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This is the first of three articles about the fashion industry and its role in a sustainable future. Here, we examine fashion’s role in our economy and its social and environmental impact. The second installment explores alternatives to unbridled consumption of fashion and the third profiles innovators in the emerging field of “up-cycling.”
Why should we care about fashion? It is the fourth largest sector of the global economy, producing 2% of the world’s GDP. According to trade publication, Fashion Innovation, the industry employs 3.4 million people. By 2025, it will generate $2.25 trillion in annual revenue. Fashion dominates e-commerce. The average American family spends $1,700 annually on fashion, in a $12 billion market.
However, fashion’s impact far exceeds its sheer financial power. The fashion industry shares the fundamental objective of all consumer capitalism; limitless growth of production and sales by the cultivation and expansion of new markets. While the global population has doubled since 1970, the fashion industry has exceeded that rate of growth several times over during the same period.
This was achieved through mass production of increasingly less expensive clothing, using the cheapest materials and production methods. As a result, our clothing is less durable and must be more rapidly replaced by further purchases. Hand-in-hand with this planned obsolescence is a marketing strategy that drives consumer demand with a never-ending, ever-accelerating succession of new products.
Decades ago, fashion served those who could afford to buy designer clothing. Four times a year, the great design houses released new lines of high quality, durable outfits. Today, fashion is a mass market industry, making clothes accessible to all economic classes. Now, instead of four times a year, some brands introduce new products several times a week, banking on the public’s insatiable need for novelty and playing upon our long association of fashion with emotional well-being and social status.
At great societal cost, 90% of these items are produced under unsafe conditions by low wage workers in developing countries, many of which allow child and forced labor. All of this makes today’s fashion affordable to more people, guaranteeing exponential growth in sales.
What once took months to design, manufacture, and distribute now takes mere days. The speed of product turnaround, the displacement of yesterday’s styles with today’s latest trends, and the rapid deterioration and disposal of cheaply made garments has led to the term, “fast fashion.” Like fast food, it is widely available, affordable, produced with cheap ingredients, and not particularly good for us or the planet.
Not long ago, clothing was handed down, even across generations. The poor quality of today’s mass fashion results in clothing that wears out before it can be handed down, driving more sales. The industry conjures a relentless succession of increasingly short-lived styles that rapidly lose social currency. Today’s fast fashion will be worn only fifteen times, on average, before it is abandoned. One survey found that trendy younger consumers consider an article of clothing to be “old” after one or two wearings.
Mass marketing strategies routinely lead to overproduction, such that roughly two-thirds of all clothing and related fabrics go unsold, never reaching the consumer. These are incinerated or sent to the landfill. The average American discards 80 pounds of clothing each year, the fastest-growing component of the household waste stream. Only a small fraction of discarded clothing is donated, recycled, consigned to thrift shops, or repurposed. The world produces an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste each year, the equivalent of a truckload of clothing or materials being burned or dumped every second of every day.
Over 60% of clothes made each year end up in landfills, almost 20% of the world’s total consumer waste.
Other environmental impacts of “fast fashion” are equally troubling. To make more clothing in less time, for less money, the fashion industry requires cheaper, more versatile fabrics, derived from petrochemicals. Synthetic fabrics are 50% less expensive than cotton, not counting the environmental costs of oil extraction and refining. Synthetic fabrics use 15% of all plastic produced, worldwide. Over 8,000 chemicals are required for today’s textiles, accounting for 20% of all global wastewater, the second highest total for all industries. Fashion accounts for 10% of all global carbon emissions, with an estimated 50% increase by 2030. According to Levi Strauss & Co., the production of a single pair of jeans emits as much carbon as driving a car for 80 miles.
The environmental footprint of fast fashion is not limited to chemical and atmospheric pollution. That same pair of jeans requires 2,000 gallons of water to produce. Every year, clothing manufacturers use 24.5 trillion gallons of fresh water, enough to sustain 5 million people.
Synthetic fabrics like polyester are made from the same non-biodegradable PET compounds used in plastic bottles. Simply wearing and laundering clothing made from these materials sheds microfibers, tiny particles of plastic so small that they pass through the filters of wastewater treatment systems. Borne on the winds, they are widely dispersed, even to the top of Mt. Everest. They contaminate our food chain and have been detected in human placentas. The “Fossil Fashion Report” estimates that 1/2 million tons of microfibers find their way into our oceans every year, 35% of which originate in the textile and clothing industries. This is the equivalent of more than 50 billion plastic bottles.
There is another way in which PET fabrics harm the environment. Plastic bottles are part of a closed-loop recycling system, as they can be recycled many times. When PET is used for polyester, it removes significant amounts of PET from this closed loop system and adds it to the waste stream, since 87% of PET fiber in clothing will never be recycled but will be incinerated or landfilled instead. This means that more petroleum must be extracted and refined to meet the increased demand, with all the related emissions, representing an increased burden on the ecosystem.
All told, the fashion sector is second only to the oil industry as a major polluter of the planet. Fast fashion contributes massively to the degradation of our air, water and soil, depleting resources and expanding landfills. In our next installment, we’ll look at how elements in the fashion industry are trying to reduce its environmental footprint and reform its business model, to create a more sustainable, socially responsible presence where economic growth is not the sole value. We’ll explore how consumers are responding to the pressures of fast fashion with alternative approaches to the purchase and disposal of clothing, some of which are available here in our local area.
The author is indebted to these web publications for much of the information presented in this article: