A Step Too Far: Fashion's Carbon Footprint

sustainable fashion

Every February and September, designers debut months of work on the runway or in thoughtful presentations, with a handful of select details plucked from their collections as mainstays for the following season. Whether it be the collarbone graze of an off the shoulder neckline or the calculated casual of frayed denim, these trends hit high street hard thanks to fast fashion’s low cost and blink and you’ll miss it turnaround. So runway looks that should take months to reach the rack find their way to the consumer within weeks at a far more affordable price point. But while companies churn out designer copycats and bring affordable trends to the masses, they leave behind a massive carbon footprint and unknowingly lead consumers to do the same.

The Data

According to the Daily Mail, women wear a fashion buy only 7 times before tiring of it. And when we tire, we typically toss. For the average American, this adds up to 82 pounds of textile waste each year. So in the US alone, 11 million tons of non-biodegradable textile waste sits in landfills, releasing harmful gases into the air. It’s no wonder then that the fashion industry contributes a full 10% to the total carbon impact.

The Cause

But this isn’t necessarily new. Starting in the 1980s, retailers increased trend turnaround with a ripple effect on how long consumers wear and keep their clothes. According to a report by Greenpeace Germany, the life cycles of consumer products shrunk 50 percent between 1992 and 2002, and from 2000 to 2014 clothing production doubled. Now, thanks to low costs and high availability, the average consumer buys 60 percent more clothing per year and keeps it for only half as long.

Christina Dean, founder and CEO of Redress, an organization that promotes sustainable fashion, explained to Take Part how textile waste has increased – and where it’s ended up. “You just have to look at a landfill, and you can see in landfills that the amount of clothes and textiles being chucked away has been increasing steadily over the last 10 years as this sort of dirty shadow of the fast fashion industry,” she said.

  Photo: fairtradedesigns.com

Photo: fairtradedesigns.com

The Shift to Synthetic

Ultimately, fast fashion’s created a disposable culture even more destructive than the last season, this season trope – now, it’s last month, this month, with consumers tossing this $20 shirt for that $20 shirt. But low costs means cutting corners, and many mills have turned to synthetic textiles to supplement demand.

When textile production doubled, so did demand for man-made fibers, polyester in particular. Made from petroleum, polyester is a cheap alternative to natural fibers found in 60% of our clothing. According to Greenpeace, polyester use skyrocketed between 2000 and 2016 from 8.3 million tons to a staggering 21.3 million tons.

Nylon is in similar demand and is a particularly heinous polluter. Each time it’s manufactured, nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times stronger than CO2, is released. But manufacturing both fibers requires mass amounts of crude oil, releasing emissions, volatile organic compounds, and acid gases into the air.

And while cellulose-based textiles like viscose might seem like more sustainable alternatives, they too are treated with toxic chemicals that release emissions into the atmosphere.

  Rana Plaza Disaster / Photo: ibtimes.co.uk via Reuters

Rana Plaza Disaster / Photo: ibtimes.co.uk via Reuters

The Global Impact

The fibers are not entirely to blame, however. Thanks to globalization, fashion is an international industry with the production of a single garment involving three countries or more. Before making their way to your local retail storefront, clothes are transported from one sector of the supply chain to the next, often on ships emitting fossil fuels.

And fast fashion’s only aggravated the problem. Low cost, high turnover goods demand rapid production and transport, most of the time in unsuitable conditions. In 2013, the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,100 workers. The building was crumbling around them for months and the focus wasn’t on working conditions, but producing cheap trends for the western market.

The Solutions

After the Rana Plaza disaster, calls for change from consumers encouraged brands like the Gap, Burberry, and Adidas to detox, and now 78 companies are committed to Greenpeace’s sustainability standards. The organization and similar ethically minded brands like Zady encourage consumers to embrace slow fashion by providing them with facts and figures on the high cost of cheap goods. It’s a big ask, but when it comes to fast fashion consumers are half the problem and in turn, the solution.

According to Zady, consumers wear fast fashion 10 times or less, and when we tire of a trend within one month instead of one year we increase its carbon emissions by 550 percent.  But estimates suggest up to 95 percent of these quick buys could be used again. Recycling or repurposing used clothing instead of throwing it away increases its lifecycle and ultimately reduces carbon emissions. Even downcycling polyester and synthetic blends turns used garments into working dishrags and industrial washcloths, lengthening their usability and delaying their time in landfills.

Fast fashion may have made it easier to appear on trend on a limited budget, but it’s also allowed consumers to think of garments like tissues to be used when needed and then thrown away. But clothing isn’t disposable. Even after we discard it, it can sit for up to 200 years before breaking down, all that time polluting the air and clogging landfills. So cheaper doesn’t necessarily mean lower cost. In fact, it’s almost always more costly than we think.

Key Takeaways

  • According to the Daily Mail, women wear a fashion buy only 7 times before tiring of it.
  • The fashion industry contributes a full 10% to the total carbon impact.
  • Consumers wear fast fashion 10 times or less, and when we tire of a trend within one month instead of one year we increase its carbon emissions by 550 percent. 
  • Recycling or repurposing used clothing instead of throwing it away increases its lifecycle and ultimately reduces carbon emissions.