How often do we look at our closets with a critical eye?
Over the past few decades, the United States has fallen deep into the thralls of an obsession with fast fashion. Our descent into piles of T-shirts and jeans is a microcosm of the growing acceptance (and even celebration) of mass overconsumption in this country. It’s a trend that can be (and must be) stopped if we are to commit to a sustainable existence on this planet.
Today, the textile industry moves wherever costs are lowest and keeps shoppers coming back to stores, and online shopping platforms, by pumping out a barrage of new trends and an ever more intense cycle of fashion seasons. As consumers, we’re inundated by an onslaught of messaging and advertisements peddling the fabricated idea that we must “keep up.” We’re promised tantalizing moments of instant gratification through the purchase of each shiny new piece, and we’re hooked, chasing the infamous momentary shopaholic’s high.
Of course, on a large scale, this habit quickly becomes a vast environmental and ethical problem.
The clothing industry today is a globalized system riddled with negative externalities and characterized by a lack of transparency. National subsidies have made the U.S. the world’s leading exporter of pesticide-laden cotton. Meanwhile, the manufacturing side of the garment industry has moved overseas, where labor is cheap and environmental regulation is often non-existent. Petroleum is pumped in for the production of synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester. Disenfranchised factory workers mix the toxic dyes and sew hems in dimly lit factory rooms.
Once newly-minted clothing is shipped back to the U.S., paltry price tags, made possible by the externalization of costs, reinforce the false notion that clothes are (and should be) cheap. As the consequences of this industry have become increasingly hidden from the collective consciousness, textiles have become disposable items.
But what happens to last year’s unwanted clothing? Whatever isn’t taken up by someone else is sent to landfills, or wrapped up in plastic and shipped back overseas as part of humanitarian aid packages. Unfortunately, these aid shipments have largely served only to cripple local textile businesses in the very countries they’re supposed to be helping.
To stop both the environmental degradation and human rights abuses inherent in this remarkably globalized, modern day textile system, it’s imperative that we teach each other to consume less and recycle more. We can all demonstrate a greater willingness to support sustainable fibers, get educated, and invest in companies trying to do the right thing. Change isn’t just possible in this arena, it’s become absolutely essential.
The Story of Fast Fashion
An in-depth understanding of fast fashion requires an understanding of the fibers themselves, the process of manufacturing, the complicated web of production and supply, new technologies, and issues around disposal, recycling and “humanitarian aid.”
Today, roughly 50% of clothing worldwide is made from cotton. Although countries around the world contribute to meeting the demand for this essentially ubiquitous fiber, China, India, the United States and Pakistan remain (respectively) the top four cotton producers globally.[i] Combined, these four countries are responsible for growing 75% of the world’s raw cotton.
From here, paths diverge. China, India and Pakistan, in addition to being top cotton producers, are also leading mill users of raw cotton. In contrast, the United States has retained very little of its historic domestic textile manufacturing capabilities. While U.S. national subsidies have kept the domestic production of cotton afloat, once harvested, the vast majority of cotton grown in the United States must be shipped overseas for processing. Although the United States is only the world’s third largest cotton producer, it is the world’s largest cotton exporter.[ii]
Most cotton in the United States (and increasingly around the world) is produced industrially. GMO cotton varieties are planted in vast, monoculture fields, where they are tended to with heavy machinery, synthetic fertilizers, and large quantities of pesticides and herbicides. The many costs associated with clearing native habitat for endless rows of GMO cotton include erosion, water pollution, an increased risk of certain cancers among cotton farmers and local community members, the emission of greenhouse gases, reduced biodiversity, and diminished ecological resiliency.[iii] Unfortunately, the detrimental impacts of modern cotton production, including climate change and chemically-contaminated land and water, are externalized, obscuring the true cost of modern cotton production. Ignoring the negative externalities of the industry, while also subsidizing its product, are concerning trends.
