The Environmental Impact of the Fashion Industry

New Initiative from Zady Emphasizing Negative Impacts of Clothing Production

Maxine Bédat. Zady

The recycling of textiles is a crucially important topic, but a root cause analysis of fashion and environmental impact would suggest that we explore the entire life cycle of clothing in search of solutions. That inexpensive clothing in your shopping cart can have catastrophic climatic implications.

This is the message from fashion retailer Zady, which has launched a new research project labelled The New Standard, a platform designed to expose critical information about the ramifications of the $1.7 trillion global fashion and textile industry - one which directly employs 75 million people.

The goal of The New Standard is to aid consumers in making more responsible decisions. This, according to Zady, is an industry first in providing such visibility into the range of environmental and social impacts created by fashion production. In sharing such findings, Zady says, it is “holding a mirror to the fashion industry and the devastating impact it has on our oceans, drinking water, forest, climate change, and the world’s people to help consumers vote with their dollars for clean clothes.”

This lack of visibility into the fashion supply chain has obscured negative outcomes such as pollution, unethical labor practices, and ever-increasing waste generation. The average U.S. resident throws away around 70 pounds of clothes each year, with 85 percent ending up in landfills or incinerators. Another sobering fact, an estimated $46.7 billion worth of unworn garments hang forgotten in the closets of U.K.

residences. The recycling rate for textiles is still very disappointingly low.

“We developed The New Standard to help us understand how we, as an industry, are going to be able to dress the global population in 2050,” explains Maxine Bédat, CEO and co-founder of Zady. “While we have found ways to make cars run cleaner and more fuel-efficient, we still live in a world where 98% of factory workers are not receiving a living wage and where factories rely on the dirtiest energy supply (coal) to churn out fast-fashion that is worn on average only seven times before it is  discarded and clogs our landfills.

This is not a sustainable system and we as individuals hold immense power to persuade brands to create products that are clean, of high-quality, and ultimately better for us.”

Further up the supply chain, there is considerable waste in the production process as well. "To put it into context," Orsola de Castro writes in The Guardian, in order to produce 80 billion garments annually, we produce 400 billion metres of fabric annually, 60 billion of which end up falling to the cutting room floor." 

Three Not-So-Easy Pieces

The production of clothing accounts for 10 percent of total carbon impact. According to Zady, there are three important reasons for this. 

Clothing Production on Overdrive  The first reason has to do with the dizzying pace of garment consumption. Over 150 billion pieces of clothing are produced annually, which translates into 20 new items per year for every person on Earth. On average, each garment is worn only 7 times. 

The Shift from Natural to Synthetic  Cheap synthetic fibers are becoming increasingly popular, helping to keep new clothing affordable in price, if not in negative environmental impact. Polyester is now found in 50 percent of clothing, and rapidly increasing in terms of market share.

Global production of polyester is anticipated to rise from 40 million tons in 2010 to 70 million tons by 2030. Unfortunately, polyester is an oil-based product. Another synthetic, acrylic, is 30 percent more energy intensive than even polyester.

Coal Fired Production  Clothing production is centered in countries such as Bangladesh and China, which rely on coal powered electricity.

Water

When it comes to clothing and water, the old saying that you are what you wear takes on a whole new connotation. A recent study in California found that about one-quarter of fish purchased at local markets contained textile fabric. The likely cause is fiber suspended in the effluent of washing machines that ends up passing through 200 state wastewater treatment plants and finding its way to sea. Case in point, some 1,900 microfibers are shed from a single synthetic garment during the course of its life.

 

Beyond the shedding of microfibers into waterways, the fashion and textile industry has a number of important impacts related to water. Somewhere between 17 to 20 percent of industrial water pollution is attributed to the dyeing and treatment of textiles, which around the world involves the use of roughly 8,000 synthetic chemicals in the process. 

Even stepping away from synthetics, the growth of cotton is another area of concern, accounting for 2.6 percent of global water use. Around 53 percent of cotton is grown under irrigation. Some 99.3 percent of cotton is grown with the aid of chemical fertilizers, which is implicated in the eutrophication of waterways resulting from the nutrient deposits related to agricultural runoff.

Forests under Attack

While forests are a renewable resource when properly managed, activists claim that the garment industry is responsible for deforestation of sensitive forests. The Rainforest Action Network says that "forests across the world are being destroyed, processed into pulp, and being used to create the fabrics we wear every day." With this in mind, it started its Out of Fashion program to draw attention to the issue. Forests are cut down to create tree plantations for the production of fabrics such as rayon and viscose. 

Taking Steps for Change

Increasingly, actions such as those by Zady's are challenging the status quo of unsustainable fashion, supported by other initiative such as Fashion Revolution Day, which saw people posting selfies of clothing content labels with an eye to increasing transparency. The movement is aided by the support of celebrities. The Zady announcement resulted in endorsements from a number of celebrities, including Mark Ruffalo, Stella McCartney and others. These are meaningful yet small steps towards sustainable fashion. Time will tell if such efforts can reshape fashion into a more sustainable look.