As more and more businesses are embracing sustainability, we're seeing the fashion industry work to green its act. Leading brands like Patagonia have encouraged sustainability for years, while designer Vivienne Westwood recently urged consumers during London Fashion week to buy less. We're even seeing celebrities making sustainable fashion statements on the red carpet (see: Green Carpet Challenge). When it comes to style, why should we focus on the environment? Here are five good reasons.
1. Producing cotton is toxic.
Consumers may prefer to buy cotton because it’s durable and might seem better for the environment than synthetic materials made from petroleum like polyester and nylon. But the way conventional cotton is grown makes it one of the most toxic materials. It's one of the most popular natural fibers—textile mills consume 4.5 million bales of cotton yearly—and a quarter of the total worldwide pesticide use occurs in cotton farming. These pesticides have devastating effects on ecosystem biodiversity and contaminating water supplies; most of these chemicals have toxic properties that affect the farmers, other workers, families, and communities around cotton farms. Each year, the World Health Organization estimates that three million people are poisoned by pesticide use—and an estimated 25 million agricultural workers have an episode of pesticide poisoning per year. But that doesn’t mean avoiding cotton is necessary; just search for suppliers who sell organic and Fair Trade cotton. And you can learn more about sustainable cotton growing in California from Sustainable Cotton Project.
2. Dying processes introduce harmful chemicals into the environment.
In November 2012, Greenpeace International investigated the use of hazardous chemicals used in dyes and processes from fashion brands that included Armani, Levi's, and Zara, and they discovered that 63 percent of the clothing items they tested showed high traces of nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), and others had highly toxic phthalates and carcinogenic amines. (You can read the full report online.) These hazardous chemicals are typically used during the dyeing, printing, and finishing processes and leak into groundwater through factory runoff and the washing processes.
3. Wastewater pollution is increasing.
Water pollution is as much of an environmental problem as it is a health issue. Each year, approximately 3.4 million people die from water and sanitation-related causes. The toxic chemicals introduced into water by the textile industry make people sick and harm ecosystems, threatening to ruin our already diminishing resources. Last year, a report found that water pollution in China over the past few years has grown, with the textile industry responsible for pumping out 2.5 billion tons of wastewater per year.
4. Textile waste is crowding landfills.
One of the biggest environmental issues in the fashion industry involves waste. After an item of clothing is manufactured, shipped, stocked, purchased, and eventually worn out, it’s usually thrown in the trash. The average American trashes nearly 65 pounds of textiles every year—in 2011, this added up to 13.1 million tons of textile waste. Decomposing clothing releases methane, which has worse global warming potential than carbon dioxide. The dyes and chemicals in decomposing clothing leak into the soil and groundwater. This infographic includes more statistics illustrating the problems with trashing textiles.
5. Fast-fashion allows the issues to flourish.
Both manufacturers and consumers are responsible for the environmental damages that come from fashion. Fast-fashion— bringing style from the runway to store racks in an expedited speed—is made possible from manufacturers using overseas labor to make products quickly out of low-quality synthetic fabrics, then selling products at cheap prices in order to meet consumer demand for the newest trends. This demand makes clothing disposable: the consumer might wear an item of clothing only a few times before it wears out, then it's thrown out, and it's back to the rack to find something else that's equally disposable.
So what can you do? As a consumer, it’s important to remember you have the ultimate control over what you choose to purchase. Until companies choose to manufacture their clothing more responsibly, you don't have to support them. You can also try shopping at thrift stores, secondhand shops or vintage boutiques. Visit your local tailor or get out your needle and thread when a button pops off or a hem starts to unravel—and take a sewing class or check YouTube for tutorials on how to make more substantial fixes to your own clothing. Finally, donate your unwanted clothing to thrift shops or sell them to consignment shops, so you can do your own part in making fashion as sustainable as possible.
Clothing rack image from Shutterstock