There’s a problem growing in landfills and waterways, and it’s coming from an unexpected place: your closet. The shift toward mass manufacturing of cheap clothing is resulting in pollution, more waste and other negative environmental impacts.
According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, textile production produces 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas every year. The United Nations estimates that 10 percent of total global emissions come from the fashion industry.
The environmental impacts go beyond emissions. Dyes used to produce toxic chemicals pollute waterways. Gathering the materials for wood-based fabrics such as rayon, modal and viscose contributes to deforestation. Popular polyester fabrics washed in domestic washing machines shed plastic microfibers make their way to into drinking water and aquatic food chains, including in fish and shellfish eaten by humans. Cotton, another eminently popular material, is a pesticide and water-intensive crop; according to the World Resources Institute, the amount of water required to make one cotton T-shirt is the same volume as one person drinks in 2½ years.
The environmental impact of fashion is just as much about the scale of our consumption habits as it is about harmful production processes.
“Right now, the main problem is the volume of clothing that is being produced, which is largely driven by our consumption habits,” says Anika Kozlowski, assistant professor of Fashion Design, Ethics & Sustainability at Ryerson University. “Every product has impacts. The reason that volume is such an issue is that it just exacerbates all these impacts.”
Kozlowski says the trend started with the outsourcing of fashion production overseas, which made labor cheaper and also removed consumers from the production process.
“That physical space really was detrimental to how we understood clothes,” Kozlowski says. “People don’t seem to understand how much goes into these clothes. They think about it the same way they do with a pizza box.”
As clothes became cheaper — and also often cheaper in quality — consumers have slowly lost the ability to repair their clothes. “This price drop really correlated with a decreasing consumer knowledge on how to repair clothes,” Kozlowski says. “It’s cheaper to buy new socks than to darn a pair of socks.”
The result, paradoxically, is increased consumer spending on lower-quality clothing. “One common misconception is that we actually spend less on fast fashion,” says Eleanor Amari, ambassador at Remake, a sustainable fashion non-profit based in San Francisco, California. “Over the course of a lifetime we actually spend more on fast fashion than we would if we invest in higher quality things.”
According to McKinsey & Company, the average consumer in 2014 purchased 60 percent more clothing compared to 2000, but each garment is kept half as long. Disposed clothes also contribute to greenhouse gases as they sit in landfills. Only 15 percent of clothing is recycled or donated. Synthetic fibers, which make up at least 60 percent of our clothes, are non-biodegradable and sit in landfills for hundreds of years.
The trend of buying and disposing is likely to continue. “Unfortunately I think now that consumers are used to that level of consumption, what we’re seeing is that it’s not decreasing it’s only continuing to increase,” Kozlowski says.
How can you reduce your impact?
Amari recommends starting your sustainable fashion journey by looking at your current closet with fresh eyes.
“The number one most sustainable thing to do is to fall in love with the clothes that we have,” she says. “Look at the labels, get curious and check out where it was made. What you’ll discover as a consumer is that your wardrobe actually tells a global story. Once you connect with that, the value of the garment increases.”
Proper care will also ensure the longevity of your clothes. Follow washing instructions in order to retain your clothes’ shape, color and quality.
“We should take care of our clothes in an equal way that we take care of our bodies,” Amari says. “It requires some nurture.”
If you have learned to love your wardrobe but are still looking for a little refreshing, shopping at a thrift store increases the longevity of clothes and prevents waste from new production.
“Buying second-hand is by far one of the best options,” Kozlowski says. “You are not contributing to the production of new clothing. Longevity is key here.”
If you are going to buy new, Amari says there are “brands that are doing it better.” Los Angeles-based brand Reformation calculates the water, waste and carbon dioxide savings for each item.
Shopping local will also reduce the environmental cost of shipping and packaging incurred by ordering clothes online. “As easy as online shopping is, it really does at to the carbon emissions of how products travel because it’s not optimized,” Kozlowski says.
“Essentially the best way to think about it is the same way you think about your food,” Kozlowski adds. “Is there an organic option? Is there a local option? Does it seem like it’s a good quality?”
One surefire way to reduce your fashion footprint is to consume less. “The best thing is to look at something and say, am I going to wear this for a long time?” Kozlowski offers. If not, leave it on the rack and wait for something you will truly cherish.