Our “Fashionable” Planet

Photo by Alexander Coggin / New York Times

The Fashion Industry has been in the news recently but not for changing hemlines or other aspects of style but instead for the environmental impact the industry is having on our planet.  In October, the Houston Chronicle and the New York Times (among other publications) published stories describing mass civil disobedience in London and other cities by a group known as “Extinction Rebellion”.  Protesters were targeting the fashion industry’s impact on the planet and demanding authorities and consumers take decisive action for change.  On the final day of London’s Fashion Week, hundreds of black-clad demonstrators gathered in Trafalgar Square to embark on what they called “a funeral march for fashion.”

So why all the protests?  For one thing, the fashion industry produces 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions.  The fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined. And it’s getting worse. According to a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if the fashion sector continues on its current trajectory, that share of the carbon budget could jump to 26% by 2050.

 The fashion industry is also the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supplies.  It takes about 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt – enough water for one person to drink at least eight cups per day for three-and-a-half years.  It takes about 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans – more than enough for one person to drink eight cups per day for 10 years.  That’s because both the jeans and the shirt are made from a highly water-intensive plant: cotton.

A significant contributor to these impacts is “Fast Fashion” – the concept that makes shopping for clothes more affordable.  But, as consumers worldwide buy more clothes, the growing market for cheap items and new styles takes its toll on the environment. Clothing production has roughly doubled since 2000.  While people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than in 2000, they only kept the clothes for half as long.  And to make matters worse, a lot of this clothing ends up in the dump. The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second.  In total, up to 85% of textiles go into landfills each year.

And washing some types of clothes sends thousands of bits of plastic into the ocean.  Washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year — the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.  Many of those fibers are polyester, a plastic found in an estimated 60% of garments. Producing polyester releases two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton, and polyester does not break down in the ocean.   A 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics — very small pieces of plastic that never biodegrade — in the ocean came from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester.  Overall, microplastics are estimated to compose up to 31% of plastic pollution in the ocean.  Fashion causes water-pollution problems, too. Textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water, since the water leftover from the dyeing process is often dumped into ditches, streams, or rivers.  The dyeing process uses enough water to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools each year. All in all, the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.

So, what are we to do?  Some apparel companies are starting to buck these trends by joining initiatives to cut back on textile pollution and grow cotton more sustainably. In March, the UN launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, which will coordinate efforts across agencies to make the industry less harmful.  One company, Polo Ralph Lauren, in April, 2019, launched a version of its iconic polo shirt made entirely of recycled plastic bottles and dyed through a process that uses no water.  David Lauren, the youngest son of the company’s founder and its chief innovation officer, said ahead of the announcement that the new shirt is part of a broader strategy of fresh environmental goals throughout the manufacturing process.  The Earth Polo went on sale the Thursday, ahead of Monday’s Earth Day, at Ralph Lauren.com and retail stores worldwide.

And as pointed out by a comment I received on last week’s blog, Environmentally-Friendly Gift Giving, “there are plenty of online resources guiding those purchases from a sustainability standpoint, if we’re only willing to spend an extra 5-10 minutes on the research.  One recent personal example is jeans. I needed a new pair, and found this website which captures some brands who espouse eco-friendly and fair-trade denim options. I bought a pair of DL1961, and let me tell you…I look DAMN good now.”  And that commenter was right.  Googling “Sustainable Clothing” yields a ton of hits including “35 Ethical & Sustainable Clothing Brands Betting Against Fast Fashion”.

Besides seeking out sustainable clothing manufacturers, what else can we do? For one thing, we can stop buying so many clothes.  In case you missed last week’s link, check out the 20-minute film “The Story of Stuff”.  It describes the cycle of “stuff” reminds us that every day, we are inundated by thousands of ads telling us we can’t be happy unless we buy more stuff. 

There are many people within the fashion industry that are changing the way things are done. An organization known as Fashion Revolutionwas formed by designers, academics, writers, business leaders, policymakers, brands, retailers, marketers, producers, makers, workers and fashion lovers from all around the world who make the fashion industry work.” According to their web-site: “We love fashion, but we don’t want our clothes to come at the cost of people or our planet.”  Their stated mission is to “unite people and organizations to work together towards radically changing the way our clothes are sourced, produced and consumed, so that our clothing is made in a safe, clean and fair way.”  They recommend consumer actions such as choosing brands that offer sustainable clothing, buying value and keep clothes longer, and choosing natural fabrics like 100% cotton, because synthetic fabrics don’t break down.

Another idea is to rent clothing.   One form of “renting” clothing was introduced by a start-up company known as “For Days”.  Described as a “closed loop t-shirt company”, customers are invited to become “members” and For Days sends you the number of t-shirts you order.  You can return any/all of them when you’re tired of them (or they are worn out or stained) and For Days will swap the old ones for new ones for $8 per shirt.  The eco factor here is that For Days says they breakdown the returned shirts and re-use the yarn to make new ones – hence no waste going to landfills. 

And finally, there are always consignment shops where clothes are given a second life instead of being tossed into landfills.  Resale shops displace some of the clothing that would otherwise be manufactured but far from all.  Author Adam Minter’s explores the afterlife of donated clothes and electronics in his new book, Secondhand.  “Your average thrift store in the United States only sells about one-third of the stuff that ends up on its shelves,” he says. “The rest of the stuff ends up somewhere else.”  And even for those items that are repurposed, they will eventually be disposed of.  “It’s sort of the ultimate story of consumerism and it’s dark side.”  Minter’s conclusion: stop buying stuff!

The fashion industry would not exist were there not customers for all the “fashion” that is being created.  Therefore, we as consumers have a choice as to how much the fashion industry impacts our planet.  But the fashion industry has loud voice, as evidenced by those thousands of ads all of us are exposed to every day.  As David Bowie put it: “Oooh, fashion! We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town” or as Oscar Wilde said: “Fashion is a form of ugliness so vulgar we have to change it every six months”.

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