The fashion industry is referred to as the second dirtiest industry

The fashion industry is referred to as the second dirtiest industry, behind only the petroleum industry. There are many factors to take into consideration when thinking about the environmental impact of the fashion industry. Cotton is the most widely used of the natural fibers. It is a water intensive crop that is highly chemical dependent. In addition to natural fibers there are man-made fibers like nylon and polyester. These man-made fibers are made through an energy expensive process, from petroleum and other chemicals. Whether natural or man-made these fibers all go through a bleaching and dyeing process to give them their colors. This dyeing of fabrics puts large amounts of chemical waste in the water supply worldwide. From the raw materials to the finished products, everything is shipped around the world, requiring extensive fuel costs. The environmental impact doesn’t end with manufacturing and shipping. The laundering of our clothes daily puts soaps and other cleaning chemicals into the environment, and through every wash micro fibers are washed away and end up in the water supply. Then after they are no longer worn those clothes are discarded. Many of these clothes end up in landfills. The natural fibers while biodegradable themselves still leave behind the chemical residue of their dyes, and release greenhouse gasses as they break down. The man-made fibers are not biodegradable, taking up space in our landfills for many years to come. We fall short when it comes to recycling clothing when compared to the rates at which we recycle other goods such as paper, and plastic. The fashion industry, from producer to consumer, has a heavy impact on the environment. As a culture we are lagging behind when it comes to recycling what we wear, and we need to adopt more green policies.
Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber in our fashions, and the impact starts with the growing process. Cotton is an extremely thirsty plant, requiring more water than other crops during the growing process. “It can take more than 5,000 gallons of water to produce just one t-shirt and pair of jeans” (Sweeny). Then there is the chemical impact of growing cotton. While cotton makes up only about 2 percent of the crops grown globally, it accounts for about 25 percent of the pesticides used, as well as around ten percent of other agricultural chemicals, many used to aid in the harvesting process. In a case study Sweeny states “In the 1950s, two rivers in Central Asia, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, were diverted from the Aral Sea to provide irrigation for cotton production in Uzbekistan and nearby Turkmenistan. Today, water levels in the Aral are less than 10 percent of what they were 50 years ago. As the Aral dried up, fisheries and the communities that relied on them failed. Over time, the sea became over-salinated and laden with fertilizer and pesticides from the nearby fields. Dust from the dry, exposed lakebed, containing these chemicals and salt saturated the air, creating a public health crisis and settling onto farm fields, contaminating the soil. The Aral is rapidly becoming a dry sea and the loss of the moderating influence that such a large body of water has on the weather has made the region’s winters much colder and summers hotter and drier.” The growing of cotton to meet the ever-increasing demands is very draining on the worlds water supply. The disproportionate use of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals leaves a toxic footprint that extends beyond the growing fields.
The manufacturing of man-made fibers in our clothing has its own impact on the environment. The most commonly used of these is polyester. These man-made fibers are made from petroleum and other chemicals. The processes of making these fibers is a very energy intensive one, which releases many harmful agents into the atmosphere. In addition to the energy needed, the manufacturing process releases toxic air pollutants and greenhouse gasses into the air. One of these gasses, nitrous oxide, is a very potent greenhouse gas, with a potency that is around three hundred times more potent than carbon dioxide. Waste water is another byproduct of the manufacturing of these manmade fibers. This waste water contains many chemicals that are harmful both to humans and our environment, and can even be irradiated. In many less developed countries, in addition to the air and water pollution, toxic waste products are disposed of in landfills. These chemicals that end up in landfills, when improperly sealed, end up bleeding into the soil in the surrounding areas.
