There’s a dirty little secret in the fashion industry that most people are not aware of. You’ve probably heard about child labor problems in sweatshops with some of the big fashion companies. That issue has gained awareness by public, but what most people don’t know is that the fashion industry also creates an enormous amount of environmental pollution as well.
With so much fast fashion and disposable clothing, clothing and textile waste from factories are contributing to huge landfills more than ever. Not only are there tons of landfill waste, but there’s also pollution from toxic dye runoff, waste water from the laundering process, pollution from the acid used in the chemical conversion process of turning plants into fabric, and of course the pesticides used to grow cotton.
What does this mean? This means our water is getting polluted and our landfills are overflowing with textiles. Here are a few stats to just give you sense of what’s going on:
- According to the World Bank,17-20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment. 72 toxic chemicals in our water come solely from textile dyeing, of which 30 cannot be removed.
- North America generates 2 million tons of textile waste each year, which is approximately 68 lbs of waste/household per year. 5% of all landfill production is textile waste.
Read this article with vivid photos of the startling price we pay for fashion in China.
Images courtesy of China Whisperer
Here’s an image of a textile landfill in Syria.
Image courtesy of Waste Biorefining Blog
The problem is big. So, what is the fashion industry doing about it? The big businesses, I’m not so sure. Perhaps they donate money to environmental causes. There are companies creating eco-friendly lines, but I haven’t seen any big fashion names really devote their entire company to the cause. And why not?
It sure does take a heck of a lot more work. There’s a lot of research involved, and sourcing good fabric is not as easy as it seems. Also, creativity can be stifled by limiting fabric choices. From what I understand from a little investigation I’ve done is that “eco-friendly” fabrics are not necessarily viewed as the best fabrics by mainstream fashion companies. At fabric trade shows, people who source fabrics will often pass over the eco-friendly fabric section on purpose because they don’t believe it will live up to the quality of regular fabrics. And maybe it’s true, or is it?
Let’s face it. Eco-friendly does sometimes get a bad rap. Sure, we love to use our earth friendly non-toxic house cleaners, laundry detergent, shampoo and conditioner. We eat organic food. But clothes? What comes to mind when you think of eco-friendly clothing?
A burlap sack? Yes, exactly. The initial impression is not so glamourous.
The good news is that there are many, many independent designers out there now changing the landscape of sustainable fashion. And the most inspiring ones are the ones that are creating a movement around their cause.
Here are a couple of brand new sustainable fashion businesses seeking to make an impact.
Watch this video of the inspiring story behind the IOU Project. The video explains it better than I can. Take a look:
I discovered the blog that described the journey of Shannon and Kristin, the two women behind Revolution Apparel as they were building their company last year. View their inspiring story here:
Inspired? There are many new companies out there looking to make an impact. What kind of project can you start?
How can we make clothing more sustainable?
There’s so many aspects to this pollution problem that even the best intentioned companies can’t do everything to make their line sustainable.
Sure, you can use eco-friendly fabric. You’re probably wondering, what exactly does eco-friendly fabric mean? Organically grown cotton, bamboo, flax, hemp, linen, some synthetically made materials such as tencel or modal, sustainably harvested silk and wool, nettle, hibiscus and even corn, among others. Note that even though tencel and modal are listed there, synthetic fibers do not take dye as easily and may require a more rigorous process for dye to adhere to the fabric.
Eco-friendly fabric is a great start. But there are also problems with eco-friendly fabric. For example, cotton requires tons of water to grow the cotton and bamboo uses a caustic chemical to convert bamboo into fiber. Also, many fabrics need some spandex (a non-eco-friendly material) to give it stretch.
So you see, it’s not a perfect system.
And there’s also the dyeing process. Even if you use a sustainable grown fabric, what kind of dyes are used to dye the fabric? Pollution is created by many of the dye houses out there. And then there’s also the laundering process, and many other processes required to create yarn, finish the fabric and a produce garments. Of course there’s also the transportation required to ship fabric and finished garments over sea and land.
I’m not an expert in this matter as I am just beginning my journey into creating a sustainable fashion line, but from what I’ve learned through school and research, the solutions are not that simple. We are all doing the best we can.
Through this post, I hope to create some awareness around the issue and encourage you to consider supporting sustainable fashion and investigate where your clothes come from. What does it take to create the clothes you wear, and was any person or the environment harmed during the process?
The sad thing is that there are also health issues from working with toxic chemicals that factory workers have to endure. Making jeans is a caustic process, as is tanning leather. This is another huge problem in the industry. I’m sure there are many other environmental and human unintended consequences that even I am not aware of, but I’m highlighting the ones that have been brought to my attention.
What can we do about this?
Start learning about what is involved to make your clothes and become aware of what your purchasing decisions are supporting. What companies do you shop from, and what are they doing about their environmental impact and are they being socially responsible? How transparent are these companies with their practices?
Do a little research and make choices that support causes you believe in. Our collective choices can impact big businesses and our small actions together can create massive change. If everyone did a little bit to change their habits and make conscious shopping choices, we just could change the world.
Are you in?
I’m not advocating that you stop shopping. I believe looking good and feeling good are important to your well-being. However, just as people are choosing to buy organic food to support the organic food movement, we too can make wiser choices when we shop.
Buy for longevity. Buy things that can last and buy only things that you really love and fit you well. If you love it, you will wear it… a lot. Choose quality over quantity. Buy for versatility and shop from environmentally and socially conscious companies.
Textiles are recyclable, and there are some recycling centers popping up to help mitigate the problem. Look to see if there’s one in your area. Here’s an article about USAgain, a textile recycler, with locations in 8 states. Donating to Goodwill and Salvation Army is also a good option too, but keep in mind that the items they don’t want also end up in landfills.
Another textile recycler is BCR Global in the UK.
Here’s an article about keeping textiles out of landfills from Eartheasy.
When you have time, watch this amazing documentary called HOME about the state of our planet. It’s has breathtaking footage and a story you want to hear.
Some resources for fashion designers
There is a company called Source4Style that has taken up the task of helping designers source sustainable fabric. Sourcing sustainable fabric not an easy task, but Source4Style helps to connect designers with mills that provide sustainable fabric.
TexWorld, an industry fabric show, features eco fabric vendors at their show.
Read books on the topic:
- Eco Fashion by Sass Brown
- Sustainable Fashion and Textiles Design: Design Journeys by Kate Fletcher
- Sustainable Fashion: Why Now?: A Conversation Exploring Issues, Practices and Possibilities
- Eco-Chic: The Fashion Paradox
- Fashion Futures White Papers
How will you make your fashion company sustainable? Eco-friendly fabric, non-toxic dye process, fair trade, local manufacturing, supporting artisan communities, subscribing to slow fashion, or reducing your carbon footprint? Perhaps a combination of some or all of the above? Just start with somewhere and do the best you can. It’s not about perfection. It’s about getting involved and taking action and improving from there.
My Request To All of You
Spread this message. It’s important. Unfortunately, it’s not one that’s widely known. There are pockets of awareness around the issue among designers and those who are closer to the topic, but the general public typically has no idea such a huge problem exists. And why should they? Fashion companies don’t advertise what it takes to produce their garments. It wouldn’t be good for their brand image. And it’s just easier to look the other way. We’re all busy. That’s just one more problem we don’t have time to solve. Or can we?
We can’t look the other way any longer. Choose not to. We have to build awareness and do something about it. Because awareness creates better choices. Spread the message, and the next time you shop, consider where your clothes came from. Every decision counts. You vote with every purchase you make.