The situation in places outside of the U.S. may be worse. In India, when families cave to the promises of agricultural companies and devote their fields entirely to cotton monoculture, they give up the diversified, year-round income that comes with cultivating a variety of crops. By putting all their eggs in one basket, a drought, heavy rain or unexpected pestilence can wipe out the family’s entire livelihood for the year. Without crop insurance, a luxury that remains out of reach for most of the rural poor, cotton farmers can suddenly find themselves in dire economic straights. Sadly, climate change is predicted to only exacerbate weather extremes in many of these areas and increase the frequency of such catastrophes.[iv]
Unfortunately, in good harvest years, the market becomes oversaturated with cotton and prices plummet. This proves disastrous for families as well, as it becomes nearly impossible to make a profit, no matter how much cotton you are able to sell. Farmers again find themselves hopelessly in debt, owing back the money they paid large agricultural companies for fertilizer, seeds and pesticides. Seeing no way out, they drink the very pesticides they were told would lift their families out of poverty. At least two to three cotton farmers commit suicide every day in India.[v]
We must begin exploring both organic cotton production and the support of diversified crop production.
Here, there are some signs of promise. Organic cotton has been steadily taking over a larger (albeit still tiny) share of the market. In 2009-2010, organic farmers produced 242,000 tons of organic cotton, a massive increase from 37,800 metric tons produced in 2005.[vi] Walmart, H&M, and Nike have all been top purchasers of organic cotton.[vii]
Animal fibers, in comparison to cotton and synthetic fibers, are (at least on the front side of production) generally much more environmentally friendly. Farmers most commonly graze sheep and alpaca on marginal lands, where the animals damage very little of the natural ecosystem.[viii] The situation goes a bit south with goats, as goats overall have a much higher impact on the local ecology. Cashmere goats, in particular, are traditionally raised in more fragile environments.[ix] All of these animals, however, are quite water efficient, and the need for pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers is essentially eliminated in this system.
When it comes to processing, it takes very little energy (relative to synthetic fibers) to spin both cotton and natural animal fibers. While this is great, the situation soon becomes a bit bleaker.
To process wool, manufacturers must first use an intensive scouring process to remove lanolin from the fiber, and then a chemically-intensive process to make the wool washable.[x] Cashmere and alpaca go through similar, albeit slightly less deleterious transformation processes.[xi]
Of course, the use of animal fibers also brings up ethical questions and issues around animal rights. Numerous activists have revealed the dark underbelly of many sheep shearing facilities and the industrial procurement of fiber like angora.
We can cut back many of these issues by investing in recycled wool, buying second hand and supporting animal rights legislation.
Synthetic fibers bring up a different set of issues. Polyester is derived from oil, and an enormous amount of energy is required to spin the fiber.[xii] The dying process used to create polyester clothing necessitates the use of high temperatures, although the process is shorter and uses (surprisingly) fewer chemicals than does the industrial method of dying of cotton.[xiii]
Recycling polyester, although it sounds appealing, means going through a process of depolymerisation, or using a lower impact, simpler melting process that unfortunately yields slightly poorer quality fiber.[xiv] From there, the process of spinning and dying begins anew.
Nylon follows essentially the same trajectory, with similar manufacturing costs and challenges.[xv]
Hemp, Bamboo and Other More Sustainable Options
Hemp produces an incredibly durable natural fiber. Its cultivation has a very low impact on the environment, because we can grow it efficiently without the use pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or GMO seeds. In fact, for thousands of years, humans have spun hemp into fiber, compelled by the soft fabric (comparable to linen) that it produces and capitalizing on the plant’s ability to grow exceedingly quickly.
Unfortunately, the industrial production of hemp is prohibited in many countries around the world, despite its extremely low THC content. Currently, U.S.-based companies interested in hemp’s environmentally-friendly attributes, like Patagonia, must import the fiber from China.[xvi]
Bamboo also grows exceedingly quickly and its cultivation, similar to hemp, has far fewer environmental implications than cotton. However, bamboo fiber can be extracted in a few different ways and the processing aspect of production is the true determinant of whether or not a bamboo clothing product can be called sustainable.
There is a natural process for extracting and spinning bamboo fiber. After mechanically crushing the woody parts of the bamboo, it’s then possible comb out the natural fibers and spin the product into yarn. However, it’s more efficient and cost-effective (as the environmental and human health impacts are again, largely externalized) for companies to use a chemical method for extracting bamboo fiber.
Cooked in chemical solvents, the bamboo is transformed into a viscous solution that can be forced into strands and then solidified into bamboo “fiber.” albeit at significant health risk to factory workers.[xvii] This material, actually a mix of natural and synthetic materials, leaves behind a trail of chemical waste.
