The fast fashion industry is rapidly growing with increasing demand and substantial environmental impacts. To keep up with changing fashion trends and consumer demand, companies have leaned into mass production at the expense of environmental and social factors. This new fast fashion paradigm even changes consumer perception; the cheap and low-quality apparel items produced and sold have caused many consumers to view clothing as a disposable asset. Once clothing items are no longer in style or begin to show damage, consumers often discard them, repeating the cycle all over again.
The negative impacts of fast fashion
The unfortunate reality of the fashion industry is its impact on various environmental and social issues. Climate change, high water usage, and poor working conditions for garment workers are all consequences of the industry.
The fashion industry is a significant contributor to physical waste and carbon emissions. 53 Million metric tons of clothing items are sent to landfills or incinerated annually. One common misconception is that clothing items are often recycled. However, less than 1% of clothes are recycled to produce new apparel. Throughout the life cycle of clothing, the fibers break down to a lesser quality, which creates difficulty when trying to reuse those fibers. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry produces 1.2 million metric tons of CO2 annually, which is equivalent to 267,036 gasoline-powered passenger vehicles driven for 1 year. Materials such as polyester are common in various garments and have an extremely high carbon footprint. Greenhouse gas emissions are not only a result of the production of apparel but also the packaging and hangers.
Annually the fashion industry consumes 93 billion MT of clean water, which is about half of what Americans drink annually. Crops used for apparel, like cotton, are water-intensive crops. The amount of cotton needed to produce an item, like jeans, consumes up to 10,000 liters of water. Considerable amounts of pesticides are used on these crops and can produce runoff into bodies of water that lead to algal blooms and eutrophication. The toxic chemicals used to dye fabric also leech into the water and are responsible for almost 20% of industrial water pollution globally.
The fast fashion industry often relies on cheap labor in developing nations. Garment workers are overworked, underpaid, and working in unsafe environments. Most individuals do not make a livable wage, despite their long hours of labor-intensive work. Workers often live in areas polluted from the chemicals and dyes used in the clothing. Less than 2% of garment workers earn a living wage. The remaining 98% of these workers are being held in poverty and do not have access to basic needs.
Greenwashing in the fashion industry
Greenwashing in the fashion industry occurs when companies highlight a trivial part of their sustainability efforts to appear more sustainable. A large part of greenwashing involves marketing claims that appeal to environmentally conscious consumers. These claims are often found in marketing campaigns and on the tags of clothing items. Due to the lack of regulations, companies can label themselves as sustainable without supporting data. Highlighting the use of recycled or organic materials and eco-labeling is often used to portray a higher quality of the clothes, encouraging consumers to pay a higher price. But without attempting to fix the underlying unsustainable issues with their business model, industry efforts are often seen instead as ways to create the most profit while spending the least time and money addressing the problem.
How to be a more sustainable consumer
One sustainable option is to buy second-hand clothing. Purchasing second-hand clothing diverts waste directly to the landfill. There are over 25,000 resale stores across the United States, as well as many well-known apps where you can purchase slightly worn clothing items online. Some of these apps include Curtsy, Poshmark, ThredUp, and the Real Real. There are endless benefits to purchasing used clothing, one of which is lowering GHG emissions. By choosing to purchase clothes second hand you help prevent emissions used to produce new items. Giving used clothes a second life prevents them from being incinerated or landfilled and reduces their carbon footprint.
When purchasing new clothing items, being mindful is crucial. Buying from transparent brands that support their environmental claims ensures you are not falling victim to greenwashing. Learning to shop for higher-quality items made from natural fabrics is another way to ensure your clothes will have a longer lifetime to be more sustainable. Looking for various certifications when shopping for new clothing items can be a good starting place. The Fairtrade Foundation, Global Organic Textile Standard, and bluesign are just a few certifications that ensure controls on safe and fair working conditions and environmental regulations.
Providing quality care to your existing clothes is another sustainable option. Wearing clothes longer, washing them less often, and repairing them instead of disposing of them are a few sustainable methods. While the type of fabric and its origin are important, impacts during the clothing’s lifetime, like washing, are also responsible for major impacts. Washing clothes throughout their lifetime also creates considerable environmental impacts. Some tips to reduce energy and water usage include washing full loads, using cold water, line drying when possible, and wearing clothes more than once before washing. Donating clothes to a local thrift store or passing them along to someone who will use them are the best disposal methods for clothes you want to discard.
Consumers are one of the most influential groups in the fashion industry. If consumers increasingly advocate for more sustainable practices in the fashion industry, companies will be inclined to change accordingly. It is crucial that companies consider environmental and social factors to ensure their clothing is produced sustainably to reduce impacts on the environment and garment workers.
Understanding the environmental impacts of apparel can provide a baseline to help companies create sustainability goals for their products. Here at Trayak, we provide EcoImpact-COMPASS, a comprehensive sustainability software solution tailored to products and packaging. EcoImpact-COMPASS can help companies understand where the highest environmental impacts come from throughout their products’ entire lifecycle. You even have the capabilities with COMPASS to roll-up total impact across an entire clothing line or brand for either benchmarking or reporting. EcoImpact-COMPASS also aids in making comparisons between different apparel materials, manufacturing, and end-of-life regions. Our product database includes materials such as leathers, textiles, yarns, and fibers, and material processes including bleaching, weaving, spinning, and many more. EcoImpact-COMPASS allows companies to visualize the tradeoffs associated with their products and make holistic decisions, to take a more sustainable approach in the fashion industry.
Trayak has been helping leading brands of all sizes make data-driven sustainability decisions for over 10 years. If you would like to learn more about our tools and services please contact us.