Over the past decades society has moved from using biodegradable, recyclable natural products to highly resilient and nonbiodegradable plastics made with toxic chemicals. Plastics invade nearly every area of your life — even parts you don’t see, such as your clothing and microbeads in your makeup and facial products.
Each of these contribute to a rapidly growing problem in the environment, especially our oceans, where plastic micropollution is quickly overtaking the fish population. Discarded plastics are polluting your food supply and ultimately finding their way into your body where they accumulate over time. The risk grows with every discarded bottle, bag, shower curtain and load of wash.
Microfibers that enter the water supply from your washing machine are not the only ways fabric is fast becoming an environmental crisis. The fashion industry has nurtured people’s desire for new clothes to the point that trends shift weekly. These rapidly changing trends naturally result in more clothing being discarded, ultimately clogging up our landfills.
Clothing Purchases on the Rise
The Waste and Resources Action Plan (WRAP) in the U.K. estimates the average piece of clothing lasts approximately 3.3 years, but this estimate may be too high.1 According to one British fashion company, many customers only keep new clothing for about five weeks before it ends up being donated or thrown out.
Today, the average woman in the U.S. owns 30 different outfits, as compared to the nine she owned in 1930,2 and we throw away approximately 65 pounds of clothing per person each year. Americans spend more on shoes, jewelry and watches than on higher education, and 93 percent of girls say shopping is their favorite activity.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the amount of clothing recycled is equivalent to taking 1 million cars off the road each year.3 But, 13 million tons of textiles still make it to U.S. landfills every year. The American apparel industry grosses $12 billion.4 Estimates are the average family in the U.S. spends $1,700 per person each year on clothing. The dollar amount is not significant as it represents a small percentage of annual spending, but the cost to the environment is steep.
Fashion Industry Waste Laden With Toxic Chemicals
While it may seem the number of textiles discarded are not important, as most fabric should be biodegradable, the reality is the large amount of clothing thrown away contains more than cotton. The textile industry has taken full advantage of chemicals available to protect the garment or make changes to the product without consideration for how these chemicals affect the environment.
Procedures to treat clothing include using specialized chemicals, such as biocides, flame retardants and water repellents.5 Over 60 different chemical classes are used in the production of yarn, fabric pretreatments and finishing.
When fabrics are manufactured, between 10 and 100 percent of the weight of the fabric is added in chemicals.6 Even fabrics made from 100 percent cotton are coated with 27 percent of its weight in chemicals. Most fabrics are treated with liquid chemicals to ready them for the fashion industry, going through several treatments before being shipped to a manufacturer.
Many chemicals have known health and environmental issues. Greenpeace7 commissioned an investigation into the toxic chemicals used in clothing. They purchased 141 different pieces of clothing in 29 different countries. The chemicals found included high levels of phthalates and cancer-causing amines. The investigators also found 89 garments with nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). Levels above 100 ppm were found in 20 percent of the garments and above 1,000 ppm were recorded in 12 of the samples.
Any level of phthalates, amines or NPEs found in clothing that remains against your body is unacceptable as they are hazardous materials. However, the dangers from these chemicals don’t end when you finish wearing the garment. As the material makes it to a landfill, these chemicals leach out from the fabric and make it to the groundwater.
Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) have been widely used in textile marketing and have been linked in epidemiological studies with several different types of cancers in humans.
These chemicals are so ubiquitous they’ve been found in the blood of polar bears and found in tap water supplies used by 15 million Americans in 27 states.8 Cheap, mass produced clothing has given many individuals the chance to purchase the current style without breaking the bank. But an initial reduction in price on clothing may be at the expense of both people and the environment.