A Thread for Change The harmful effects of the fashion industry

Consider the clothing items that you are currently wearing. Perhaps you decided to wear your favorite comfy t-shirt, or a cozy hoodie and some tight-fitting jeans. Have you ever stopped to think of why you chose to purchase these items in the first place? As consumers, fashion provides us with the benefit of allowing us to express who we are. We are drawn to what makes us feel beautiful on the inside and out, and often, our fashion choices are used as a medium to boost our self confidence and individuality. Although fashion provides us with various benefits, it is equally important to consider who we are wearing, as well as how and where our clothes were made. Further inspection of these topics reveals the harsh reality of the fashion industry, which inflicts detrimental impacts on our planet's environment and the individuals that inhabit it.

Fast fashion is a concept that describes the practice used by top retailers to continually produce large quantities of low-priced clothing pieces to sell to consumers. This low price comes at a great cost for not only the quality of the clothing, but also for the planet and garment workers in the developing world. Fast fashion retailers such as Forever 21, Zara, and H&M are fooling us into thinking we are saving money when in reality we are just buying more lower quality clothing items over time. The fashion culture we live in is strategically designed so that what was on trend last week is no longer fashionable now. This encourages consumers to return back to the stores to purchase the latest items, only to throw away the out-of-style garments.

When clothing either becomes out of trend or falls apart due to its cheap material, it often ends up in our landfills. In 2013, 15.1 million tons of textile waste was generated, of which around 85% (12.6 million tons) ended up in our landfills. Decomposing clothing releases methane, a detrimental greenhouse gas (worse than carbon dioxide) that is one of the main contributors to global warming (Wallander, 2012). For a detailed explanation of global warming, click here.

Textile waste also frequently accumulates within the garment factories themselves, and often times ready made garments (already assembled and sewn) are discarded because of an order mistake or an issue with the color. The clothing waste can be seen on the outskirts of large production sites, where unwanted garments are either sold on the side of the roads or burned. Because of the chemicals and finishing agents present in the clothing from production, used textile waste is essentially toxic waste that pollutes the air and nearby community where it is discarded (Siegle, 2017).

The majority of clothing today is made of polyester, a cheap and versatile synthetic fiber derived from petroleum. Polyester offers many benefits to the consumer, including wrinkle-free properties and tendency to dry quickly. High quality polyester is known to last for longer periods of time and withstand multiple washes. However, most inexpensive clothing pieces are made from low quality polyester, which is a much cheaper alternative to natural fibers. This type of polyester will only last a few wears until it falls apart, leading us to dispose of the garment and buy something to replace it.

Polyester is made from petroleum, which is an extremely carbon-intensive non-renewable resource. To put this into perspective, more than 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester each year. Polyester is not biodegradable, so when thrown away it will remain in the soil as it eventually breaks apart. Synthetic polyester garments have also been identified as the largest source of microplastic pollution in the oceans, and approximately 1900 fibers can be shed from a single garment during one washing cycle (Edwards, 2016).

The fibers within our clothes poison our waterways and food chain on a massive scale. Microfibers continuously appear on the shorelines in which waste water is released, allowing them to leech into our rivers, lakes, and oceans. They also poison fish and other wildlife that easily consume them. The fibers then bioaccumulate as concentrated toxins inside of larger animals higher up in the food chain. Synthetic fibers affect the human population directly, as they are found inside the fish and shelfish that we consume (Messinger, 2016). For more information about the dangers of synthetic microfibers from clothing, click here.

Figurative illustration of clothing fibers from washers that harm the oceans and marine life.

Approximately half of all textiles are made of cotton, one of the most water, chemical, and land intensive non-food crops (World Wildlife, 2018). 20,000 liters of water is needed to produce one kilogram of cotton; equivalent to a single t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Intensely cultivated cotton requires large amounts of water used for irrigation, which leads to soil salinisation: the accumulation of salts in the soil that negatively impacts the metabolism of soil organisms and reduces soil productivity, ultimately leading to soil degradation. We can see the effects of this when examining the drying-up of the Aral Lake, one of the largest inland waters in the world.

The drying of the Aral Sea: 1989 (left) vs 2008 (right). The drying of the Aral Sea is a direct result of decades-old water diversions for irrigation used for crop production.

Cotton is the most pesticide intensive crop in world. Although cotton is only grown on 2.5% of the world's agricultural land, it consumes 16% of all the insecticides and 6.8% of all herbicides used worldwide. Pesticides pose a risk to the environment because they are washed out of the soils and infiltrate nearby rivers and groundwater. Pests also often develop resistance to pesticides that are used on a continuous basis, leading to the need for stronger chemicals to be implemented. In addition, pesticides not only eliminate pests that destroy the crop, but they also eliminate the pests' natural enemies, reducing biodiversity and resulting in pests that were previously not so important (secondary pests) becoming a major problem for the crops (Lai, 2010).

