The US apparel market is the largest in the world, and certainly a worthy topic of conversation: in 2016, store-based retailing in the US was valued at about 292 billion dollars, according to Statista. With a market of such economic size, we at BuyGreen feel it’s important to discuss how this huge industry affects our planet.
Fast Forward to Fast Fashion
By nature, fashion is an evolving concept. What’s fashionable one day may not be fashionable the next, and fashion brands have always struggled to keep up. The advent of the sewing machine revolutionized the fashion world during the Industrial Revolution, speeding up the manufacturing process at a lower price per unit. It was during this period that factories and sweatshops largely came to be — as well as subsequent questions of their morality and effect on society, especially after New York’s Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911.
Fashion continued to grow faster as the post-WWII generations began to use clothing as a means of personal expression. In the 1960s and 1970s, younger consumers embraced cheaper clothing for the sake of an up-to-date wardrobe. By the turn of the century, the fast fashion epidemic was in full swing, dominated by clothing retailers like Zara, H&M and Forever 21. Companies in the fast fashion sector are known for quickly manufacturing and selling stylish products at affordable prices — but at what cost?
Fashion’s Environmental Impact
Producing clothing quickly in large volumes means cutting corners, however, and oftentimes, it’s the environment that picks up the slack.
First, many fast fashion products are manufactured using cheap or unsustainable fabrics, like petroleum-based polyester. Not only is polyester created by way of fossil fuels, but it also sheds plastic microfibers in the wash. New research suggests that up to 70,000 of these microfibers are released into the ocean for every 13-pound load of laundry, harming fish and other aquatic wildlife.
Cotton is another fabric frequently used in the fast fashion industry that takes a toll on the planet. To produce one kilogram of cotton — the equivalent to a single t-shirt and a pair of jeans — requires 20,000 liters of water, as well as considerable quantities of pesticides. Cotton production in developing countries like China or India actually contributes to regional drought, forcing a critical choice between cotton production and clean drinking water. All in all, the fashion industry is the second-largest consumer of water globally, producing 20 percent of all wastewater and more greenhouse gas emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
The real problem comes after production, however (hard to believe, right?). Fast fashion items are designed to be replaced quickly — the average fast fashion piece is worn a total of five times, and kept for about 35 days before it is thrown out or donated. Because they’re composed of cheap materials, fast fashion clothing often falls apart before it can be donated. Even if a piece of clothing makes it to a consignment shop, only 10 percent of donated clothing in the US actually gets resold. Everything else ends up in a landfill, where it contaminates soil and water for hundreds of years before decomposing. In the US, we send 13 trillion tons of clothing to landfills every year.
How Fashion Companies are Changing
Fashion companies have taken steps in recent years to reduce their environmental impact, especially as more and more people recognize their harmful practices. Brands like Nike, H&M and the Gap have all signed the initiative Make Fashion Circular, which aims to improve the industry’s record on sustainability by promoting considerate business models, quality materials in production and proper recycling and disposal methods. In this spirit, some retail companies like Patagonia have established turn-in programs for gently used clothing — but only 0.1 percent of all collected clothing is actually recycled into new textile fiber.
To cut down on plastic usage — another waste problem that major retailers face — sustainable, paper hangers now adorn the retail floors of companies across the country, including Levi Strauss, REI and the Gap.
The companies listed are only a few of millions ... and despite their best efforts, there’s still much work to be done.
What Consumers Can Do
Until all fashion companies make moves to improve their eco-footprint, consumers must take it upon themselves to avoid unsustainable companies, especially those in the fast fashion sector. Purchasing secondhand not only supports small businesses in many cases, but it also promotes the proper reuse of expelled clothing. They say one man’s loss is another man’s gain, but in this system, everyone wins.
When you do purchase something new, make it something upcycled. Many companies are creating clever, fashionable products out of materials traditionally considered waste, like license plates, for example.
As always, make intentional, well-researched purchases. Finding clothing companies that abide by sustainable practices is important — and, as always, you can find the best, made-to-last products on BuyGreen.