In recent years, the true cost of cheap clothing and so-called “fast fashion” has become better understood, and with that knowledge, a call to change is being sounded. Investigations reveal the clothing industry is a significant source of environmental pollution — according to some estimates it’s the fifth-most polluting industry in the world1 — and excessive consumption only adds to these problems.
So, while in the past the fashion industry has largely skated below the radar, environmentalists and environmentally-minded industry insiders alike are now starting to really hone in on these problems. As noted by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation:2
“The time has come to transition to a textile system that delivers better economic, societal, and environmental outcomes. The report ‘A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future’ outlines a vision and sets out ambitions and actions — based on the principles of a circular economy — to design out negative impacts and capture a USD 500 billion economic opportunity by truly transforming the way clothes are designed, sold, and used.”
In the past, I had not really given much thought to the clothes I’m wearing, and was shocked to learn about the health and environmental damage occurring from “fast fashion.” I’ve now dedicated myself to wearing and supporting a responsible and regenerative movement to “Care What You Wear,” by developing the Dirt Shirt — organic clothing grown and sewn in the USA — and SITO; organic clothing produced responsibly outside the U.S.
This year, give some serious thought to cleaning up your wardrobe. Remember, being a conscious consumer does not stop at food and household products. Your clothing can be a source of hazardous chemicals, and cheaply made fast fashion items take a tremendous toll on the environment and the people working in the industry. As a consumer, your choices will help guide the garment industry toward more humane and environmentally sane manufacturing processes.
Clothing Sales Are at an All-Time High
According to the featured report, created by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s recently launched Circular Fibres Initiative,3,4 while sales of clothing are at an all-time high, utilization of clothing has dramatically diminished, which makes sense considering you can only wear so many items in a year. Most of us also have maybe a handful of items we really like and end up wearing repeatedly.
Between 2000 and 2015, clothing sales soared, doubling from 50 billion units to 100 billion. As a result, the average number of times a garment is worn before being discarded significantly dropped. As noted in the featured article, “steady production growth is intrinsically linked to a decline in utilization per item, leading to an incredible amount of waste.”
Estimates suggest more than half of all clothing purchases are discarded in less than a year. As crazy as it may sound, one British fashion company reminds its customers that a dress will only remain in a woman’s wardrobe for five weeks!5 As noted by Lucy Siegle, who made that stunning observation,6 “The way we get dressed now has virtually nothing in common with the behavior of previous generations, for whom one garment could be worn for decades.”
The result of treating clothing as single-wear disposables is a rapidly growing waste problem that is tough to remedy. Landfills burn the equivalent of one garbage truck full of garments each and every second, and since fabrics are typically dyed and/or treated with toxic chemicals, it’s all essentially toxic waste. Less than 1 percent of discarded textiles are recycled and reused. Growing chemical and plastic pollution is yet another side effect of fast fashion.
“The use of substances of concern in textile production has an important impact on farmers’ and factory workers’ health as well as on the surrounding environment. During use, it has been recently estimated that, half a million tons of plastic microfibers shed during washing ends up in the ocean and ultimately enters the food chain …” the foundation notes.
Introducing a New Textile Economy
To address these downsides, the featured report presents a new form of textile economy in which textiles “re-enter the economy after use and never end up as waste.” The four cornerstones of this new economy involve:
1. Phasing out toxic substances used in textile production and redesigning materials to prevent shedding of microfibers
2. Changing the way clothing is designed, marketed and used to move away from disposable fashion
3. Improving textile recycling
4. Transitioning to renewable inputs to prevent the waste of nonrenewable resources
Fashion designer Stella McCartney, who cohosted the launch of the report, said:
“What really excites me about ‘A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future’ is that it provides solutions to an industry that is incredibly wasteful and harmful to the environment. The report presents a roadmap for us to create better businesses and a better environment. It opens up the conversation that will allow us to find a way to work together to better our industry, for the future of fashion and for the future of the planet.”