Fashion Week Questions the Sustainability of the Fashion Industry

Sustainability of the Fashion Industry

Environmental experts are questioning the sustainability of the fashion industry as New York’s celebrated Fashion Week winds down. The industry is deciding what we’ll wear next year. The couture clothing houses are taking orders. Socialites are talking fashion trends over martinis. But the fashion industry has some secrets they’d rather you not know. The industry is the second dirtiest industry on earth after oil.

Whenever we think of environmental responsibility, the fashion industry is not on the list of “bad players”. Is it easier to blame the oil, gas and agricultural industries, always considered the worst? Or could it be that transparency could hurt a business model of $1.2 trillion dollars in 2016 alone?

Both human and environmental factors create an intricate web of irresponsible actions in the apparel industry, and we will explore the sustainability of the fashion industry in the article.

The Industry’s Environmental Toll

Eileen Fisher, a leading clothing industry insider, shocked a Manhattan audience recently by stating, “It really is a nasty business. It’s a mess”. Fisher recently won an environmental stewardship award and honors by Riverkeeper for her commitment to the environment. She is bringing the sustainability of  the fashion industry into the limelight.

What factors make the clothing industry such a “nasty business”?

The first issue is a simple matter of supply and demand, the hallmarks of consumer-based economies. Frequent changes of what’s hot and what’s not makes huge impacts on the sustainability of the fashion industry. Psychological tools, such as steady sales and other inducements, get the consumer to stores and shopping.

Increasing demand calls for increasing resources, mainly cotton. Cotton is extensively pesticide and water-needy, especially during boll production. As the boll forms, the plants require up to 2 inches of water/week. Ironically, cotton typically grows in the driest lands on earth. In the past three years, the United States spun out enough cotton to produce 750 million pairs of jeans, however; China produces the majority of the world’s cotton with a three-year average of 33 million bales.

A cocktail of over 36 pesticides and herbicides for every life stage of cotton make up 25% of the world’s chemicals. This website provides the full list. Less developed countries have few regulatory rules. Thus chemicals banned in the U.S. are used with toxicities much worse than those utilized in the United States (infamous DDT is still used in many nations).

Synthetic materials have a different story. Petrochemically derived synthetic fibers appear in a wide variety of items you use daily, from that pop bottle to those stretchy jeans you’re wearing. Polyester, nylon, acrylic and other synthetic fibers contain toxic materials (VOC’s) which require rinsing with water during processing. Water that winds up downstream thus in our bodies. After agriculture, the fashion industry is the second most hazardous to our waters.

The short list of fiber contents:

  • Nylon – Petrochemicals
  • Acetate – Deconstructed wood pulp
  • Acrylic – Acrylonitrile: a highly poisonous compound used widely in the manufacture of plastics, adhesives, and synthetic rubber. Modacrylic fibers used in clothing is highly toxic
  • Latex – Sap of rubber trees or a synthetic product of styrene and butadiene (petroleum based)

It is estimated that 72 chemicals are released into the water supply from cloth dyeing. The World Bank reports that almost 20% of global industrial water pollution comes from the treatment and dyeing of textiles.

Bleaching produces harmful dioxins, which accumulate in the environment and are known to be toxic to humans and wildlife. One dioxin, TCDD, was the main ingredient of Agent Orange from Vietnam War “fame.”

Determining the lack of sustainability of the fashion industry is challenging due to its wide variety of factors. Interested in more information? Review scientific papers instead of environmental websites as radical groups tend to skew stats. Interested in the chemical makeup of what you wear? Go to NCBI and use the PubChem section.

Sustainability of the Fashion Industry – The Human Toll

The fashion industry is notorious for the human toll it takes on the those who toil long hours for low pay. According to a study in Environmental Health Perspectives, China accounts for 30% of “fast fashion” products and American’s purchase over 1 billion pieces of clothing each year from China alone.

In the same article, the U.S. National Labor Committee estimates that many Chinese clothing workers make as little as 12-18 cents, working in deplorable conditions. As world demand increases, emerging economies such as Honduras and Bangladesh are entering the industry and wages/working conditions are making sustainability in the fashion industry even more questionable.

In April, a garment factory in Rana, Bangladesh exploded, leaving 500 dead. The cause of the explosion? Highly flammable chemicals. Bangladesh Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith downplayed the incident stating, “The present difficulties … well, I don’t think it is really serious — it’s an accident”. As social demand for “fast fashion” continues to grow, and overseas economists see it as a positive, “accidents”, the human toll will continue.

What Can Consumers do to Help?

It is nearly impossible to walk into any clothing store, even a “high end” retailer, and find something with a “Made in the USA” label. And this is likely never to be the case as consumer demand for inexpensive clothing rises.

Estimates claim that 21% of all clothing purchases remain in our closets. We are making a hobby out of buying clothes made tempting by the constant flow of sales, markdowns, and half-price events. Could the low-cost fashion trade take a step back and possibly buy fewer clothes? Doubtful.

However, some companies are doing better than most –

  1. Patagonia’s “Worn Wear” program repairs products for consumers or they can be mailed to the company.
  2. Project Repat, with over 110,000 customers, refurbishes T-shirts into comfy quilts with PolarTec fleece backs – made from recycled plastic bottles.
  3. North Face’s “Clothes the Loop” program allows consumers to return items for rebates of up to 10% off a $100 purchase. Since the program began, 30,000 clothes and shoes have been donated and proceeds go to The Conservation Alliance.
  4. Levi Strauss & Co. has its own return program. Unwanted clothing returned to their stores are recycled with the help of their partner, I:CO.

Even though companies are beginning to change, the onus is on the consumer to make good decisions. Don’t buy as many clothes. Take everything out of your closet and sell or donate what you haven’t worn at least once in the last six months. One report shows that Americans throw away 68-82 pounds of clothing and textiles per person every year – that’s over 11 million tons from the U.S. alone!

It’s well beyond time for the fashion industry to make extreme changes in the way they do business. Sustainability in the fashion industry is an issue that has gone unaddressed for far too long.

If we all ban together and start a revolution of solutions, the world, thus our lives, will fare better for our efforts.

Debbe Ferris is a senior staff writer at Conscious Connection dedicated to exploring how technology and sustainability trends are converging to solve humanity's grand challenges. With a Bachelor’s in Natural Resource Management, Debbe joined Conscious Connection because of her interest in Free Market Environmentalism with the opinion that many environmental issues can be solved with free markets and innovations in social enterprise.