The Fashion Disaster

Many of us do not understand the true toll that fashion takes on our planet. Did you know that the fashion industry comprises ten percent of global carbon emissions? If this industry continues on a business as usual trajectory, its impact could jump to 26% of total global carbon emissions by 2050, according to a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Keep in mind that this includes everything from the production of the textiles – including equipment emissions for farming natural fibers, or mining emissions associated with the oil used to make synthetic fibers like polyester and acrylic – to transportation of the finished product to the store or to the consumer, which can consist of plane flights, truck drives, and then local deliveries. For comparison, the fashion industry produces just slightly less carbon than the entire global agricultural industry, which – while it does have its flaws – provides critical sustenance for 7.8 billion people. While not essential to our survival, globally, we consume around 80 billion new items of clothing every year – a 400% increase from the amount we consumed merely 2 decades ago. On average, each American creates 82 pounds of clothing and textile waste every year, adding up to more than 11 million tons of textile waste just from the U.S. alone.

Fashion is often ranked the 3rd most detrimental industry in the world for our environment, right behind the fuel and agriculture industries. In addition, dyeing textiles for fashion use is the second largest polluter of water globally. Much of the chemically treated wastewater used in the clothes dyeing process is discarded into ditches, streams, or rivers, left to sink into the earth and contaminate groundwater and drinking water sources. The dyeing process alone, not including fiber growth or transportation, uses enough water to fill 2 million olympic sized swimming pools annually.

Specifically, a particular part of the industry, referred to as “fast fashion,” is the real culprit in damaging this planet. Fast fashion refers to mass produced clothing that is constantly churned out in attempt to meet the latest trends. Fast fashion companies that you might be familiar with include Forever 21, Zara, H&M, Gap, Walmart, Primark, TopShop, Fashion Nova, Shein, Zaful, Windsor, Tobi, and many stores that Amazon sources clothes from. Pretty much any store you can buy very cheap clothes from, whether that be at your local mall or online, is considered fast fashion. Fast fashion companies like these purposely design clothes that deteriorate quickly in order to make a larger profit, using cheap materials and even cheaper labor, and leaving a scarring impact on our planet.

Please keep in mind that someone is always paying the true cost for these incredibly cheap clothes. There are about 40 million garment workers around the planet. These workers are some of the lowest paid laborers in the entire world, with roughly 85% of all garment workers being women, most of whom are not provided rights or protections through their jobs or states. The blatant exploitation, and essentially, modern day slavery of garment workers has been documented for years, but most consumers continue to blindly and obsessively buy into this incredibly detrimental industry. You may think that I am overdramatizing the issue, but type the key words “human rights violations” and “fashion industry” into any search bar and brace yourself for the plethora of tragic stories you will uncover on the mistreatment of garment workers around the globe.

One of the most famous, devastating, and gruesome instances of this exploitation in the fashion industry was the Rana Plaza incident on April 24, 2013. The previous day, severe cracks were discovered in the foundation of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh. As a result, all of the bank workers, apartment tenants, garment workers, and shop workers were ordered to evacuate immediately and not return until critical repairs had been made. While everyone else followed the evacuation, garment workers at Rana Plaza were essentially forced to keep working. The garment workers were told that the building was safe to work in (even though officials had stated otherwise), and managers told garment workers that if they did not return, their meager wages would be withheld for an entire month if they did not comply. These workers, who live in extreme poverty and rely on each daily payment to survive – to purchase essentials such as food and to access water for the day – were forced to either go hungry and put their families in danger, or go to work in incredibly dangerous conditions. Many of these laborers, most of them young women, simply did not have a choice but to return.

When these garment workers returned, the Rana Plaza complex collapsed, killing over 1,134 workers and injuring over 2,500 more, in one of the largest industrial disasters in global history. What makes matters even worse, was the fact that the entire situation was preventable. The Rana Plaza collapse led to an uprising in calls for justice in the fashion industry, and major protests, with people calling on the fashion companies that sourced their garments from the Rana Plaza to pay these families for their losses, improve working conditions for laborers, provide workers living wages to prevent what has become a form of indentured servitude, and truly invest in the wellbeing of their garment workers. Companies involved included Benetton, Bonmarché, Prada, Gucci, Versace, Moncler, the Children’s Place, El Corte Inglés, Joe Fresh, Mango, Matalan, Primark, and Walmart. To this day, many of these companies, and more, have refused to improve or ensure foreign factory safety in legitimate ways, or even compensate families for the losses of their relatives in the Rana Plaza accident.

