Why the Fashion Industry Is Not Sustainable

Aside from always feeling one-season behind all the fashion enthusiasts, the fashion industry is impacting our environment. Second to the oil industry, Eileen Fisher and others claim the clothing industry is the largest polluter in the world. However, it is hard to find a stake in the claim due to unreliable data on fashion’s global footprint.

But what cannot be denied is what haunts our closets, our water supply, and the food we consume. Whether it’s high fashion or fast fashion markets, both are contributing to environmental issues in their own way.

Some of the most common materials used to create clothing are polyester, cotton, and viscose (rayon). Check the shirt or pant you are wearing. It will most likely be made up of at least one of those materials, if not a blend of two or more. Polyester is extremely harmful despite its comfort in our skinny jeans. The most common polyester polymer is polyethylene terephthalate, which is a plastic that is often used to make soda and ketchup bottles. Because it is inexpensive and easy to blend with other fibers, clothing manufacturers have been able to produce more, at low costs. Then you add in the fast fashion industry who has dedicated their business to making the most trendy clothes affordable to everyone, and the demand for clothing skyrockets. When polyester fashion becomes desirable, its production increases. And when we as consumers have had enough of our high-flared jeans, we throw them away, into the landfills that pollute the earth with plastic.

But the pollution doesn’t begin when we throw away, it begins at production. Let’s examine cotton, for instance. Though cotton, even organic cotton, may seem like a better alternative than polyester, they both contaminate. Cotton and synthetic cotton, must be harvested using a lot of water — approximately 20,000 liters of water will produce one T-shirt and one pair of jeans. In Uzbekistan, one of the leading producers of cotton, the Aral sea has increasingly been drying out due to irrigation use for cotton fields. The immense use of water led to a negative chain reaction, drying out the sea and impacting the locals who relied on it. The harmful pesticides and fertilizers used to produce the cotton ended up polluting the water and inevitably created a public health crisis. Even today, the Aral sea levels are 10 percent less than what they were 50 years ago.

Organic cotton is supposedly more sustainable, but it only makes up one percent of all cotton grown worldwide. It is more expensive than synthetic, uses a lot of water, and eventually has to be dyed. Think about this: According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, “2.4 percent of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton and yet it accounts for 24 percent and 11 percent of the global sales of insecticide and pesticides respectively.” Little land, great impacts.

Dying material has become a massive water contaminant starting with textile factories. The most common dye used in these factories is known as nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE), which has been banned from the European Union member states since they found that the chemical has an “unacceptable risk” to the environment. In addition to being harmful and posing a risk, not only to aquatic life, but to humans as well, the water that is used in the dying of textiles does not go through treatment before being thrown back into the water supply. This untreated water goes into rivers, that lead to bigger bodies of water, eventually finding itself around the globe.

The cycle of destruction is not hard to see. As soon as the waters become infected with harmful chemicals, it directly impacts aquatic life and humans. Plastics such as polyester get washed, and the micro-particles fall off into the water that eventually drains into bigger bodies of water. This water gets into our food supply (fish) and the microfibers are consumed. And up the food chain we go, until we get to ourselves, who consume this plastic debris that is most commonly found in animal and environmental samples. Jessica Body from NPR reports, “These tiny fibers make up 85 percent of human debris on shorelines across the globe, according to a 2011 study. They're basically inescapable. So it's not unlikely they're finding their way into the human diet, especially in seafood.”

So, what do we do? The most basic and simple answer is to consume less. Often we get sucked into the fashion market, which creates bad habits of buying and throwing away. Next time a new piece of clothing becomes “in-season” turn the other way. Sometimes we simply forget that we have enough. Training our minds and ourselves can be the biggest start to fixing the global problem of over-consumption.


[Feature Image by Pexels]