The use of chemicals and dyes in treating fabrics is a major cause of water pollution, the waste water from the dying process often ending up in rivers and streams. According to Kant “the industry is using more than 8,000 chemicals in various processes of textile manufacture including dyeing and printing.” The textile industry uses incredible amounts of water in the dyeing processes. According to Kant, “The daily water consumption of an average sized textile mill having a production of about 8,000 kg of fabric per day is about 1.6 million liters.” Water is used to clean and bleach the fabrics to prepare them for dyeing, to transfer colorful dyes into the fabrics. to seal in those colors, and wash the excess chemicals out of the fabrics leaving the water very chemically tainted. Kant states “washing agents like caustic soda based soaps, enzymes, etc. are used for this purpose.” More water is used to clean the colors and other chemicals out of the machines and other equipment used throughout the process. Much of that water ends up as waste water, and in underdeveloped regions of the world the vast majority of that waste water ends up being dumped into rivers and streams with very little if any treatment to purify even being attempted. Not only does this toxic waste pollute our supply of drinking water, it also ends up in the fields where farmers grow foods, infecting what we eat. Some of the chemicals used can react with each other or with some of the treatment agents, and release toxic gasses into the air. These gasses can be harmful when breathed in and even in some cases absorbed through the skin. Some of these chemicals can even remain in fabrics through many washings, causing reactions to our skin when we wear the clothes made from them. This adds up to a big problem for the world. The dyeing of fabrics pollutes the water we drink, food we eat, and the air we breathe. Many of these chemicals and dyes can be very dangerous to the health and wellbeing of humans. They can also be very damaging to aquatic plant life. These chemicals can be harmful and even fatal to fish and other sea animals, as well as other wildlife that relies on these polluted streams and rivers for their water supply.
The fuels used in transporting clothing during every step of the process has its own impact. This includes transporting the raw materials like cotton from the fields to the manufacturing plants, transporting those manufactured materials to the factories that make the finished garments, and eventually transporting those finished garments all around the world to the retailers that sell them to the consumer. Before an article of clothing makes it to the consumers house, it has traveled far enough to circle the globe over nine times. This transportation takes on many forms. Cargo ships that transport goods and materials around the world are often registered in countries that don’t regulate their emissions, they use far more fuel per mile than the average car or truck on our highways. Over land these same goods and materials are often transported in bulk by train. Then it is all transported and distributed to regional warehouses and retailers around the globe, often by large trucks. Finally, the purchased clothing is transported by the consumer to their homes. All of this transportation adds up to be a major source of pollution all over the world.
The environmental impact of fashion continues even after purchase, through both use and disposal. As clothing has become cheaper we are buying more of it, this has become known as fast-fashion. As we wear our clothing they get dirty and need to be laundered. According to Laitala” on average a piece of clothing will be worn forty-four times, and laundered 20 times throughout its lifetime” (121). The washing of our clothing uses soaps and other cleaners that ends up in our sewers as waste water. Some of this waste water ending up in our rivers and streams, eventually flowing to our lakes and oceans. In addition to the cleaning agents the washing process washes away small particles and micro fibers. These particles and fibers also end up in the waste water. Floating in the water they often end up washing up on the shoreline. With modern electric dryers they have traps to catch lint and other particles and fibers that didn’t end up in the waste water. Those lint traps are not 100 percent effective though, and they send some of these particles into the air. As the clothes we buy become cheaper and we buy more of them we wear them less before disposal. According to Morgan and Birtwistle “Fast fashion retailers are selling their goods at competitive prices. These cheap fashions however are much less durable than their more expensive counterparts. Some of them being designed to be worn less than ten times, and in some cases, are such poor quality you will be lucky to get three wears out of them” (191). According to Stall “Clothing accounts for over five percent of what ends up in our landfills”. The natural fibers in those clothes is a big cause of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. The man-made fibers in those clothes can take many years to break down, remaining in the landfill taking up space for many years to come. When they do finally break down, the man-made fibers in the clothing that ends up in landfills leaves chemicals behind that are harmful to the environment.