Today, Fashion Revolution Week occurs annually on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy. I encourage you to learn more about the global Fashion Revolution movement, and how you can promote the value of the human life over growth and profit. Joining the Revolution, or starting by simply becoming aware of it, is now critical more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. In March of 2020, it was estimated that $1.44 Billion US dollars worth of payments to garment workers had been cancelled or withheld by major fashion brands, and this was in Bangladesh alone. In addition, research conducted by Traidcraft Exchange further exposes our fashion system as being heavily reliant on the commonplace exploitation of garment workers, in a severe imbalance of power between fashion companies and developing economies. Check out #WhoMadeMyClothes, across social media platforms, to learn more…

As a consumer, please keep in mind the people you could be hurting next time you make a purchase. You, as a consumer, and everyone around you, will also be making up for those cheap clothing costs in the form of environmental burdens. In order to crank out these fleeting, new, mass produced styles fast enough to make it to market before the fad fades away, there are many environmental corners being cut, and often human rights being infringed upon. Do your research on the companies you buy from, how they treat garment workers and ensure their safety, and understand what kinds of legitimate practices they follow to mitigate their impact on the environment. Please be wary of greenwashing, as many companies will create an environmentally friendly facade around their incredibly detrimental ways. Many consumers will look no deeper than these companies’ watery claims. If you have the time, learn more about greenwashing, and how to spot it, here, or refer to the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” for more guidance.

Did you know that just the top 100 corporations in the world are responsible for 71% of total carbon emissions on this planet? You might then wonder what a single person could possibly do to change the outcome of such a drastic issue. And while I do not believe that the consumer should be responsible for the incredibly detrimental environmental impacts made by just a few, I believe in the power of the individual. I encourage every consumer to put their money where their mouth is, and use their dollars as a token to vote for what they believe is right, ethical, and sustainable. Similar to how the Black Lives Matter movement encouraged shoppers to only purchase from Black owned businesses (or spend no money at all one day in order to cause a major blackout on the US economy to bring attention to their cause), I encourage individuals to make long term lifestyle changes when it comes to fashion purchasing in order to make a tangible impact on the fashion industry and its environmental footprint.

I understand that, for many people, fast fashion is the most accessible route to obtaining clothing essentials, that many need affordable options for necessary work attire, or need to rely on the most affordable option to improve personal appearance. I also understand that many people simply seek to keep up with fashion trends in an affordable manner, and that many young people want to stay up with the latest styles for Prom and parties, but cannot afford to do so without turning to fast fashion. I understand that many people simply do not have a better option. To be clear, I am not here to shame the actions of these individuals, or anyone else for that matter, for buying into fast fashion. I understand the adversity faced and the limited options to turn to. I understand the pressure put on us by the media, the judgments placed on us by others, and the permeating expectations that we must always have the most up to date styles. I also personally know the need to fit in and to make a good impression. On the other end of the spectrum, there are many people who take advantage of fast fashion as a cheap resource, even though it is not a necessity for them. That being said, there are greener and affordable alternatives to fast fashion if you know where to look, and if you are willing and able to try them.

Fast fashion is so incredibly detrimental to the environment. To begin, fast fashion brands almost exclusively use synthetic fibers, which are made from petroleum – in other words, fossil fuels. Petroleum is used to make these unnatural fibers which can then take hundreds to a thousand years to break down in nature. Petroleum-based textiles include polyester, nylon and acrylic and are found in practically every fast fashion item. Not only are these materials questionable as to their impact on the human body, but they also release plastic microfibers into our water. Globally, 500,000 tons of microfibers are washed into the ocean each year from simply washing clothes, which is equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles. These microfibers are estimated to make up 31% of total plastic pollution in the ocean. Microplastics are unique because they both absorb and give off chemicals and other harmful pollutants. The understanding and discovery of microplastics in our environment is relatively new, as is the fast fashion industry, but they are suspected to have extremely adverse health effects on humans and animals by affecting the functionality of cells within the body, and continually contaminate our drinking water and natural ecosystems. Oftentimes, sea animals are found dead with hundreds of accumulated microplastics within their stomachs, which caused these animals to starve to death. Today, even we ingest microplastics through the water we drink and the food we eat.

