The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world, with over 8% of carbon emissions coming from fashion and footwear production alone. Fashion production also is a leading contributor of water pollution and toxic chemical usage and spillage, creating an unfavorable effect on the environment and excessive amounts of waste. Over 100 billion pieces of fashion are produced every year, and this number is skyrocketing as fast fashion reigns supreme. Fast fashion is the idea of fashion, fast. Since this clothing needs to be made as quickly as possible to meet demand, workers are often subjected to 16+ hour workdays with very little pay, while being exposed to toxic chemicals, and releasing mass amounts of pollutants from the factory. Fast fashion companies, such as H&M and Forever 21 encourage their customers to buy unethically made clothing in mass quantities throughout the year. This causes customers to then throw out their last seasons unwanted clothing. This buy and throw away cycle is wrecking the environment and releasing unseen toxins into the environment and into our bodies. Microplastics and packaging also come into the environmental impact equation as many consumers are still unaware about the consequences of their synthetic fabrics. As global warming and sustainability come into the spotlight in 2019, many brands are expected to take steps towards transparency.
Where Does Fabric Come From?
Fabric for clothing can come from two places. The fabric can either be “natural” and made from plants and animals or the fabric can be produced from oil, creating synthetic fabrics made from plastics. Synthetic fabrics typically take more energy, water and chemicals to be manufactured. There are dozens of popular synthetic fabrics including polyester, spandex and nylon.
Polyester is a plastic made from petroleum and is one of the most common plastics (and plastic polluters). More than 63 million tones of polyester are produced every year. It is not environmentally friendly and can take up to 200 years to decompose, turning into microplastics and never completely breaking down. Polyester requires a special type of dye to color it, and like polyester itself, this dye is not a friend to the environment. Large amounts of water are also used in polyester production, reducing water availability in areas where water may already be in jeopardy. Recently, recycled polyester garments have gained popularity. Brands such as Patagonia use recycled soda bottles to produce some of their clothing, eliminating the need to produce new polyester and eliminating a good portion of emissions and toxins.
Spandex, a material known for its stretchy nature, can be found in athletic wear, sports bras, leggings, swim wear and a large assortment of other garments. Spandex is a plastic made similar to polyester, manufactured from oil and petroleum. Spandex also has similar environmental impacts as polyester, as mass amounts of water and toxins are used in its production process. Recycled spandex textiles do exist, but they have yet to gain in popularity.
Nylon was the first synthetic fabric to be made. Nylon is a durable fabric made from crude oil. Unfortunately, like other synthetic fabrics, nylon is not biodegradable can take hundreds of years to break down. The production of nylon and nylon fabric creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that can be up to 300 times more consequential than carbon dioxide emissions. Thankfully, there is good news when it comes to recycled nylon. Econyl has developed a closed loop recycling system for nylon. Nylon is not great for the environment, but companies like Econyl are working to use preexisting nylon in a more sustainable way.
Viscose, also known as rayon or viscose rayon was originally developed as a more sustainable alternative to silk. It is also used to create synthetic velvet material. Viscose rayon is derived from wood pulp or cellulose from trees, bamboo, soy and sugar cane. Viscose is a plant-based material, ranking it above synthetics in environmental standards. However, the methods used to harvest wood pulp can waste over 70% of a tree, and can destroy forests, leaving many animals with no habitats. Viscose is also manufactured with toxic chemicals, and many factories let these chemicals escape into waterways and airways. Viscose can be produced much more sustainably, but the fashion industry has yet to see that from major brands.
Conventional cotton is cotton that may be grown with GMOs, pesticides or other toxic chemicals. Conventional cotton is grown and produced in ways that may harm the environment, such as pesticide runoff from farms leaking into waterways. Conventional cotton also uses a significant amount of water in its growing process. While conventional cotton is plant based and therefore is biodegradable, chemicals added in the manufacturing or dying process may not be environmentally safe.