Clearly, bamboo illustrates the necessity of looking beyond the cultivation of a raw material, and into the manufacturing processes, before determining with true accuracy whether or not a particular clothing item is truly good for the planet.
A Globalized System of Production
The textile industry, in comparison to other globalized industries, is one of the most harmful.
The production of polyester, which has nearly doubled in the last 15 years, is a process both derived from and dependent on crude oil. By releasing toxic emissions, including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, polyester manufacturing plants have seriously deleterious effects on the environmental and human health.[xviii] In addition, volatile monomers, solvents and other by-products of polyester production are excreted by these manufacturing plants in the form of wastewater, prompting the EPA to label most textile factories as “hazardous waste generators” under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.[xix]
On the side of natural fiber, as mentioned above, industrial cotton cultivation involves the use of toxic pesticides and herbicides. In fact, cotton accounts for 25% of the United State’s pesticide use. [xx]
Once fibers are moved into the next production process, things get arguably worse. Dye houses in China and India are known for not only using up vast quantities of the local water, but also releasing most of what they take up as toxic waste.[xxi] Most dye houses require 30 gallons of water for every gallon of dye, which is why many environmental reformers have focused their efforts on advocating for reduced water ratios, if not the creation of new dying processes altogether. [xxii]
There are some hopeful signs, as companies like ColorZen opt into this creative space. ColorZen has thus far successfully experimented with modifying cotton’s molecular structure in such a way that allows dyes to settle into the fabric with less water. The ColorZen modification also eliminates the use of fixing agents that have traditionally been required to keep the fabric’s coloring uniform.[xxiii]
Other companies such as AirDye are nixing the use of water almost entirely, using air to disperse the dye instead. By embedding the dye within textile fibers, rather than simply coating clothing with color, the dye lasts longer and the clothing becomes more resilient to repeat washing.[xxiv]
Adidas is experimenting in a similar way, utilizing compressed and pressurized carbon dioxide to disperse dye within polyester. After the dye condenses, and dying process is complete, the gasifying CO2 is trapped, recycled and stuffed back into the dying vessel for the next round of dying.[xxv]
Changing the way we go about dying our clothing is essential, as communities in many developing countries continue to lose access to safe drinking water and suffer in fields slowly contaminated by the toxic waste released by irresponsible (and arguably downright criminal) dying factories.[xxvi]
Of course, exposure to toxic dyes and chemicals has horrible impacts on the health of workers employed by dye factories as well. This is not just an environmental crisis, but a question of human rights and worker safety. Currently, textile workers are exposed to a gauntlet of carcinogenic chemicals at their workplace.[xxvii]
Consumer pressure is needed to drive the creation and implementation of non-toxic textile chemicals and safer dying methods, as well as guaranteed occupational safety for textile workers, who frequently have little to no bargaining power.
Workers’ rights abuses
To make matters worse, despite the horrible working conditions that many factory workers endure daily, most textile factory employees are paid very little for their labor and the risks they face. Textile workers are commonly forced to work brutally long hours, subjected to verbal and physical abuse, denied breaks and refused sick or family leave.
According to the U.S. National Labor Committee, Chinese workers often work in horrible conditions for as little as 12-18 cents an hour.[xxviii] In countries such as Bangladesh, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, the conditions are similar, if not worse. People there earn far less than a living wage, working overtime in miserable conditions and living in one-roomed houses with no water or electricity.[xxix]
Working through subcontractors means that large clothing companies often escape responsibility for the conditions in which workers produce their products. This tactic continues, despite increasing demand for transparency and safety. Tragic accidents continue to occur, most notably the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, in which over 1,100 workers were killed and another 2,000 injured. Still, Human Rights Watch found in 2017, four years after the Rana Plaza disaster, that only 17 of 72 apparel companies had agreed to implement a transparency pledge.[xxx]
We can’t ignore the environmental costs of “clothes’ miles” either. The globalized nature of the garment industry means that raw materials, dyes, chemicals and the finished product are all shipped vast distances.
The country of production is often not the country of manufacture or final purchase. In one example, highlighted by the BBC, lyocell fiber from Europe was shipped to Egypt to be spun into yarn. From there, the yarn went to China, where it was woven into fabric. The fabric was then sent to Spain for dying and then shipped to Morocco for the final cuts and sewing. The dress was then sent back to Spain, where it was finally packaged up and shipped to the UK for sale. [xxxi]
Support domestically-produced clothing whenever possible.