On top of this, these synthetic plastic fibers are treated with thousands of different chemicals in their production process, many of which permeate your clothes and remain in constant contact with your skin while wearing them. Just to emphasize how truly scary these unfamiliar chemicals can be, many of them used in synthetic fiber production are suspected or even proven carcinogens, and are simply not regulated strictly. The skin is the largest organ in our bodies, and these chemicals can actually be passed into our bloodstreams through our skin, which can have detrimental and unknown long term effects on our bodies. In addition, many of these chemicals can continually wash off with microfibers in our washing machines, leading to contamination of waterways, groundwater, and drinking water.

Also keep in mind that any fashion supply chain, whether that be a fast fashion company using synthetic fibers, or a completely organic clothing line, can still be detrimental to the environment. People are more likely now to turn to natural fibers like cotton, rather than synthetics, but still do not realize the environmental impact of these textiles either. Because cotton is used to make over ½ of all textiles in our clothing today, vast areas of land are being deforested for cotton growth, soils are eroding and degrading, pesticides and fertilizer runoff are contaminating waterways and destroying natural habitats and wreaking havoc on ecosystems across the world. For example, cotton farming in Uzbekistan diverted and drained so much water from the Aral Sea that it dried up almost completely after only 50 years of farming. The Aral sea was previously one of the world’s four largest lakes, but is now considered a desert. If you don’t believe me, check out these images below, the last of which was photographed over a decade ago – you can imagine what is looks like today.

On top of this, over 90% of cotton grown today is genetically modified, and is responsible for 18% of worldwide pesticide use and 25% of insecticide use. GMOs have pros and cons, so I encourage you to do your research independently, however, you should note that many of the cons are particularly unfortunate. Genetically modified organisms are often modified to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup, a weed killer that has extremely detrimental effects on soil, water, and natural plants and is directly contributing to the rapid decline of our most important pollinators, the bees. In addition, GMO’s can often cross pollinate with local flora, and can push out native varieties of plants due to their unnatural and competitive properties. In addition, the seeds of Monsanto’s GMOs are patented and designed so that they cannot be replanted in the next growing. This consistently puts small farmers out of business as they are forced to keep repurchasing seeds every year rather than replanting their own from this years crops, as had been done for centuries prior. Monsanto has an incredibly poor reputation with environmentalists – so poor that even Forbes condemns their “evil practices.” Monsanto’s horrible practices and associated GMOs have been the highlight of dozens of documentaries, films, and articles, and are incredibly harmful to humans, the environment, and our agriculture system as a whole. I highly encourage you to look more into where your food comes from, and Monsanto’s “Harvest of Fear,” if you have the time. But I digress…

If you are buying new clothing, by all means purchase organic textiles, but realize that there are still severe environmental consequences. For example, a single cotton t-shirt uses approximately 700 gallons of water to produce, which is supposedly equivalent to around 22 bathtubs full of water. Even worse, it takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce the cotton alone to make a single pair of jeans. This is more than enough water for an individual to drink eight cups per day for 10 years straight – and most individuals in the US own multiple pairs of jeans! This doesn’t even take into account how many gallons of water people use to wash these clothing items, oftentimes, after only a single wear, as an average washing machine will use an additional 41 gallons of water per load.

The absolute best things you can do for the environment when it comes to fashion is to buy second hand, thrift locally, and keep staple items in your closet that will last you well near a lifetime. Do keep in mind, however, that many people rely on second hand stores for essential clothing items. Try to avoid purchasing items like snow coats and sweaters in the dead of winter, and leave items like this to those who truly need them. You can always shop for style, but many people need to shop for survival. 

I also do not want to be ignorant to the fact that it can be difficult to find certain sizes or styles in second hand stores that work for all body types and body abilities. Again, I am not here to shame anyone for doing what they need to do in order to feel confident in their own bodies. I am here to spread awareness, and put pressure on those who have the privilege and financial capability to make more conscious fashion decisions in the name of this planet. I am asking any fast fashion consumer to make changes to their consumption in any way they can.

