Even when Mother Nature still calls for swim suits and shorts, advertisements for Back to School sales have already inundated consumers, and the first fashions of fall have already appeared on store shelves. And, even in the dead of winter, florals and cheerful colors bloom from fabrics long before they bloom from the soil. Retailers are swift to unveil their latest offerings well in advance of impending shopping seasons, and while the anticipation of new clothes can be exciting, the environmental impacts of the apparel industry can be concerning.
The worldwide demand for mass-produced clothing, especially trendy and affordable fast fashion, has increased exponentially in recent years. This demand, though, has also generated tons of waste. Annually, less than 20 percent of clothing is recycled, and almost four billion pounds of textile wastes are discarded to account for nearly six percent of the entire municipal solid wastes stream. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Solid Waste, every American disposes of 68 pounds of clothing and textiles each year.
Demands for clothing have caused increases in production and have thus raised the needs for cheaper, synthetic fibers such as polyester, vinyl and nylon. These fabrics, however, are hardly environmentally sound. Many synthetic fibers are manufactured from petroleum. Furthermore, the production of synthetic fibers is an energy intensive process that releases emissions containing volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, acidic gases and chemicals into the air, land and water. Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the EPA considers synthetic textile manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators. Many man-made textiles are not biodegradable and thus contribute significantly to the waste stream.
Natural fibers, though, also have their share of environmental issues. Cotton is one of the most pesticide laden and water intensive crops. Farmers in the United States spend over $4 billion on pesticides every year, and 25 percent of those pesticides are used on cottom. The cotton required to produce one shirt requires 257 gallons of water during the growing process. Rayon, a fiber made from wood pulp, is manufactured with chemicals such as sulfuric acid. If the pulp is not sustainably harvested, rayon production can also contribute to the depletion of forests. Insecticides are commonly used on sheep that are raised for wool. And, materials such as leather, wool, fur and silk have raised animal rights issues.
Both synthetic and natural fibers are often treated with chemicals once they are turned into garments. Polyvinyl chloride and harsh solvents are used to render garments waterproof or water resistant, and crease resistant and flame retardant cottons can contain formaldehyde, a proven human carcinogen.
In addition, the rising costs of labor in the United States have prompted many apparel brands to locate production operations in developing countries. Long hours and low wages create dismal working conditions for laborers, and the transportation costs required to import clothing from foreign markets are enormous.
Furthermore, the care of clothing can cause a strain on resources. An estimated 60 percent of the energy used in the life cycle of a cotton shirt is related to post-purchase washing and drying.
How can you ensure that GREEN is not merely a color in your wardrobe?
Purchase clothing from environmentally and socially conscious companies. Research the environmental policies and production methods of your favorite apparel brands or visit Green America. The Responsible Shopper program provides company environmental profiles and compares the environmental impacts of clothing retailers. National Green Pages has a directory of sustainable products and services.
Consider the ecological impacts of your clothing. Ecologically conscious fashion is often produced from organic, sustainably harvested and minimally processed virgin materials or from textiles made from recycled materials. For instance, active apparel retailer Patagonia sells fleece clothing created with post-consumer recycled plastic bottles. The company estimates that the process has saved over 86 million bottles from the waste stream. The production of sustainable fashion is also less energy intensive, water intensive and chemical intensive. Levi Strauss and Company recently introduced the Water<Less production process for denim, which reduces the amount of water used in garment finishing by up to 96 percent for certain goods. The clothier has saved an estimated 770 million liters of water since the process’s launch.
Be wary of greenwashing. Bamboo, for example, is commonly touted as a sustainable fabric, but some manufacturers use harsh chemicals to turn the raw material into a usable fiber. Research green claims thoroughly prior to purchase.
Shop for locally-produced clothing, and shop from locally-owned stores to support the economy and reduce transport costs.
Create your own clothing.
Buy less, and buy high-quality garments that are designed to last. Avoid fast fashion.
Gently care for your clothing. Wash clothing in cool water, when possible. Allow clothing to air dry to save energy. Also, avoid dry cleaning chemicals such as perchloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene.
Wear clothing as long as possible. Mend or repair damaged clothing, if possible.
Sell gently used items to a consignment shop or donate them to a charity. Or, organize a clothing swap with friends and family.
When clothing has reached the end of its useful life, repurpose worn clothing or try “upcycling” the fabric.