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Can Fashion be Sustainable?

On this blog and in general sustainability circles, we often talk about the environmental and health impacts of plastics, vehicle emissions, buildings, air travel– even the food we eat.

But today we want to take a deep dive into something we haven’t discussed very much. It’s a sector which is lesser-known, but hugely impactful in terms of waste generation and greenhouse gas emissions. We’re talking about clothing and textiles.

Did you know that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Americans throw away 25% more trash than during the rest of the year?!

As the Black Friday flurry and holiday gift-buying season approaches, it’s a good time to be mindful of this impact and how we can take charge of minimizing our environmental footprints.

It may come as a surprise, but the fashion industry is a significant contributor to our landfills, as well as to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, almost as much as the entire European Union!! The clothes industry also creates plastic pollution, threatens public health and the environment through intense chemical pollution, and takes up an enormous amount of landfill space.

Clothes are definitely a necessity and are also a fun way to express one’s creativity. But today, we want to emphasize the impact of the textile industry and why we need to think more carefully about the clothing purchases we make.

Laying Out the Issue

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the environmental impacts of clothes production include:

  1. High reliance on nonrenewable resources
  2. High use of hazardous chemicals
  3. High land use (competing with agriculture)
  4. High greenhouse gas emissions (1 ton of textiles generates 17 tons of CO2)
  5. Textile production requires 93 billion cubic meters of water annually (4% of the global freshwater withdrawal)
  6. Microplastic pollution into the ocean
  7. Poor working conditions for garment workers (slavery and child labor included)

These impacts are increasing due to the rise of fast fashion.

Global Material Flows for Clothing in 2015 (Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015)

What is “Fast Fashion”?

When clothing is only made to last between 5-10 wears, that is considered fast fashion. In our current fashion industry, many companies encourage people to buy clothing frequently, more than should be necessary, to help improve profits. They sell massive quantities at cheaper prices while changing styles to keep people coming back for the new trends.

When companies and consumers focus on quantity, the quality of the clothing is usually pretty poor. As a result, the clothing only lasts so many wears and clothing is thrown away at a dramatic pace. As the life expectancy of a garment shrinks, the negative impact on the environment grows.

If the number of times a garment is worn was doubled, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 44%

Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015

Textiles drain resources and often contribute to plastic pollution. Moreover, the added need for chemicals and pesticides in the fast fashion industry can endanger textile workers and leak toxins into the environment.

Water Usage

The fast fashion industry requires a lot of water from the beginning to the end of the supply chain. Take cotton for example. Conventional cotton growing uses 69% of the water used in textile fabric production (Soil Association). Conventional cotton also requires pesticides and insecticides to grow. By comparison, growing cotton organically uses up to 91% less water than conventional cotton (and fewer pesticides).

By the end of the supply chain, even more water is needed to make the article of clothing. During this process, water systems can be polluted with chemicals.

One way to start addressing this problem is to look for organic cotton when buying clothing – ideally, getting a used organic cotton shirt would be the way to go!

Pollution

According to the EPA, the average American generates 75 pounds of textile waste per year, which mostly heads to the landfill. But before that clothing can even make it to the landfill, textiles will often require harsh chemicals and dyes to produce, and any synthetic fabrics will shed microplastics during washing. These microplastics then enter our waterways, accounting for 35% of the microplastics in the ocean (On Microplastics, WSJ).

This happens with natural materials, too, but materials such as cotton and wool will eventually biodegrade, while microplastics from materials like polyester do not.

It’s estimated that more than 22 million metric tons of microfibers will enter the ocean between 2015-2050.

The Afterlife of Clothing – Recycled or Landfilled?

While fast fashion may seem like an unavoidable part of our lives, it is time to address the issues of the textile system and find ways to change our behaviors. Even though lightly used materials can go to thrift stores and some fabrics can be recycled, only 25% of garments are collected for reuse or recycling globally. In the U.S. that number is 10-15%. (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015). As a result, the majority of clothes end up in the landfill – often after only a few uses.

Salt Lake City is working to expand textile recycling opportunities. (Visit our Specialty Recycling page for a running tally of programs). However, people can also help by avoiding over-consumption at the check-out counter.

Transitioning to Sustainable Fashion

This is where you come in with your consumer choices.

When it comes to getting rid of old clothes, there are several options that will help divert textile waste from the landfill and give your old clothes a new life.

Looking for a home for clothes that are still wearable?

  • Clothing swaps are a fun way to help your friends freshen up their wardrobe and reduce textile waste.
  • Donating old clothes to your local secondhand store will help the resources last longer and support the local economy. Salt Lake City has many thrift stores including the Deseret Industries (DI) and the Other Side Academy, both of which also offer job training programs for members of our community.

If your old clothes are not wearable, you can recycle textiles:

Time to go shopping?

Ok, so you’ve worn out your favorite shirt and it’s more holes than anything else. How do you start shopping if you want to take into consideration all that we’ve talked about so far with longevity, well-sourced materials, and ethical practices?

So when you do have to go shopping, keep these two steps in mind:

  • Look for used clothing. Check out the thrift stores, see if friends are getting rid of good clothes, and check for local, online sellers that may have what you’re looking for. The secondhand market is growing quickly, and there are tons of local shops popping up to make this easier (ThreadUp is a cool online thrift store!)
  • If you’re shopping for something new, look for durable, well-sourced goods. These purchases can be more expensive than some more common options; however, they will usually last longer and the environmental and ethical differences can make a big impact.

Sustainable AND Fashionable

When considering the clothing you buy, opting for higher quality material and taking good care of the item can go a long way in lengthening the lifespan of a given piece of clothing. Additionally, the secondhand market is rapidly growing, so there are more options for finding great second hand clothes.

ABC4’s article and video with local sustainable fashion blogger Jessica Cobabe and SLCgreen’s Sophia Nicholas outlines a step-by-step guide to improving sustainability. Cobabe gives us the useful reminder: “Realistically, the most sustainable items are already in your closet.”

Whether you’re deciding on your holiday gifts or thinking about updating your wardrobe, consider the longevity of an item before you buy new. The most sustainable approach to fashion is to keep what you already have and try to maintain it as long as possible! When it’s time for those clothes to go, then start implementing better purchasing habits and opportunities to recycle.

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