Environment

Fast-Fashion's Environmentally Destructive Habits

The industry is becoming one of the world's biggest polluters.

Style has its hazards. From credit card debt to painfully high heels, many trends have proven the idea that fashion comes at a cost. Each decade of outfits has a concerning global impact. Now, a recent study from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation illuminates the incomprehensible toll fashion takes on the climate.

Done in collaboration with animal-welfare advocate and high-end clothing designer Stella McCartney, the Macarthur study tracks the environmental devastations incurred through the production of next season’s wares.

The study calls this fashion’s tendency to “take-make-and-dispose,” also known as fast fashion. It’s an obsession with new style wherein unworn clothing is quickly turned over, and a garbage truck's worth of fashion is thrown away every second of the year. If the industry keeps up like this, by 2050, textiles and garments will account for a quarter of the world’s carbon budget.

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It’s also estimated that half a million tons of plastic microfibers are leaked into earth’s oceans each year, as synthetic materials are laundered and microparticles of plastic eventually travel into the ocean. This is the equivalent of 50 billion plastic water bottles, contributing to a health crisis for sea animals, which are ingesting plastics as if they were plankton.  

In order to remedy the heavy-handed consequences of fast fashion, the foundation has offered a four-part approach: asking stakeholders to phase out the use of hazardous materials, improve the recycling of old fabrics, use renewable resources in manufacturing, and increase the quality of goods it sells.

The authors envision creating a “new textile economy,” though it is worth noting that some corporate entities are already changing their business practices with climate change in mind.

H&M is often ahead of its industry in terms of sustainability. The organization has set out a goal to use 100% recycled or sustainably sourced fabric by 2030, investing in new technologies that recycle used cotton and cellulose fibers. The company is already developing a new brand, Conscious Collections, that uses sustainable fabrics to conceive its designs. It has even gone so far as to make fabrics out of shoreline waste. Of course, these items are also available for a higher price.

Even so, for all the good-samaritan principles the company outfits itself with, it still contributes to the environmental harms the Ellen Macarthur Foundation critiques. For instance, the company was largely unaware of the fact that it was sourcing viscose fabric from factories that are responsible for polluting the ocean. As the World Bank has pointed out, 20% of water pollution is from the textile industry, making it the second largest polluter.

In contrast, some online retailers are attempting to follow a Netflix model for loaning clothing, reducing waste through limiting consumption and recycling used wares. Rent the Runway is one of the most popular, acting as a clothing rental site that offers clothing for a monthly fee between $30 and $159. Meanwhile, platforms like Etsy and Kidizen host sellers who can recirculate used clothing at a low price.

Often, the question of environmental impact is left up to what one can afford, and ecologically sustainable clothing brands are, for now, mostly available to the wealthy. Knowing this, the industry should concern itself with making its environmental garb affordable for all.

As the textile industry employs an estimated 300 million people, we see how much its decisions carry weight. Catarina Midby, the UK & IE sustainability manager for H&M, has said, “The greatest change-makers are consumers who, with their growing awareness, are demanding an added value of sustainability.”

This leaves one to wonder whether it's the companies or the consumers who have more leverage to address environmental hazards. Of course, the relationship of consumption is cyclical and the answer is both. Both entities need to embody a fashion that desires a different take, demonstrating that this desire isn’t necessarily so toxic to humanity and the planet.

That said, corporate entities have the larger bankroll by far. At present, cotton alone accounts for up to a quarter of global pesticides used, a true burden to the environment. On the other end of the spectrum, how many people can afford to buy organic cotton jeans, let alone 100% organic recycled cotton? As many have pointed out, it's foolish to mistake the cost of clothing for quality, and the industry is arguably leveraging profit before the climate.

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Sophie Linden is an editorial assistant at AlterNet's office in Berkeley, CA.