Around the globe, people consume approximately 80 billion items of clothing annually.[xxxii]
Unfortunately, because consumers know little about the manufacturing processes and costs, clothing items are increasingly viewed as disposable, especially in the United States. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans threw away 15.1 million tons of clothing in 2013, 85% of which ended up in landfills.[xxxiii] This number means that the average American was throwing away 70 pounds of clothing a year.
Since then, things have only gotten worse. The average American now throws away roughly 80 pounds of clothing annually, or double what they did just 20 years ago.[xxxiv]
Synthetic fibers may take hundreds, if not a thousand years, to decompose.[xxxv] Natural fibers, which have been soaked in chemicals and colored with toxic dyes, don’t do much better. According to the EPA, diverting the amount of clothing that we currently throw away would be environmentally equivalent to taking 7.3 million cars off the road.[xxxvi]
Recycling is a crucial strategy in the quest to make clothing manufacturing more sustainable. Unfortunately, today only 0.1 percent of clothing donated to charities and industry take-back programs is recycled into new textile fiber, according to Henrik Lampa, the Development and Sustainability Manager for H&M.[xxxvii]
The difficulties involved in recycling fiber are endless, especially as it becomes commonplace to make clothing with multiple kinds of fiber. The hope is that start-ups might begin to step into this space. Already, a group called Evrnu has made huge strides in solving the recycling riddle by finding a way to separate certain fibers, transforming recycled T-shirts into Levi jeans.[xxxviii]
Bringing clothing to secondhand stores is a great practice, but not the final solution. Constantly rotating fashion seasons quickly put used clothes out of style. Additionally, clothes from fast fashion brands are often poor quality, with very low resale value, again prompting many secondhand stores to reject them.[xxxix]
Clothes that are given to nonprofits like Goodwill can sometimes passed on to a new home. The clothes that aren’t in good shape can sometimes still be made into items like carpeting or insulation, and are sold to numerous textile retailers around the country for this purpose. [xl] Still, as the number of pounds of donated clothing increases, these groups can become overwhelmed.
Clothing Donations and Humanitarian Aid
As a result, a lot of donated clothing ends up in the hands of groups like Trans-Americas Trading Co., whose New Jersey warehouse alone receives and processes up to 80,000 pounds of clothing a day.[xli]
Men and women working for Trans-Americas Trading Co. sort through the clothing and must make instantaneous assessments, selling what they can (about 2%) to vintage stores and categorizing the rest of the items by type, quality and material.[xlii]
Next, the newly categorized clothing is shipped out around the world, with the highest quality items going to Japan, the mid-range items going to South America, the cold weather clothing to Eastern Europe and the rest to African countries.[xliii]
These donations, in addition to other aid packages, have decimated local textile industries in the places where they’re dropped.
To paint the picture, 81% of clothing in Uganda purchased in 2004 was secondhand. The situation has gotten so bad, that in 2015, some regional leaders proposed a ban of secondhand clothing at a summit for East African heads of state.[xliv] Many agree that mass donations only harm the local economy and foster a relationship of dependency. Others counter that the selling, cleaning, repairing and tailoring of used clothing does create jobs. The debate continues.
What can we, as consumers, do about these myriad issues? The current system is unwieldy and often ugly, but the challenges we face in revolutionizing the textile industry are not insurmountable.
The future of sustainable clothing depends both on new technologies, particularly in the realm of recycling, and new policies (legalizing the production of hemp, for example). However, we can enact incredible change just by cultivating increased consciousness among the average consumer.
Tips for becoming a part of the sustainable solution:
1. Buy secondhand clothes and shop at thrift stores.
2. Fix tears, sew on new buttons and repurpose old clothing whenever possible.
3. Support sustainable fibers like hemp.
4. Consider buying clothing made from recycled materials.
5. Encourage brands trying to do the right thing (many companies support recycling and take-back programs and offer clothing made from hemp, bamboo and more sustainable fibers).
6. Ask companies to be transparent about the working conditions of the people producing their clothes. Don’t buy unless you know.
7. Connect with and support NGOs and organizations trying to connect conscious producers with ethical manufactures (check out Fibershed, for example).
8. Get on board with closed-loop (fully recycled) fashion and invest in startups investigating new technologies.
9. Buy timeless, high quality pieces that will last.
Together, anything is possible.