I understand there is much controversy surrounding the idea that we should hold the wealthy accountable to make these kinds of lifestyle changes, but I think that this has become too inflamed of a topic for many reasons. Let me preface this with the fact that fashion should not be only for those who can afford it. Fashion is truly integral to every culture in every society across the world, although manifesting itself in different ways, and should be accessible to every socioeconomic background, class, or body type. Everybody, regardless of ability, race, gender – you name it – deserves to feel confident, to be able to express themselves through fashion, to be able to make the first impression on others that they intend to, and to have the appropriate attire for any professional or social setting. And this is entirely possible, if people, especially those who have the financial leeway to do so, make a conscious effort to adjust selfish attitudes and detrimental consumption habits. It is a known fact that wealthier Americans have much larger carbon footprints than lower income individuals, over 25% higher carbon footprints, in fact. I do not believe that it is asking too much for those who have higher levels of consumption and carbon emissions to reduce their environmental impact as much as possible. Especially when the media tells us our closets need to look like this…

The next best option, although much worse for the environment, by a long shot, is to purchase sustainably and ethically made quality clothing items that will live long lifetimes, and that are worth the cost of mending that will most likely be needed later on.  It is clearly not fair that only the wealthy should have access to sustainably, ethically made clothes. That being said, we need to start by making baby steps in the right direction towards solving these issues. The more often that wealthy individuals support ethical and sustainable clothing stores, the more quickly the price of these items should drop for those who can’t afford it. It’s incredibly difficult for sustainable companies to compete against fast fashion giants, and they need help in these critical years of emergence to do so.

Next, if you feel like you no longer want a clothing piece, please donate it to discount second hand stores so that more people can enjoy its benefits, rather than throwing it out, or even selling it, if you can afford not to. I would also like to encourage wealthier people to consider shopping at higher end consignment stores, reserving more affordable second hand clothing options, found at stores like Goodwill and Savers, for those who truly need to take advantage of these lower prices. That is not to say that one option is better or more elite than the others – you can find truly stylish, quality clothing at any second hand store!

Second hand stores are so important. Did you know that the world throws away a garbage truck worth of textiles every second. Every year globally, nearly 85% of all textiles created end up in the landfill, just for new ones to be produced again the next year. These clothes, at the very least, could be recycled or repurposed for things like housing insulation! Often, clothes end up in the landfill due to pure laziness, as people try to cut out a stop to their local second hand drop off. On top of this, packaging, like what our clothing and online orders come in, accounts for over half of the entire planet’s plastic waste. 

The other thing is, many fast fashion buyers would likely be financially better off by purchasing higher quality clothes in the first place. I know this might sound slightly counterintuitive, but please hear me out. While you may not be able to have as many different styles of clothes, or as many different outfits constantly cycling through your closet, you will be able to save money in the long run by purchasing staples that will long outlast any fast fashion items. I understand that many people live paycheck to paycheck, and it can be nearly impossible to save up enough to purchase high quality clothing items. In the same light, this highlights the fact that ethically and sustainably made clothing costs so much more than fast fashion. I encourage you to ask yourself, what corners are being cut to produce fast fashion at such a cheap price? It should honestly concern us, and should incentivize companies to be more transparent about their supply chain processes and labor practices.

You can also save money by selling your clothes after you are done wearing them, if you need to. There are so many online marketplaces nowadays that facilitate second hand fashion purchases and sales, like Poshmark, Depop, Mercari, and Curtsy. Keep in mind that your carbon footprint will increase if your packages are being shipped from far away, though! Regardless, these companies are increasing higher end clothing accessibility, increasing the lifespan of these items, and encouraging people to treat their clothes better in order to easily resell them.

In addition, attempt to limit your closet size by buying staple, timeless items that you know you will wear for years to come, and that you can adapt to countless different outfits. It is also important that we normalize rewearing outfits! In the age of social media and constant consumption, we are always told we need more, more, more! We legitimately do not. Learn to decipher between what you want and what you need, whether that be a need to feel confident, or merely a need to stay warm and fully dressed. We can do this without consuming in excess. Remember that your decisions in fashion are a major factor to industry caused climate change and could be influencing garment worker exploitation.

As a side note, I truly don’t understand why people are incredibly more frivolous with their clothes than they are with any other personal investment. With appliances, for example, we do our best to purchase high quality products with long warranties and reassurances that they will live a long lifetime. We don’t want to be throwing out our fridge or laundry machine every year or so. The same goes for cars – we look for great quality vehicles that will function properly after driving hundreds of thousands miles, that have high resale value, and that will be incredibly reliable. Most people do their best to avoid dinging up their car, because they want to stretch its lifespan and increase its worth for reselling it later. In addition, if you were to damage your car in a way equivalent to tearing your shirt or staining your jeans, by maybe damaging its bumper or scratching its paint, for example, you would not throw your car away. On the contrary, you would either repair the car or continue to use it as is because it is still functional. The same concept should apply to clothing!

