The high cost of fast fashion

We buy local and organic, we recycle, yet most of us don’t give a second thought to the clothes we buy. Our addiction to the next “must have” trend and mega sale is destroying our health, our planet, and the lives of millions.

Globalization has made it possible to produce clothing at lower and lower prices, to the point that many consumers now consider their clothes as disposable.  Known as “fast fashion,” ­—the clothing equivalent of fast food— this trend is fueled by countless fashion magazines that help create the desire for new “must-haves” for each season. But this “out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new” seesaw is costing the planet dear. Take jeans. The cotton that goes into a single pair, for example, requires almost 1,500 liters of water to grow. Add in millions of T-shirts, khakis, socks, underwear.… you do the math.

But while Americans have shown a growing interest in knowing the origins of their food and in buying locally, the mechanisms and consequences of clothing production are still relatively opaque. And textiles are much more complicated than fruits or vegetables: the cotton for a T-shirt might be grown in one location or many, shipped elsewhere for milling and dyeing, yet somewhere else for assembly, and yet to another place for sale.  It is a complicated supply chain and traceability of products is an ongoing challenge.

The world now consumes more than 80 billion pieces of clothing a year, making it a trillion dollar annual industry. Europe alone consumes more than four times the amount of clothes today as it did in 1980. And Americans throw away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person or about 11 million tons of textile waste each year.

This rapid consumption has also increased environmental damage at an alarming rate. According to Elizabeth Cline, author of “Overdressed,” all that fabric being produced requires 145 million tons of coal and somewhere between 1.5 trillion and 2 trillion gallons of water. Just one T-shirt requires 700 gallons of water to manufacture.

If like most people, you think that your old clothes go to those in need once you drop them off at a thrift store, think again. Only about one-fifth of the clothing donated to charities is directly used or sold. There are nowhere near enough people in America to absorb the mountains of castoffs, even if they were given away. And the clothes we’re getting rid of are poor quality so their potential for resale is limited.

Few people think of the fashion industry as a heavy industry like steel or cement.  But the fashion industry is one of the highest-ranking industrial water polluters in the world, and the retail industry is the second worst polluter after the oil industry.  Polyester, the most widely used synthetic fiber, is made from petroleum. The manufacture of synthetics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil and releasing emissions including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), considers many textile manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators. And natural fibers are often no better. Cotton, although natural and considered by many more virtuous, also has a significant environmental footprint. This crop accounts for a quarter of all the pesticides used in the United States, the largest exporter of cotton in the world, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It is also one of the most thirsty crops.

Furthermore, the dyeing and finishing of fabric creates hundreds of gallons of wastewater and toxic runoff.  All for clothes that may just find their way into a dumpster. Many people were horrified to discover, not long ago, that in a world where so many people are cold and unclothed, companies like Wal-Mart and H&M shred overstock.

FastFashion2Buying truly sustainable fashion, however, is a huge challenge. Sustainability means using resources in a way that does not impoverish the planet for the next generation. Yet, fashion is all about novelty and consumption, which is quite the opposite.

Much like the slow food movement, slow fashion encourages consumers to be more mindful about the products they consume and ultimately, to consume less altogether. “Slow fashion encompasses sustainable fashion, but it takes a broader view than just supporting organic T-Shirts,” said Elizabeth Cline. It’s about the consumer becoming aware of the whole process–from design through production through use and through the potential to reuse. In fact, it’s a complete approach to retail that respects the environment, human capital, the longevity of a product and the end consumer, at every level. It’s also beautiful and timeless. It’s about a complete wardrobe that you can be proud of—one that will last long enough to pass down to future generations.

To fashion lovers, the slow movement may sound a party pooper but it’s quite the opposite. It’s not about shunning clothing, but rather valuing it on a deeper level.

Do you think of the true cost of the clothing you buy? In a future post, my favorite sustainable brands.


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