Did you know that the clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world … second only to oil, according to Eileen Fisher, a clothing industry magnate? Or that about 14.3 million tons of textiles were sent to the landfill in 2012 (and that’s just in the U.S)? That number has significantly increased since then both in America and the rest of the world. Just like our thirst for material things.
When we think of pollution, we envision coal power plants, strip-mined mountaintops and raw sewage piped into our waterways. We don’t often think of the shirts on our backs. But the overall impact the apparel industry has on our planet is quite grim. Fashion is a complicated business involving long and varied supply chains of production, raw material, textile manufacture, clothing construction, shipping, retail, use and ultimately disposal of the garment. While Fisher’s assessment that fashion is the second largest polluter is likely impossible to know, what is certain is that the fashion carbon footprint is tremendous.
A general assessment must take into account not only obvious pollutants—the pesticides used in cotton farming, the toxic dyes used in manufacturing and the great amount of waste discarded clothing creates—but also the extravagant amount of natural resources used in extraction, farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing and shipping.
While cotton, especially organic cotton, might seem like a smart choice, it can still take more than 5,000 gallons of water to manufacture just a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Synthetic, man-made fibers, while not as water-intensive, often have issues with manufacturing pollution and sustainability. And across all textiles, the manufacturing and dyeing of fabrics is chemically intensive.
Globalization means that your shirt likely traveled halfway around the world in a container ship fueled by the dirtiest of fossil fuels. A current trend in fashion retail is creating an extreme demand for quick and cheap clothes and it is a huge problem. Your clothes continue to impact the environment after purchase; washing and final disposal when you’re finished with your shirt may cause more harm to the planet than you realize.
If not discarded as trash, unwanted clothes go to charity, thoughtful but still not good enough as barely 50% of it is used or sold.
Hence the need for sustainable fashion. There is a thread of hope however as some top clothing designers, such as Fisher, Stella McCartney and Ralph Lauren are on the leading edge toward reforming the fashion industry. Eileen Fisher’s eponymous company is already using 84 percent organic cotton, 68 percent organic linen and is reducing water use and carbon emissions and working to make its supply chain sustainable by 2020.
But real change in the clothing industry will only come if the big, affordable brands find a way to make and sell sustainable clothing. Until then, consumers can help by changing where they shop, what they buy and also by upcycling old clothes so they don’t end up in a landfill (at least not yet).