The fashion industry avoids a colossal problem with optics, but the fallout from holiday shopping could finally expose high-profile fashion houses for their role in contributing to environmental degradation. The measurements of the terrible impact of the fashion industry on the environment are frightening:
- More than 100 billion garments are produced annually — more than doubled the production of the fashion industry in 2000 — signaling a problematic increase in the procurement and processing of textiles.
- 92 million tons of textile waste produced annually — the equivalent of one truckload of clothing thrown into landfill every second.
- The the average American consumer buys 60 percent more clothing but at the turn of the century, keep them about half as longand throws 81.5 lbs. clothes every year.
- The fashion industry is responsible for almost 10 percent of global carbon dioxide production – more than international flights and shipping combined.
- Raw material extraction, dyeing/finishing processes and fiber production all contribute global CO2 emissions and over 20 percent of global water pollution.
- Globally, only 12 percent of clothing is recycled.
- almost 10 percent of the microplastics detected in the ocean come from clothing textiles.
“Overconsumption culture” and its offspring: “Buy and return” culture and “Throwaway culture” creates a lot of waste
The devastating facts speak for themselves, but in addition to being responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions, the exploitation of natural resources and the disposal of millions of clothes in landfills every day, the fashion industry skillfully fosters a culture of overconsumption in which ‘fast fashion’ (cheap, mass-produced) items chasing short-term style fads) is in high demand. The mindset of overconsumption fueled by social media is simple: if it’s out of style, it can’t be worn again.
Due to society’s rampant buy-and-return subculture, clothing is increasingly being returned to retailers who generally do not restock, repurpose or reuse items, but simply dispose of unwanted fabrics, leaving them to pile up in landfills. Not to mention the growing “throwaway culture”, fueled by the fast fashion trend – and a growing number of brands promoting disposable, affordable copycat clothing – many garments are only worn seven to ten times before being discarded.
While some argue that fast fashion companies and consumers are too easily scapegoated for the environmental impacts of the overall global fashion industry, fast fashion’s mass production mission has undeniably resulted in a dramatic increase in textile production, which translates into a dramatic jump in pre- and post-production waste. For example, due to the large and varied number of patterns to accommodate the rapid increase in clothing production, an excessive amount of materials are wasted because they cannot be repurposed. The sheer volume of production at today’s biggest fast fashion houses is incredible, with popular brands estimated to produce 20,000 new styles each year.
In recent times, a copy of fashion production with significantly lower prices than original brands, lovingly coined “fraudsters,” are blamed for fostering an overconsumption mindset that makes clothing increasingly disposable. The latest “cheat” fad encourages an overspending mindset. Consumers are going on a social media hoax frenzy, using direct links to fast fashion websites – a marketing ploy that has worked this holiday season. The dupe holiday season of 2022 unequivocally exacerbated fashion waste: shoppers bought clothes they intended to return and simultaneously tossed old clothes to make room for the latest trending dupes. With the pandemic in the rearview mirror, according to market research, consumers were more likely to buy not only dupes, but also holiday and travel clothes. Retailers urged customers to buy, buy and buy to clear inventory built up by unprecedented supply chain delays — much of which remains untouched and inevitably lined up for landfill.
Fast fashion boom → Sudden increase in CO2 emissions
Truth be told, apart from the production of clothes, the mere purchase of clothes – whether in person or online – results in alarming CO2 emissions. Today’s fast fashion houses transport garments around the world to meet consumer demands for “next day” delivery by rail, road, sea and air, creating a noticeable carbon footprint. Add returns of ugly sweaters, ill-fitting joggers and not-so-duplicates fraudstersit is estimated that the fallout from holiday shopping will create CO2 emissions equivalent to 3.5 million cars on the road over the course of a year.
Synthetic fibers make recycling impractical and dump microplastics into waterways
The recent explosive growth in the use of synthetic fibers in industry has made the process of recycling textile waste increasingly difficult, if not impossible. While textiles made from cotton and wood fibers degrade quickly (a cotton shirt takes 6 months to decompose and a wool sock can break down in 5 years), synthetic fibers such as Lycra and Polyester take centuries to decompose. Sorting clothes for recycling is demanding and requires skilled labor, not to mention that the process of converting mixed fabrics into reusable yarn requires the use of harsh chemical solvents, which contributes to further damage to the environment. The fashion industry is still burdened by inadequate technologies for effective, efficient and affordable clothing recycling. Therefore, unfortunately, it is becoming more practical to throw unwanted clothing items into landfills. Today’s fashion is additionally problematic for the environment because synthetic fibers that are resistant, durable, versatile and cheap are a significant source of microplastic contamination. With each laundry cycle, research shows that clothing releases microfilaments that travel through sewage systems and eventually end up in waterways, affecting ecosystems and drinking water.
Fashionistas, don’t despair!
Although the statistics of the fashion industry are truly frightening, there is a glimmer of hope. More and more high-end and sustainable brands are offering trade-in programs where the consumer can return worn clothes in exchange for credit towards the purchase of new clothes, creating a truly circular fashion economy. Smart consumers are taking the environmental dilemma of the fashion industry into their own hands. Buying used items, once reserved for charity, is now a booming industry allegedly thanks to “college culture.” With little time to pursue full-time jobs, college students find thrifting a lucrative side hustle, with the added bonus of not contributing to the fast-fashion economy. But frugality isn’t just appealing to student shoppers. Inflation is making all consumers more bargain-hunting, with resale reportedly growing by nearly 15 percent in 2021. At the end of the day, thrift can save the fashion industry’s reputation by shifting consumers’ focus (intentionally or not) toward recycling and repurposing textiles, and away from mass production of fast fashion and hazardous waste.