There are many ways the enormous environmental impact of the fashion industry can be lessened. With cotton, the hugely disproportionate use of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals can be cut way down with organic cotton that is naturally more resistant to the insect attacks that the pesticides are used to prevent. According to Claudio “Due to its higher cost, organic cotton currently accounts for less than one percent of cotton being grown worldwide”. With the manmade fibers such as polyester recycled polyester can benefit the environment in multiple ways. Recycled polyester can use as much as sixty percent less water, fifty percent less electricity, and produce almost forty percent less greenhouse gasses during manufacturing than virgin polyester. Recycled polyester also helps to eliminate the massive number of plastic bottles that is disposed of every year, by turning those bottles into clothing, keeping them out of landfills. New waterless dyes have been developed and have been introduced to the textile industry in recent years. These waterless dyes would greatly reduce the amount of toxic waste water produced by the textile industry. As a consumer we have the power to influence these changes, by purchasing more clothing that is made using these environmentally sustainable methods.
There isn’t much that can be done to eliminate the need to transport goods and materials around the globe. However, there is still an opportunity to reduce the impact. Globally the emissions of cargo ships can be regulated. Converting to more fuel-efficient engines, or even converting to electric engines operating on solar power would reduce the emissions. Trains can also be converted to reduce the impact of land based transportation. There have been huge improvements in the area of electric trucks in recent years, specifically referring to the new tesla truck announced last year. These changes would have a big impact on the environmental footprint of the fashion industry.
There is plenty of opportunity to improve the impact of our fashions have on the consumer side as well. We can purchase higher quality, longer lasting, more sustainably made clothing. We can break the cycle of fast fashion, by purchasing new clothing less often, and buying less items per purchase. We can also help by using plant based detergents in our laundry, hanging our clothes up to air dry instead of using machines. Another way we can have an impact is recycling. When it comes to what we wear, we recycle at a lower rate when compared to other recyclable goods, such as paper, aluminum, and plastics. Our clothing can be recycled in several ways. First, we can donate used clothing in good condition to charities like the salvation army. Clothing in lesser condition can still be used as industrial rags, and ground up to be used as filler materials for furniture.
There are new technologies and processes that can substantially reduce the impact the fashion industry is having on our environment. The fashion industry has been slow to adopt these new advances however. These new environmentally friendly methods are more expensive to use, and switching over to the new machinery needed would require a significant expense by companies in the fashion industry. These extra costs drive up the prices of the clothing being marketed to consumers. This can be seen already when you compare the prices of clothing made with organic cotton versus those made with regular cotton. There is good news though, a good portion of that increased expense is temporary, as factories swap out the old equipment for the new. As more sustainable materials become mass produced in greater quantities, the price of those materials will come down. The biggest factor that will drive these changes will be consumer demand. Fashion companies will produce more clothing with more sustainable methods when there is high enough market demand for them to justify the expense. The best way to help reduce the impact the fashion industry has on our planet is by making a choice to purchase more environmentally friendly clothing, even if it is slightly more expensive for now.
The fashion industry is having a negative impact on every stage of our planet, the land we live on, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. There is impact at every stage of the life cycle of our clothing. This starts with the growing and fabrication of raw materials. That impact continues with the addition of the beautiful colors we all love. Then transporting everything around the world several times over. The care and maintenance of our clothing also adds to the impact. The toll our clothing takes on the planet continues even after we are finished with them. They fill our ever-diminishing landfill space, releasing greenhouse gasses and other chemicals into the environment. It is important we all take responsibility for the harmful effects this all is having on our planet. Embracing new technologies and techniques to decrease pollution at every level. We also need to make an effort to purchase higher quality clothes that last longer, requiring us to purchase new clothing less often, Shopping for clothing made with eco-friendly materials will send the message to manufacturers and designers “this is what we want.” We also need to use environmentally friendly detergents and other care methods in maintaining our clothing, and finally it is important that we recycle our clothing when we are finished wearing them. It is up to us all to do our part.