Updated: Jul 11, 2020
How is our wardrobe drawing impacts on the environment? The answer might be broader than you think.
From the growth of the raw materials to the incineration of discarded clothes, the whole life cycle of one single T-shirt can have a greater effect on climate change and global warming than the amount of fossil fuel burned by your car. Because of the growing concern regarding the environmental impact of the fashion industry, the concept of “sustainable fashion” has emerged to the surface in recent years. The word itself is paradoxical because the core principles of sustainability---a system that emphasizes minimizing consumption--- contradict “fashion”, or the pursuit of the newest trends with excessive consumption. However, it is possible to obtain sustainability in the fashion industry through greater recognition and cooperation.
"The fashion industry has some truly major sustainability problems in its midst."
How is the fashion industry affecting our environment? First, obtaining raw materials can lead to severe habitat and ecosystem destruction. Deforestation often occurs when lands are cleared to grow crops, and soil degradation often results from overgrazing for pastures in wool production and excessive use of chemicals or fertilizers in cotton production.
Second, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions. The initial manufacturing of fabrics, the transportation and shipping of the final products, and the treatment of textile wastes all demand an immense amount of fossil fuels as the main energy resource. The direct result of increased fossil fuel combustion is greater emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, accumulating the impact of global warming and climate change.
Lastly, the fashion industry requires an immense amount of freshwater for various purposes, such as the growth of raw materials, dyeing, and final cleaning of the clothing. Data has been calculated that for every 1kg of cotton, 20,000 liters of water are used for growth and processing of the material. The extensive consumption of water further depletes the already scarce resource that has raised great concerns. The fashion industry also plays a great role in water pollution, specifically producing untreated, toxic wastewater from textile industries, harmful chemicals from fertilizers, and microfibers from washing clothes made with synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon. The water pollutants not only imposes great threats to marine wildlife but also increases risks of bioaccumulation of toxic particles that will adversely affect public health.
The question now is: what can we do?
"Some manufacturers are also working on ways to reduce the environmental impact from the production of their jeans, while others have been developing ways of recycling denim or even jeans that will decompose within a few months when composted."
The primary influencers in the fashion production lines are the suppliers and manufacturers, who can drive changes through various aspects.
A first step that can be taken is switching to more sustainable fabrics that reduce significant environmental impact from the start. Recycled cotton is one of the top candidates as eco-friendly materials. It can be easily recycled with no additional production of cotton, which establishes a closed loop that largely decreases both the amount of water use and the number of textile wastes in landfills. Tencel is an exceptional choice for man-made yet biodegradable fibers that can be used in various products of clothing. It is made from wood pulp, which addresses a potential environmental concern while providing a type of raw material that supports sustainability in the fashion industry. Pinatex is a strong alternative for leather that is made from pineapple leaves---an agricultural byproduct that is often discarded. Utilizing this type of material once again hits two birds with one stone, where environmental impacts are mitigated while benefiting both the farmers and the manufacturers in the long run. The examples and possibilities are endless for sustainable raw materials that can be introduced in the fashion industry with great cost benefits.
Choosing more sustainable raw materials is only one small aspect of what brands and manufacturers can do. They can also embrace more sustainable policies and business models that collaboratively mitigate the environmental impact of the fashion industry. For instance, making a specific, detailed energy consumption program can effectively monitor and regulate the total amount of energy used by the company throughout the production process. Companies can also consider more sustainable ways to transport goods or deliver products, where the total carbon footprint can be reduced to the minimum. Lastly, many innovative consultancies, such as Green Strategy, have become more and more popular in recent years. They provide effective and professional help for companies to develop more sustainable business plans and achieve success under the principles of a circular economy.
“Sustainable fashion has the potential to empower consumers’ feeling of fulfillment by making more conscious choices and their consumption of sustainable fashion products."
As consumers, we can directly impact the market of the industry. Making responsible, thoughtful choices is one of the most effective ways we can do to support the movement of achieving sustainable practices and breed the idea of sustainable fashion into maturation.
In recent years, fast fashion has become a popular trend where many people buy clothes and quickly discard them after wearing only three or four times. Impulsive acts like this result in overconsumption of unnecessary products and leave an enormous amount of waste that often end up in landfills or incinerators. Therefore, understanding the mentality behind the motives of fast fashion is a crucial first step to embrace more rational behaviors. It is unrealistic to completely abolish people’s desire to buy new clothes, but it is realistic to mitigate the impact of reckless consumption through more ethical and thoughtful approaches that can benefit the environment, the market, and eventually ourselves.
The emergence of the slow fashion movement is one example that reflects the growing voice within both the fashion industry and society that pursues a productive chain with less carbon footprint, less waste generation, and more sustainable developments of business chains. The movement calls for slower production, enduring styles, and ethical consumption with greater consideration of high quality and longevity. Supporters of the movement also emphasize extending the lifespan of garments through recycling or donating old clothes, visiting second-hand shops, and learning DIY skills such as sewing to enrich one’s abilities while actively promoting sustainable fashion. In conclusion, slow fashion is an optimistic reaction that both addresses problems resulted from reckless buying behaviors and establishes the potential infrastructure of sustainable fashion in the future.
Sustainable fashion is a nascent movement that still faces many problems and challenges. However, with the collective effort of policymakers, fashion brands, manufacturers, and consumers, it will definitely overcome the obstacles and become the new trend of the future.