Fast-Fashion’s Environmentally Destructive Habits

Yves here. Good to see other venues catching up with Jerri-Lynn’s reporting.

By Sophie Linden, an editorial assistant at AlterNet’s office in Berkeley, CA. Originally published at Alternet

Style has its hazards. From credit card debt to painful high heels, many trends have reified the idea that fashion comes at a cost. Each decade of outfits has a concerning global impact, as a recent study out from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation illuminates the incomprehensible toll fashion takes on the climate.

Led in collaboration with animal-rights activist and high-brow clothing designer Stella McCartney, the Macarthur’s study tracks the environmental devastations incurred through the production of next season’s wares.

The study calls this fashion’s tendency to “take-make-and-dispose,” also known as fast-fashion. It’s an obsession with new style wherein unworn clothing is quickly turned over, and where a garbage truck’s worth of fashion is thrown away every second of the year. And if the industry keeps up like this, by 2050 textiles and garments will account for a quarter of the world’s carbon budget.

It’s also estimated that half a million tons of plastic microfibers are leaked into earth’s ocean each year, as synthetic materials are laundered and microparticles of plastic eventually travel into the ocean. This is the equivalent of 50 billion plastic water bottles, contributing to the health crisis of sea creatures and ocean flock, which are ingesting plastics as if they were plankton.

In order to stymie the heavy-handed consequences of fast-fashion, the foundation has offered a four-part approach: asking stakeholders to phase out the use of hazardous materials, improve the recycling of old fabrics, use renewable resources in manufacturing, and increase the quality of goods it sells.

The authors envision creating a “new textile economy,” though it is worth noting that some corporate entities are already changing their business practices with climate change in mind.

H&M is often ahead of its industry in terms of sustainability. The organization has set out a goal to use 100% recycled or sustainably sourced fabric by 2030, investing in new technologies that recycle used cotton and cellulose fibers. The company is already developing a new brand, named Conscious Collections, which uses sustainable fabrics to conceive its designs. It has even gone as far as to make fabrics out of shoreline waste. Of course, these items are also available for a higher price.

Even so, for all the good-samaritan principles the company outfits itself with, it still contributes to the environmental harms the Ellen Macarthur Foundation critiques. For instance, the company was largely unaware of the fact they were sourcing viscose fabric from factories that are responsible for polluting the ocean. As the World Bank has pointed out, 20% of water pollution is from the textile industry, making it the second largest polluter.

In contrast, online retailers are attempting to follow a Netflix-model for loaning clothing, reducing waste through limiting consumption and recycling used wares. Rent the Runway is one of the most popular, acting as a clothing rental site that rents clothing for a monthly fee, anywhere between $30 and $159. Meanwhile, companies like Etsy and Kidizen host platform where sellers can recirculate used clothing at the seller’s price.

Nevertheless, both of these have a classist tinge to them, selling items that aren’t necessarily affordable to all. And while arguments for thrift stores are prudent and effective ways to mitigate waste in our society, they too can be related to class and poverty. Inevitably, the question of impact is left up to what you can afford, and ecologically sustainable clothing brands are, for now, mostly available to the wealthy. Knowing this, the industry should concern itself with making their environmental garb affordable across class, i.e., for poor people too.

As the textile industry employs an estimated 300 million people, we see how much its decisions carry weight. Meanwhile, Catarina Midby, the UK & IE sustainability manager to H&M, has said, “The greatest change-makers are consumers who, with their growing awareness, are demanding an added value of sustainability.”

This leaves one to wonder whether it’s the company or the consumer that has more leverage to address the environmental hazards it buys in weight. Of course, the relationship of consumption is cyclical and the answer is both. Both entities need to embody a fashion that desires a different take, demonstrating that this desire isn’t necessarily so toxic to humanity and the planet.

That said, corporate entities have the larger bankroll here. At present, cotton alone accounts for up to a quarter of global pesticides, a true burden to the environment. On the other end of the spectrum, how many people can afford to buy organic cotton jeans, let alone 100% organic recycled cotton? As many have pointed out, it’s foolish to mistake the cost of clothing for quality, and the industry is arguably leveraging profit before the climate.

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  1. joe defiant

    A study paid for by Stella McCartney which aims to prove her brand of “sustainable” fashion is better for everyone. Very surprising.

    As long as people think they need to wear new looking clothing and any little stain or tear means throw it away (nevermind three months old means “out of fashion”) the textile industry will continue to destroy to make profit from the people who feel this way. Western countries are working hard to export their civilization everywhere so the whole world can become good consumers which is a fools errand because in order for some to live this way an even greater number must live as slaves in poverty. There is no way around civilization needing to exploit others and destroy the earth in order to import it’s needed resources.

  2. Basil Pesto

    I’ve read a few of the articles about FF on here, and I’m wondering; does anyone know where Uniqlo fits in the picture in terms of their corporate ethics? I don’t think I’ve seen them mentioned in the FF articles

  3. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    To gods we bow. To peons, we ban.

    In order to stymie the heavy-handed consequences of fast-fashion, the foundation has offered a four-part approach: asking stakeholders to phase out the use of hazardous materials, improve the recycling of old fabrics, use renewable resources in manufacturing, and increase the quality of goods it sells.

    Just ban fast fashion.

  4. CalypsoFacto

    One thing I feel is not mentioned enough in the discussion of fast fashion and synthetic textiles is the role that the rise of exercise and athleticism has played in the explosion of disposable, crappy clothing. Modern yoga and athleisurewear cannot be made without spandex/elasticized yarns, and the lifespan of those textiles is pretty low (2-3 years with normal washing and wear) because the ability to ‘snap back’ degrades over time and the garment no longer fits. It isn’t just yoga pants and leggings now though – jeans are heavily elasticized now too, most knit tops and dresses – the elastic hides a lot of fitting flaws and allows a wider range of body sizes to fit a single pattern. What used to be the domain of the specialty use has moved into the common/cheap use because it hides a number of production and design flaws.

    I went to school to be a (garment) patternmaker but arrived a little too late to get a job in the industry – thankfully I’d worked my way through school doing something unrelated that ended up able to provide me with a relatively good income, even though I hate it. I still have all of my tools and design and make maybe 30% of my own wardrobe. The school I attended was a bit old school in that we were not allowed to use synthetic or stretchy fabrics and only learned minimal skills in patterning/fitting knits. What I have found over the years of sewing for my own body is that bodies change shape/size/curvature a LOT through the course of just daily bloating and eating etc. When you don’t wear firming foundation garments, you can’t have a static wardrobe that is body conscious – you have to have different ‘tight’ sizes, because your body shape fluctuates. So either the return of corsetry-type foundation wear, or looser clothing + tailoring, will also need to happen as we phase out those stretchy fabrics.

  5. Rates

    I read this as Fast Fashion is liberating the planet from an ignorant and delusional species.

    It should be celebrated.

    The planet can take a rest.

  6. katiebird

    This post and related stories that I think I originally saw here (How Your Clothes are Poisoning our Oceans and Food Supply) have been haunting me this Christmas…. I have been looking at lounging clothes and pajamas and it is astonishing how many of these are made from microfibers.

    As it happens, I can’t stand the texture of microfibers and always look for cotton, cotton flannel or more traditional fabrics like rayon or tencil (are these any better?) so I don’t think my clothing habits have contributed much to the problem.

    But, wow— A person really has to dig into the content of every purchase to avoid it. Doing searches for cotton clothes brings up microfiber stuff all the time! It’s crazy.

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