How the Fashion Industry Contributes to Pollution

How the Fashion Industry Contributes to Pollution

• Tigger Montague

One of my favorite little TV indulgences is Project Runway. I'm not a fashionista, as my every-day-wear Levi's jeans will attest, but I do love to look at fashion trends, the art of the clothing, the colors, and designs. Sadly, the fashion industry is second only to the petroleum industry in polluting the planet.

Just the facts:

• Nearly 20% of global wastewater is produced by the Fashion Industry.
• 7,660.9 gallons of water are needed to produce 2.2 pounds of cotton, which is about one pair of jeans and a t-shirt.
• Statistics from the EPA reported 16 million tons of textile waste was generated in 2014, and out of that 12.8 million tons (80%) was sent to landfills.
• Americans throw away 80 pounds of used clothing per person, per year.
• Clothing made from synthetic fibers can take hundreds of years to decompose, and contribute half a million tons of microfiber pollution into the ocean, equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles.
• Less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing.
• The fashion industry at large releases greenhouse emissions of 1.2 billion tons per year. That is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
• Textile dyes are made from toxic chemicals, and textile color processing is one of the leading sources of pollution in ground and stream water.

Brands addressing the problems:

There are fashion and clothing brands that are working to reduce environmental impacts. Among them: Patagonia, Stella McCartney, Nike, Adidas, and H&M.

Smaller companies such as Everlane have introduced outerwear made from recycled plastic bottles.

Boyish Jeans produces their clothing with recycled cotton and vintage fabrics and recycle all their water.

Girlfriend Collective makes their workout clothes and leggings from recycled plastic bottles. 

As far as the big brands go, waste and recycling is far low on the list of corporate priorities. These companies include: Target, The North Face, Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, Ralph Lauren, Walmart, Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, J Crew, Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie.

We consumers can speak with our wallets, and not purchase from these companies until they have a recycling plan implemented.

The challenges with used clothing:

Clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, while more than half the world’s population wears used clothing. But recently demand for used clothing from the US has fallen. The US is the largest exporter of used clothing at $575.5 million per year. Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Burundi announced they intend to stop importing used clothes from the UK and the US this year because they want to foster their own clothing manufacturers.

Used clothing is inspected and graded from barely worn, to only good for insulation. One of the emerging problems with used clothing is that much of it gets sorted into the junk category, ending up being incinerated. This is due to manufacturers focusing on low prices, not durability. Manufacturers expect their clothing to be worn a few times, then thrown away. When consumers focus on purchasing durable clothing that can be worn hundreds of times, we can lessen the amount of used clothing that becomes incinerated or worse, ends up in a landfill.

Leather waste:

Leather goods waste was estimated worldwide at 115,071 tons per year in 2000 based on a study by United Nations Industrial Development Organization. Now almost twenty years later, we can be sure that number is significantly higher.

The average waste rates of leather cuttings:

Hand bags: 20-40%

Luggage: 50-60%

Wrist Watch: 30-40%

Suitcase: 40%

Belt: 20-25%

Clothing: 20-25%

Shoes: 25-35%

Products that help reduce fashion industry waste:

Elvis & Kresse is a company from the UK, who partnered with Burberry, the large London fashion house, to use all their leather scraps. Elvis and Kresse make beautiful handbags and totes out of recycled London fire hoses and scraps from Burberry’s. Normally these leather scraps and used fire hoses would be headed to landfills. Now they become beautiful bags with an important message: we can turn trash into treasures.

In India, Sari jewelry is an old custom of taking worn, used saris and make jewelry out of the material. A network of women travel throughout the country, visiting homes and small towns and buying used saris. The saris then are transported to a major city to be cleaned and sorted for jewelry, table napkins, and tablecloths. This is not so different really from the American quilt, made from scraps of clothing and material. Perhaps we need to re-start the quilting bees in our communities!

Cork leather is another way to reduce fashion waste. Because cork trees are sustainable (the bark on the tree grows back after harvesting), no animals need sacrifice their lives for our handbags and purses. Cork bark remnants can be turned into corks for wine bottles, and flooring. With cork, no leather scraps are destined for the landfill.

How you can help reduce fashion industry and clothing waste:

• Purchase second-hand clothing from online stores like eBay, Etsy, Poshmark, or at thrift stores, church clothing sales, rummage sales, and estate sales.
• Purchase higher-quality clothing that's designed for years of wear. #30wears is a movement promoting the concept of only purchasing clothing you would wear 30 times.
• Purchase clothing from companies who stand behind their clothing with warranties such as Patagonia, LL Bean, Land’s End, Columbia, and Duluth Trading Company.
• If you need a specific piece of clothing for a special occasion, consider renting an outfit. Check out: Rent the Runway, Gwynnie Bee, Parcel 22, and Infinite Style by Ann Taylor.
• Wash your clothes in cold water to preserve fabrics, repair seams and replace buttons instead of throwing the item away.
• Avoid fast fashion clothing that uses lower quality materials and manufacturing methods to produce cheap clothing you dispose after one season.

If you love shoes….

I confess to having quite a shoe collection. No heels or pumps, mind you, just everyday walk-around-the-farm, go-to-the-office, go-to-town shoes that are supportive of my ancient knees and also have varying degrees of environmental consciousness. For the days my knees feel happy I do have a few pairs of Rothy’s: the flats made out of recycled water bottles. They're not very knee supportive, but certainly environmentally conscious.
Kickstarter is one of my go-to places to see entrepreneurial innovation. Coming soon are shoes made from used coffee grinds, shoes made from hemp, shoes made with algae and recycled leather, shoes made from recycled cork with bison fiber, merino wool, rice rubber, algae foam and bamboo. These sustainable innovative shoes may not be the most beautiful or fashion-forward, but they serve an important message: I am literally going to walk my talk.

Closet purge:

I purge my closets twice per year. If I haven’t worn something in the past twelve months it goes to the Salvation Army. I take old worn-out t-shirts and use them as barn rags, dog rags until they literally fall apart. I am ashamed to say I then threw them away. Now I know they can be used for furniture insulation, so I will take them to the Salvation Army who will sort the “good stuff” from the junk category, and maybe someday someone will be sitting on a couch or a chair stuffed with my old t-shirts.



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