Pretty Ugly: Fashion’s Contribution to Pollution & Climate Change

When you think of pollution and climate change, the first thing that tends to come to mind is the oil, automative, or plastics industries. There is so much documented data on and awareness of these big polluters, it is almost impossible not to think of them. But what if I told you that your beautifully curated closet also plays a big role in pollution and climate change? Yes, that closet of yours that shows off your individuality and allows for self-expression, but also carefully incorporates you into trend and society. This  is certainly hard to grasp. Air, water, soil and people were compromised to make each item of clothing in your wardrobe. In fact, the fashion industry as a whole is responsible for a great deal of pollution, and due to its lack of transparency, consumers are blindfolded to all of it. In some cases, the globalized complexity and intricate supply chains connected to the oil, petrochemical, agricultural, manufacturing, and shipping industries make it impossible for even the fashion brands to know their own impact. 

To elaborate, let me take you through each of its moving parts, one by one. It starts with the creation of the fabric, then the dyeing and treating of that fabric; later the construction of the piece, the placement at a store or warehouse for purchase; its use and washing, then to its end-of-life. Let us not forget that there is transportation, logistics and packaging between most, if not all, of these steps. Every one of these steps contributes to pollution and climate change. 

A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation states that textile production generates 1.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year. Out of that textile production, 60% is used for clothing production. As we all know the majority of our clothes are made in countries that rely heavily on coal, like India and China. It has been estimated that up to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the fashion industry; that is about the same as the total impact from the aviation sector. The World Bank estimates that 20% of industrial wastewater pollution worldwide originates from the textiles industry. Each year the world uses 1.3 trillion gallons of water just for fabric dyeing, and 43 million tons of chemicals to produce textiles. Unfortunately, due to the inefficiencies in the dyeing and finishing processes, 200,000 tons of dyes (worth $1 billion) are lost to effluents every year. 

Every fiber has its own different carbon footprint as well. Cotton, a natural fiber, accounts for around 33% of all fibers found in textiles. In order to create one cotton shirt you need around 700 gallons of water, and its farming requires high volumes of fertilizers and pesticides (unless farmed organically). However, in terms of carbon footprint, synthetic fibers like polyester have a much larger w impact. A polyester shirt has more than double the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt. Polyester production for textiles released about 1.5 trillion pounds of CO2 in 2015, the equivalent of 185 coal power plants annual emissions. On the consumer end, our washing of clothes releases half a million tons of microfibers (microplastics) into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles. While all clothing sheds fibers when washed, synthetic fibers like polyester don’t biodegrade. Microplastic pollution is so severe that it has even been found in seafood, drinking water, beer, honey and sugar. It is estimated that more than 22 million metric tons of microplastics will enter the ocean between 2015 and 2050 as demand for clothes rises. 

Currently, the fashion industry operates in a linear design–the product is created, used and thrown away. Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that $500 billion is lost every year due to clothing that is barely worn and rarely recycled. Less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing. The irony: an industry that relies on beautiful and innovative design is itself so very poorly designed. Synthetic materials such as acrylic, nylon and polyester (petroleum-based) could take many hundreds of years to fully decompose, generating more CO2 emissions. And while natural fibers are arguably better, they still have a similar decomposition process to food which produces methane emissions. 

With the rise of fast fashion (quicker turnaround of new styles and often lower prices) and clothing consumption over the past decade, it has been estimated that there are 20 new pieces of clothing manufactured per person each year. According to the World Resources Institute we are buying 60% more than we were in 2000. Worldwide, clothing utilization—the average number of times a piece is worn before it ceases to be used—has decreased by 36% compared to 15 years ago. In the U.S., clothes are worn only for  approximately a quarter of the global average, and 84% of discarded clothes wind up in an incinerator or landfill. 

Many consumers, however, have found ways to continue the lifespan of clothing and accessories by mending or repurposing, reselling, donating and recycling. These are all smart ways of contributing to less waste and emissions. There is, however, much more to be done for these alternatives to truly work. There is forthcoming evidence that donating clothing is currently a failing system, as all donations do not make it to the intended recipients, and the overflowing weight of donations far too often just ends up in a landfill, many times in the country the donated clothes were shipped to and intended to help. 

When it comes to recycling, the challenge is even more difficult. As of now, the recycling of clothing is a science and design problem. The majority of our clothing is created with blends of fabrics, to which some portions are recyclable and others not. Have you noticed the infamous 2% elastane in your jeans? Some of these blends are impossible to be broken apart, therefore making the piece unrecyclable. Various large fashion brands have initiated recycling programs to reduce the waste, however this does not suffice the continuous over-consumption of resources to make raw materials and new products. The solution of course is in the re-use of materials of the already used product. This is the premise of circular design. Circular fashion is the future of the textile and fashion industries. Otherwise there will not be enough resources in this world or allowable carbon emissions (carbon budget) to sustain the business of fashion with the growing world population and developing economies. 

As a scientist, I can tell you, the fashion industry needs to adapt and change fast, but we need to change our mindsets and our ways of consuming fashion faster. When society thinks and acts, business will follow. 

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