When you think about curbing pollution, taking aim at the clothes in your closet is probably not high up on the list. But the textiles industry is one of the most polluting on the planet. New trends and “ultrafast fashion” has clothing entering popular clothing stores on a weekly or even daily basis.
As a result, Americans have increased how much clothing they buy, with the average person bringing home more than 65 articles of clothing in 2016, according to the “Toxic Textiles” report by Green America.1 Where clothing was once valued for durability and practicality, we’re living in an age where people feel pressured to keep up with clothing trends, at the expense of quality and the environment. Green America noted:2
[S]ocial media has led to a new trend of ultra-fast fashion — where companies are able to design, manufacture, and sell hundreds of products mere weeks after the initial conception of design, thanks to a large network of local and international factories.
Some ultra-fast fashion companies, such as Fashion Nova, release 600 new items a week — and sell out most of them too. We’ve entered an age where clothing is made to be worn and subsequently discarded, where ‘good-enough’ is the metric for the quality of our clothes.
Textile Manufacturing Is Polluting the Planet
The textile industry is an often-overlooked contributor to pollution that is destroying the planet. Green America released some sobering statistics, including that textile manufacturing causes about 20% of industrial water pollution and emits 10% of global carbon emissions.
Textile production also uses 43 million tons of chemicals annually,3 and this doesn’t even include the pesticides used to grow cotton (glyphosate, the most used agricultural chemical, is an herbicide used to grow cotton that’s linked to cancer and found in cotton textiles).
Chemicals are used at multiple stages of production when it comes to turning raw materials into clothing and include azo-aniline dyes, which may cause skin reactions ranging from mild to severe.
Even more concerning, azo dyes may release aromatic amines, which are carcinogenic.4 If you're sensitive, such dyes may leave your skin red, itchy and dry, especially where the fabric rubs on your skin, such as at your waist, neck, armpits and thighs.
Formaldehyde resins are also used in clothing to cut down on wrinkling and mildew. Not only is formaldehyde a known carcinogen, but the resins have been linked to eczema and may cause your skin to become flaky or erupt in a rash.5
Brominated flame retardants, used to stop clothes from burning (although this is questionable), may be found in children’s clothing. These chemicals are neurotoxic endocrine disrupters that may also cause cancer. Polyflourinated chemicals (PFCs), used widely in uniforms and outdoor clothing to create stain-repellant and water-resistant fabrics, are carcinogenic, build up in your body and are toxic to the environment.
The chemicals may be mostly washed out, but some can linger in the clothing as you wear it. Some clothing is treated with additional chemicals for water-resistant, wrinkle- and stain-protection as well. However, workers are exposed to the chemicals during manufacturing and when they’re rinsed off the fabrics (a process that uses copious amounts of water), they end up in waterways. Green America explained:6
Once released into the water, chemicals can also affect the community, through exposure to water sources, but also due to the leaching of chemicals into the soil, which affects the local agricultural system. The chemicals that are commonly used in the manufacturing process pose a variety of health and environmental risks.
There isn’t a lot of transparency about what specific chemicals are used in the manufacturing process, which is especially concerning when it comes to the workers who are directly exposed to the chemicals, sometimes without adequate safety protection.
Americans Throw Away 70 Pounds of Textiles Every Year
While Americans add dozens of new articles of clothing to their collections annually, they also get rid of others, tossing 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles each year.7 According to the U.S. EPA, textiles made up 6.1% of municipal solid waste in 2015. Only 15.3%, or 2.5 million tons, was recycled while landfills received 10.5 million tons of textiles in 2015, accounting for 7.6% of all municipal solid waste landfills.8
Even when clothing is recycled, Green America notes that “less than 1% of the resources required to make clothing is recaptured and reused to create new clothing.”9 When you donate clothes, it’s also not a sustainable solution.
The fact is, the sheer volume of clothes being donated far outpaces the demand. Charities sell only a fraction of the clothing they receive in donations, and the majority ends up getting sold to textile “recyclers.”
These “recyclers” may sell some of the clothing at that point, but most of it may end up being exported to other countries. There, it will either be sold, made into rags, processed into industrial uses or end up in landfills.
“Although 35% of our clothes are technically being diverted from American landfills, they may end up in a landfill in another country. This means that two of the most environmentally destructive aspects of the apparel production system — the manufacture of textiles and the disposal of unwanted clothing — is happening disproportionately in other, oftentimes developing, countries,” Green America noted.10
“Furthermore, countries that traditionally have imported second-hand clothing are reducing the amount they are importing.”11