The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that “Change is the only constant in life.” You might also say that change is the only constant in fashion. But the pace of change in fashion comes with a heavy cost. The relentless output of goods to satisfy consumer demand for fast fashion has a terrible environmental impact.
Over the last 10 to 15 years, consumer preferences for clothing have changed. Well-made classics that stand the test of time have been cast aside in favor of cheaper items influenced by short-lived fashion trends. Consumers want to update their wardrobes more often, so they spend less per item and get lower quality in return.
It’s estimated that 50 billion clothing items were manufactured in 2000, and 14 years later that number had doubled. Overall, the supply exceeded demand and resulted in overstock, which was either sold at a very low cost (often to consumers who love, but don’t need, a good bargain) or disposed of. Imagine the impact on the environment! Perhaps with some facts in hand, we can encourage a more sustainable approach to fashion.
The Birth of the Cotton Shirt
As an example, let’s look at the everyday cotton shirt. It begins with the production of cotton, one of the world’s most widely used fibers.
Global cotton production netted 24.42 million metric tons (26.9 million U.S. tons) in market year (MY) 2020-21 and is expected to increase by 8.6 % in MY 2021-22 to 26.52 million metric tons (29.2 million U.S. tons). And Global cotton consumption is expected to grow 2.6% in MY 2021-22 to 27.02 million metric tons (29.8 million U.S. tons), up from 26.32 million metric tons (29 million U.S. tons) in MY 2020-21. This growth in production and consumption translates into a larger environmental impact.
Cotton cultivation uses fertilizer, pesticides and water. When excess irrigation and leaching occur in cotton cultivation, it involves the withdrawal of large volumes of water from water bodies. Without replenishment, water bodies downstream are depleted, resulting in the degradation of these bodies and the environment. Additionally, the chemicals involved in cotton cultivation find their way into runoff water, which introduces nutrients, salts and pesticides that pollute groundwater. These pollutants are outputs. The growth and harvesting of cotton also require inputs such as thermal energy or electricity. There are many inputs and outputs involved in cotton cultivation, but it’s important to understand that each individual input and output has an ecological impact.
Sew Far, Not Sew Good
Once the cotton has been harvested, it’s compressed and sent to cotton gins, where the fibers are separated from the seeds. It later goes through spinning and weaving processes to become the fabric used for our clothes and other items. At this point, much of the activity that transforms cotton into a textile takes place in a textile mill. As you might expect, the textile mill has its own detrimental impact on the environment.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, textile mills generate one-fifth of the world’s industrial water pollution. These mills also use roughly 20,000 chemicals, many of which are carcinogenic, to make our clothes.
The fabric will be dyed, which produces wastewater. A fair amount of fabric will be left over and discarded after the shirt has been manufactured. More waste. Don’t forget about the production of the care label, zippers and buttons, which have environmental impacts of their own.
Of course, shirts don’t make themselves. Labor – preferably cheap labor – is needed to make them. The social impact of this step in the cotton shirt’s production is enormous and rarely positive. In 2013, the Rana Plaza Factory collapse killed 1,133 garment factory workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It’s one example among many of the harsh conditions and lack of protective policies and standards that characterize the garment industry.
Moving Right Along: Clothing Production and the Transportation Sector
Cotton plantations, textile mills and manufacturing houses are not co-located. So, let’s look at how cotton travels as it makes its way to your local mall.
Here’s a common scenario: The cotton is produced in India. Then it’s shipped to Vietnam for textile production. Then it moves to Bangladesh, where it becomes your cotton shirt. Then the shirt is loaded onto a cargo plane to be flown to a European country, where you’ll buy it. Think of all the stamps you’d see if that cotton had its own passport. Unfortunately, all those flights make for a big carbon footprint.
Change your mind, not your clothes.
So, now you’ve got your smart cotton shirt and you wear it well. But this is where the problem of fast fashion emerges. The season passes and you grow bored with your shirt. Or maybe a button falls off and you can’t be bothered to sew it back on. The shirt wasn’t expensive, so it goes to the back of the closet, and you replace it. Next year you’ll probably throw it away, as many consumers do. In New York state alone, roughly 1.4 billion pounds of clothing and textiles are thrown away each year. Which takes us to the solid waste landfill and other harmful repercussions of our consumption habits.
Change is indeed a constant in fashion. But we consumers need to rethink our approach to clothing. In the early days of the COVID pandemic, consumers used the quarantine period as an opportunity to rid their closets of clothes they don’t use. Much of it was donated to nonprofits that collect and redistribute used clothes, but they soon amassed such a huge quantity of clothes that many stopped accepting donations. Considering that many donated items were acceptable for reuse, it’s clear that we’re buying far more than we need.
What are the alternatives? Renting clothes is an option, especially if you don’t intend to wear an item more than a few times. We can upcycle clothing items by altering or repurposing them to give them new life. Or maybe we can just learn to buy less. It would certainly be better for the environment.