Cotton production is also a contributing factor for climate change. Industrial fertilizers containing large quantities of finite energy sources (1.5% of the world's annual energy consumption), release considerable amounts of carbon dioxide. In addition nitrates applied to agricultural lands can transform into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more destructive than carbon dioxide in terms of global warming effect. Lastly, soil degradation from harmful agricultural practices reduces the availability of functional carbon sinks that work to reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

The vibrant colors and patterns unique to some clothing items are often achieved through the usage of harmful textile dyeing chemicals. Textile dyeing is the world's second largest polluter of clean water, second to agriculture.

The textile industry utilizes a substantial quantity of water, which is used primarily in dyeing and finishing operations for the fabrics within the plants. The wastewater from textile plants is labeled as the most polluting of all the industrial sectors. This is partly due to the vast amount of wasted water generated as well as the toxic contents of the wastewater. This is demonstrated by the 200,000 tons of dyes that are lost to effluents every year during dyeing and finishing processes of textile factories because of inefficient manufacturing practices. Most of the dyes within the wastewater escape conventional wastewater treatment and persist in the environment where they harm and destroy wildlife (Drew, 2017).

For more information about the dangers and impacts of textile dyes, click here.

The inexpensive clothing items available to us come at the cost of working conditions and proper wages in the garment worker industry. The way that manufacturers achieve these low prices for their products is by seeking out manufacturing centers in developing countries like Bangladesh, where wages and workplace standards are terribly low. Most of the wages earned by these garment workers amount to less than $1 an hour, barely enough to survive (Alexander, 2016).

In order to meet the excessive demands of top retailers, manufacturing companies must push workers to endure long, intense hours of labor - often amounting to 100 hours a week. In addition, reports of verbal and physical abuse are common when demands are not met. It is also relatively common for a garment worker to develop respiratory illness due to exposure to harsh chemicals within the factories, including silica dust and formaldehyde. It is estimated that one third of the textile workers in Indonesia, for example, suffer from respiratory disease specifically contracted at work (Loomis, 2015)

Some of the suffering of workers can be avoided by choosing Fair Trade certified clothing. Check out Patagonia's video below for more insight.

One of the most indicative events that demonstrates the minimal regard for the safety of garment workers was the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, in which over 1,000 people were killed. This event occurred because the owner of a garment factory building had forced garment workers to attend work, despite several warnings of cracks in the walls of the building that rendered unsafe to be inhabited.

2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh. This event killed 1,134 people and sparked major conversation regarding the safety and rights of garment workers.

As consumers, we support a particular company's practices by choosing to purchase their goods. In an effort to initiate change in the fast fashion industry, it is essential to examine the "story" behind the clothing pieces that you consider purchasing. This can be challenging at first, because if you were to check the tag inside one of your t-shirts, for example, it will probably not be labeled "made with 100% pesticide-sprayed cotton, chemical dyes, and/or sweatshop labor". In order for someone to learn about a store's clothing items, they would need to research the company and the clothing materials on their own. Thankfully, there are many resources available to consumers that can direct us to eco-friendly and ethical alternatives to conventional fast fashion items.

In order to offer some solutions to those who would like to shop sustainable, I've made a list of some important habits to adopt.

1. Limit your clothing purchases.

2. Shop second hand.

3. Shop local.

4. Take note of fabrics used and opt for sustainable fabrics like organic cotton, hemp, recycled polyester, bamboo, etc.

5. Research the company's values and sustainability efforts (if any).

6. Extend the life of your clothes and donate them.

Thank you for participating in my Earth Day project and learning about the impacts of the fashion industry. In an effort to encourage consumers to be mindful of their clothing impacts, I have created a web application to guide consumers when deciding whether a clothing piece is sustainable or not. Please check it out!

Works Cited:

  • Claudio L. 2007. Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry. Environmental Health Perspectives. 115 (9): A449-A454.
  • Wallander M. 2012. Why Textile Waste Should be Banned From Landfills. Triple Pundit.
  • Edwards S. 2016. The Environmental Impacts of Polyester. Tortoise and Lady Grey.
  • Siegle L. 2017. Fashion must fight the scourge of dumped clothing clogging landfills. The Guardian.
  • Messinger L. 2016. How your clothes are poisoning our oceans and food supply. The Guardian.
  • Lai X. 2010. Bt Cotton Linked with Surge in Crop Pest. Scidev.net.
  • Alexander B. 2016. Who's Dying For Fast Fashion? Fighting For The Rights of Garment Workers Worldwide. Consciouslivingtv.
  • Loomis E. 2015. Deadly Working Conditions Are Still the Norm. Inthesetimes.
  • Drew D. 2017. The Apparel Industry's Environmental Impact in 6 Graphics. World Resources Institute.


Created with images by Kris Atomic - "Female models on the catwalk" • Pete Bellis - "Museum of Asian Art" • Clark Street Mercantile - "Store Organization" • kimberlykv - "Cotton Harvest" • Annie Spratt - "untitled image" • Dmitriy Ilkevich - "Street fashion"

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