There are so many factors to consider when buying clothes. For example, where did this clothing item come from? If you had to ship the clothing item all the way from around the world, you are increasing your carbon footprint drastically. Buy and support family owned stores that create clothing locally whenever possible.

How often will I want to wash an article of clothing like this? Will it have to be dry cleaned? Does it stain easily?

Dry cleaning is incredibly detrimental to the environment – it leaves a similar environmental footprint to a gas station, contaminating soil and often groundwater with toxic chemicals. Dry cleaning is so detrimental that many dry cleaners sites cannot be sold or used for any other purpose until bio-remediated, and are often labeled as toxic “brownfield” sites by the EPA. Also, the truth is that we wash our clothes way too often, which wastes so much water, and pollutes our water sources with microplastics, as we have covered. Make sure to wash your clothes on cool water settings to reduce energy (the hotter the wash, the more energy it took to get it there) and use green laundry soaps that minimize chemical and fragrance use (be wary of products that merely claim to be “eco-friendly” or “natural,” as these terms hold no legitimacy – another example of greenwashing). The more clothes you put into a single load, the less water you will use overtime; In addition, less friction will be caused between the clothing so fewer microfibres will be released into waterways.

What goes into making this fabric? Was this produced ethically? Sustainably? 

You have to consider so much when purchasing clothes: pesticides, water use, water pollution, soil degradation and erosion, deforestation, chemical treatments of the fabric, and so much more. The fashion industry is one of the most detrimental industries in the world, as you now know. Look to brands that are extremely transparent and incredibly detailed about their supply chain processes, their water use, carbon emissions, and pesticide use, that back up their statements with facts, numbers, and data. Companies that have something to hide will not display detailed, transparent, or comprehensive information on their website regarding their ethics and sustainability practices. This should be a red flag for you as a consumer. For example, if you come across a chart like this below without any facts or reports to back up their practices – please be wary, and do your research!

Corporate Responsibility | Consolis

What causes does this brand support? Would I want to work there?

Look to buy from brands that believe in what you believe in. Many good brands will donate part of your purchase to a charitable cause. Look into who your favorite brands are owned by, what their reputations are, and find out if they support any good causes – and make legitimate (the operative word) improvements in these arenas; greenwashing comes in many disguises, and there are so many more measures to sustainability than environmental impact alone! Try to support Black, POC, LGBTQA+, or Female owned business and other underrepresented groups in fashion that you wish to encourage. Another important thing to look into is the company culture of large brands. Just because a brand is known for their sustainability or ethically made items, does not mean they are also known for their happy go lucky, non discriminatory, accepting work force. For example, the famous clothing brand Reformation, known for its groundbreaking entwinement of elegance, style and sustainability efforts, fell off my wishlist after a slough of racism accusations hit social media early this year. Sustainability needs to be all encompassing – corners should not be cut, and inappropriate and exploitative behavior cannot be overlooked.

Photo courtesy of Fashion Revolution

How long can I get use out of this article of clothing?

Make sure that the clothes you are purchasing are made extremely well, if possible, and that they will last a long, long time. Try to stray away from items of clothing that are difficult to repair like gauzy or see through items.

What is it made of, and how does this material impact the environment?

While you might be persuaded now to stay away from the common synthetic clothing of this century, remember that many natural and even organic fibres are still detrimental to the environment. This is all about conscious decision making – maybe shopping second hand really is your best option!

If you read this and think, “there are way too many steps to take here,” or want to just give up and disregard it all, I kindly ask you to reassess this post. This is exactly what I am suggesting – your fashion purchases should require a lot of thought. I am discouraging impulse buying and over consumption. When you make a fashion purchase, it should be conscious and well thought out, just like you would do for nearly anything else you own, like a car, a house, or any electronics. I hope that after reading this, you will be encouraged to modify your fashion consumption habits, even if its just by a little bit – every little bit counts! I hope you will buy fewer clothes in general, or buy second hand clothing when you can, as this is one of the easiest ways to reduce your carbon footprint, impact the lives of others, and to make conscious purchases. 

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Fantastic blog, thanks a million for the contribution

    1. Kaitlyn L Cook says:

      Thank you so much for reading! At the end of each month I post something I am passionate about (almost always about the environment in some capacity:). Stay tuned!

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