This post was written by ScIU Social Media Intern Ava Steensland, an undergraduate student in The Media School at Indiana University.
The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world. Here, we’ll take a closer look into tip number one from the ScIU post 7 Tips on How You Can Help the Environment, which focuses on the impact of textiles on the environment.
All of us wear clothes, but we often do not realize all that goes into making them. Yet, the water pollution, waste, and environmental impact of the fashion industry is almost as severe as the oil industry.
Water pollution from the fashion industry is the result of textile factories dumping untreated toxic wastewaters directly into waterways. For example, several textile companies, including Gap and Brooks Brothers, reportedly dump their used wastewater into the Citarum River in Indonesia. The toxic substances in the wastewater from these factories contaminate the fresh water that we drink and in which animals live. For visual context, the opening scene of the documentary “RiverBlue” shows a flow of dark red wastewater emptying into a river in China, which is due to the unregulated textile industry and fast fashion production. According to EcoWatch, “It is estimated that 70% of rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the textile industry.”
Not only does clothing production add waste to waterways, but it also wastes a tremendous amount of water. According to Goodonyou.eco, “It’s estimated that around 20% of industrial water pollution in the world comes from the treatment and dyeing of textiles, and about 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles…It’s estimated that a single mill can use 200 tons of fresh water per ton of dyed fabric.” The manufacturing and washing processes of synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, also release microfibers into water.
Waste itself is another big issue for the clothing industry. A lot of material is disposed through garment production, shipping, and wearing. In fact, 98% of textiles get sent to landfills, according to the book Circular Economy in Textiles and Apparel. Proper clothing disposal is rarely discussed, and as a result, we dispose of clothing by throwing items away in the trash. With fast fashion* becoming increasingly popular, the sheer amount of clothing we buy and get rid of has grown significantly. This summary table from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which lists the total number of textiles generated, recycled, and composted from 1960 to 2017, shows that landfilled textiles grew from 1,710 tons in 1960 to 11,150 tons in 2017.
Greenhouse gas emissions are another major environmental byproduct of the clothing production process. According to CBS News, “The apparel and footwear industries together account for more than 8% of global climate impact, greater than all international airline flights and maritime shipping trips combined.” The manufacturing and transportation of clothing from factories to their destination creates emissions footprints. In addition, the synthetic fibers from which garments are made, such as polyester (a plastic made from oil), contribute twice as much pollution than these other sources to the overall process.
But, what can we do? While there is so much that is out of our control when it comes to how clothing is made, it does not mean that we still can’t do our part.
First, we can buy clothes from companies that use organic fabrics and materials, which would help eliminate some of the toxins that pollute the environment. Replacing synthetic fibers with natural materials can help reduce the carbon footprint of polyester production (by reducing oil extraction from the ground) and clothing disposal, since natural fibers break down more easily and require less machinery to make.
Second, we can buy less clothing and rethink fast fashion culture. Inherently, buying less clothing results in the disposal of less clothing, reducing the mass of textiles in landfills. Fast fashion culture is a big player in the disposal of clothing, as trends rapidly change and the industry tries to influence consumers into buying the latest trend in order to “fit in.” Owning a few pieces of timeless clothing items made of durable fabric will not only be better for your wallet, but will also be better for the planet. The Luxe Strategist debunks myths about high quality clothing pieces and describes which fabrics and materials will stand the test of time.
Finally, if you enjoy indulging in retail therapy, shopping in thrift stores and consignment stores should be your first stop. Buying clothes from these stores allows clothing to be reused instead of ending up in a landfill, and it is a more sustainable practice than increasing the demand for new products. Donating your clothes when you age out of them or change your style can complete this cycle by letting someone else wear your clothes when you’re done with them rather than throwing them out. Additionally, if you’re tossing clothes because they have rips in them, you can reuse them as cleaning rags or patches instead before throwing them away. Here are some more DIY tips for how to give clothing a new look or purpose, such as tie-dyeing, reshaping a garment, or embellishing.
We can play a part in helping the environment just by being conscious about the clothes we buy and wear every day and how we dispose of them. If you want to learn more about the cost of retail, watch the video below (CONTENT WARNING).
*Fast Fashion is defined as “inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends”
References and Further Reading:
Cerullo, Megan (2019). Fashion industry carbon impact bigger than airline industry’s. CBS News: Moneywatch.
Muthu, Subramanian Senthilkannan, ed. (2018). Circular Economy in Textiles and Apparel: Processing, Manufacturing, and Design.
Noble, Bethany (2017). Fashion: The Thirsty Industry. good on you.
Weber, Kathleen (2017). How Fast Fashion is Killing Rivers Worldwide. EcoWatch.