Organic fabrics are one of the best solutions to textile sustainability. Fabrics like organic cotton are grown without the use of toxic chemicals and GMOs, making them safe for farmers, the environment and consumers. Fabrics like cotton, hemp and linen are among the most popular of organic, plant-based fabrics. Growing organic plants to turn into fabrics like cotton also reduce environmental impact by lessening energy usage, increasing biodiversity of soil, and are able to hold up to 50% more water than conventional crops, leading to a significant savings in water usage.
Many Organic cotton farmers also use a shared crop method. This method allows farmers to share the land, such as growing organic cotton in the middle and additional crops on the outer edge. Leaves and organic debris from the additional crops fall on the soil and fertilize it, making it richer for organic cotton growth. Even though organic cotton itself is not edible, it also impacts our food system. Cotton seed oil is used in many common foods, like cookies and chips, and is also fed to livestock. Investing in organic cotton means that you are investing in farmer livelihood, cleaner air and healthy, pesticide free land and crops. Brands such as Patagonia, Boll and Branch, Prana, Pact and Soul Space USA, who specialize in various products, are known for their commitment to organic fabrics free from toxins and safe for the environment.
Biosynthetic fibers are made from renewable resources like sugars, starches and lipids. More commonly, biosynthetic fibers are known to be made from corn, sugar cane and plant oils. While biosynthetic fibers are still being tested and not commonly used by fashion companies yet, science is making great progress in figuring out how to make 100% renewable fibers. Whether these fibers use renewable resources in complete or just partly, the rise of biosynthetics can lead to great benefits for the earth. Potential benefits of long-term use of biosynthetics include a shift away from fossil fuels, leading to a society that relies more on plant matter, drastically reducing emissions and climate change risks. Biosynthetics are expected to become big in the next few years, and you can be sure to see them in your closet very soon. Athletic brand Adidas has already started developing shoes made from this renewable, plant-based fabric.
Washing Your Clothing – Releasing Microplastics and Chemicals
Since many synthetic fabrics are made from a type of plastic, it’s no surprise that when washed, tiny pieces of plastic, known as microplastics, are released. Science at Plymouth University has discovered shocking amounts of plastic released from just one single wash of synthetic fabrics. In one standard load, approximately 13 pounds of fabric, over 700,000 acrylic microplastic fibers can be released. Similarly, 500,000 of polyester fibers and 140,000 polyester-cotton blend fibers can be released. These microplastic fibers travel through the sewer system and are often too small to be filtered out. Instead, these fibers make their way into the ocean, where they are polluting marine life and contributing to many garbage patches accumulating in multiple areas of the globe.
As previously mentioned, many brands such as Patagonia and Everlane have released clothing made from recycled soda bottles or recycled polyester. In 2018, Everlane released their ReNew collection, featuring fleece, parkas and puffer jackets made from recycled plastic bottles. While this is a great initiative to recycle plastic, these garments still release mass amounts of microplastics when washed. It is debated if clothing should or shouldn’t be made from recycled plastic, and which one is truly better for the environment. Recycling and repurposing plastic as clothing is no doubt a creative way to reduce plastic waste, but manufacturing these recycled garments has not been studied, and is sure to still be releasing chemicals, toxins and microplastics. The good news is, recycled polyester garments do not lose their quality when recycled multiple times, meaning advances in recycled polyester could eventually lead to it becoming a closed loop system, meaning there would be no extra waste. There is no way to prevent synthetic clothing from releasing microplastics, but there is a way to safely catch the plastics in the washer. The Guppyfriend bag is a bag designed to wash synthetic fabrics in, and it will catch all of the fibers released when washing so they may be safely disposed in the trash. This bag prevents fibers from entering the oceans, which is a major step forward in the task of tackling the microplastic problem.
