainable fashion and ethical clothing. A growing number of brands and consumers alike have taken a much-needed interest in these issues. Cultivate your own style, regardless of trends. Start by evaluating the clothing that you wear most often and ask yourself why. When you do shop, you will be more likely to choose only those items that you know you will wear, and will want to keep for a long time.
Yorktown100 is a 100% volunteer group of neighbors working to reduce our carbon footprint by 5% a year through various programs. Contact us if you would like to learn more or would like to join. We welcome new members! Visit us at https://yorktown100.org/ to learn more about this topic and many others and help make a difference.
Sarah Wilson is a member of Yorktown100 and the Climate Smart Communities Task Force for the Town of Yorktown. She is the organizer of Repair Cafes in Yorktown and serves on the Executive Committee of Sierra Club Lower Hudson Group.