Fixing the Fashion Industry
The apparel and footwear industries account for approximately 8.1% of all global climate impacts.
The birth of Fast Fashion in the 90s has tremendously increased the fashion industry’s impact on the environment and local communities. Fast fashion is defined as “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers”. It revolves around high volume, low margins, and cheap and disposable products. Globalization, industry competition, and addictive consumer mentalities have only fueled Fast Fashion’s growth over the years. As a result, the fashion industry today is incredibly wasteful, both on the end of producers and consumers.
The average American throws away approximately 80 pounds of used clothing per year, with about 85% of used textiles in the U.S. going to landfills. The marketing of not just seasonal fashion but the constant change of products that are “in-style” has contributed to consumers buying on average 60% more clothing items each year and keeping them for half as long as consumers did 15 years ago.
While an easy solution to our overconsumption would for people to simply buy less, that is not practical for our entire population. Instead, new organizations have emerged to provide the average consumer with better alternatives to deal with their old or unused clothes. Textile recyclers are now becoming more mainstream, seen through Madewell’s partnership with Blue Jeans Go Green. Anyone can donate their old jeans at a participating Madewell store (and receive $20 off a new pair of jeans), and Blue Jeans Go Green recycles the denim and uses it for housing insulation. Their work has diverted more than 1,230 tons of denim from landfills.
We can also regain power as consumers when deciding on what fashion companies to support; the growing accessibility of ethical and fair trade clothing brands has made buying clothes from sustainable fashion brands so much easier. Here is a list of ethical clothing brands that offer everything from workout clothes to business attire.
While consumers contribute mainly to landfill waste, the actual production of clothes uses an immense amount of energy, whether that’s from the creation of synthetic fibers or heating water for dyeing and finishing.
Polyester, the most widely used manufactured fiber, is made from petroleum and its production is very energy-intensive, as it requires a lot of crude oil and releases a lot of harmful emissions. A study from Quantis found that dyeing and finishing, however, accounts for the most emissions, as these processes use a lot of energy to heat water. And in countries like China and Bangladesh, two of the largest manufacturers of textiles, coal and natural gas are the two main sources of electricity. The study also found that fiber production has the biggest impact on freshwater withdrawal and ecosystem quality, as manufacturing plants not only use an enormous amount of water, but also often dump untreated wastewater into local water systems that release hazardous toxins for the ecosystems and surrounding communities.
Quantis concluded that the most effective way to decrease the industry’s impact on climate change is to focus on renewable energy and energy efficiency across supply chains.
Launched in 2014 during Climate Week, RE100 is a “is a global corporate leadership initiative bringing together influential businesses committed to 100% renewable electricity.” This initiative aims to increase the demand for renewable energy and thus the supply by helping companies realize the economic benefits of transitioning to renewable energy and keeping committed members accountable. In the past year, RE100 has led to a 41% increase in sourced renewable power among all committed companies, with most on track to reach 100% renewable energy by 2030. PVH, one of the largest global apparel companies that owns brands like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, has committed to RE100 and aims to have 100% renewable energy by 2030.
The amount of purchased clothing is expected to rise by 63% from now until 2030; to offset the increase in consumerism, we need more sustainability action from the fashion industry now. While initiatives like RE100 are a great first step in achieving a more sustainable fashion industry, companies need to start actually acting on their pledges; a recent report from the Pulse of the Fashion Industry found that “sustainability progress in the fashion industry has slowed by a third in the past year.”
Despite the decline in sustainability progress, consumer awareness of environmental and social sustainability is growing; a survey in the UK, France, China, Brazil, and America showed that 75% of participants believe sustainability is extremely or very important. We will always need to buy clothes and shoes. And I believe there is a lot of value in the creativity of fashion, the passion of designers, and fashion’s ability to let people express their individuality; however, this should not have to come at the expense of the environment.