In addition to microplastics, chemicals used to treat, coat or dye clothing are also released when washed. Water repellant rain jackets are typically coated with a chemical known as PFC. This chemical is toxic and can stick around for 100s of years. This same chemical can also be found in food packaging and some cooking pans. Professor Richard Blackburn of Leed University brings up a great point to get consumers thinking. “While textile manufacturers have to abide by regulations to limit the pollution they can release into waterways, there are no limits what we can release from our own homes.” says Professor Blackburn. His point is all too true, and many have no idea what they are really releasing, and how much of it. Being aware of the problem is the first big step for consumers. Once knowledge spreads and consumers become aware, they can demand changes from textile manufacturers.
Avoiding this problem all together is a challenge for consumers, but there are ways to avoid microplastics and chemicals. Choosing plant based, organic fabrics, like organic cotton is a great way to ensure that the clothing has not been treated with pesticides and is not made with GMOs. Another great way to ensure that clothing is free of toxic chemicals is looking for GOTS certified clothing. GOTS is the Global Organic Textile Standard and sets strict social and environmental criteria for the fashion industry. Under GOTS, manufacturers are required to meet basic criteria on toxicity and biodegradability of chemicals, have an environmental policy to improve sustainability and minimize waste, and are prohibited to use many toxic chemicals and PVC plastic.
The Buy and Throw Away Cycle
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans threw out more than 16 million tons of textile waste, equaling approximately 80 pounds per person per year. Majority of these textiles were most likely synthetic and will take hundreds of years to break down in landfills. An average household’s clothing environmental impact is equal to enough water to fill over 1,000 bathtubs and the carbon emissions of driving a car 6,000 miles. This clothing craze comes from the rise of fast fashion. Fashion started out with 4 different collections a year, one for each season. Now, retailers are releasing new product weekly or even daily, encouraging mass consumerism and mass textile waste.
This mass textile production also leads to unethical treatment of factory and production workers. Deadlines to complete product are much too fast for many workers, leading to working unhealthy long hours for little pay and poor working conditions. Fast fashion companies H&M and Gap were under the spotlight for abuse and gender-based violence at factories in 2018. Fashion Revolution has started the movement “Who Made My Clothes?” to inspire consumers to research factory workers from their favorite fashion brands, to put pressure on brands to improve factory conditions and become completely transparent about the manufacturing process. The best fix for mass consumerism is knowledge about what really goes into the process of making fast fashion garments.
Plastic has been the largest and most popular kind of packaging since the 1940s. Most don’t think twice about their plastic consumption when it comes to fashion, but packaging also plays a large role in making the fashion industry sustainable. Like textiles made from plastics, plastic packaging breaks down similarly. It takes hundreds of years and will never fully be decomposed. With the boom of online retailers, plastic packaging from clothing and fashion is flooding landfills and unfortunately much is also making its way into the ocean. Brands like Everlane have promised to eliminate new plastic from their supply chain by 2021. Not many brands have taken the initiative to try and completely eliminate plastic, and only time will tell if this new trend becomes a permanent movement in the fashion industry.
Paper packaging is a more sustainable option than plastic, but it still has its flaws. Paper packaging is recyclable and can be repurposed, which is great news. However, the trees used for paper packaging are cut down irresponsibly, causing mass deforestation issues across the globe. 18.7 million acres of forest are disappearing every year due to the demand for paper products. Trees can be sourced sustainably, but unfortunately many countries have no forest regulations, and paper companies take advantage of this.
Reusable organic cotton bags are a packaging solution stealing the spotlight. This type of packaging is reusable and has endless opportunities for storage. Consumers may use these types of organic cotton totes for produce, shoes, snacks or cosmetics. Packaging made from plant-based materials, like organic cotton, are also biodegradable if no longer needed. Reusable, plant-based packaging is the next new trend, and is guaranteed to be used by many new brands in the coming years.
Although many great changes are being made in the fashion industry, it still has a long way to go. Brands may not change unless pressure is put on them from consumers. As a consumer, knowledge is power, and questioning a brand’s environmental impact and ethics is the first step towards a better, earth friendly industry. Spread the message and spread awareness, and with that, you can change the world.
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