How America’s fashion industry is killing the planet

Photos by Courtesy of Flickr

Each year, millions of Americans sift through stores and online websites in hopes to buy new, trendy items of clothing. Now, with the upcoming slew of Black Friday and Christmas deals, Americans will be enticed by the fashion industry to buy more cheap, fashionable and disposable clothing. However, this culture of fast fashion comes at an alarming environmental cost.

In the 1980s, the average American bought 12 new items of clothing a year; today, the number has risen to 68. Stores that specialize in fast fashion like H&M and Zara are the only ones that can cater to this extreme need for variety at an affordable cost. Thus, the process of dynamic assortment —  constantly creating new products to see what sells — has revolutionized the fashion industry while leaving Americans drowning in clothes. 

Having five times more clothing than in the past, people are only keeping their garments half as long. This has resulted in a culture of mass consumption and overproduction, exploiting resources in a subtle way. 

Statistically, apparel and footwear industries account for “6% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, 17-20% of all industrial water pollution and up to 20% of pesticide use,” according to the Guardian. Additionally, in 2015, textile production created more greenhouse gases than international flights and maritime shipping combined. 

Fabrics are the root of this problem. To make one cotton shirt, it requires 2700 liters of water — the equivalent of one person’s drinking water for 2.5 years. Repercussions of this excessive water usage can be seen profusely: the Aral Sea in Asia has nearly disappeared because cotton farmers draw excessive amounts of water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers.

A polyester shirt, however, releases double the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt. The annual production of polyester for textiles releases the equivalent of 185 coal-fired power plants’ annual emissions. In all, synthetic fabrics, including polyester, nylon and spandex use almost 342 million barrels of oil annually. Even worse, 33% of viscose, a type of rayon, is made from ancient or threatened forests. Yet, 70% of the harvested wood is dumped or incinerated and only 30% ends up in the actual clothing. 

Furthermore, the world uses 5 trillion liters of water — enough water for 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools — for fabric dying each year. For individual reference, it takes about 2000 gallons of water to make one average pair of jeans. Globally, the fabric dyeing process is the second largest polluter of water.

The rate at which Americans remove clothing is even worse. The average American throws away 81 lbs of clothing every year. In America alone, 11 million tons of clothing is thrown away. Even when people donate their clothes, most of it becomes trash. If donated clothes are not sold in a month, they are sold by the ton to buyers in developing countries where the majority ends up in landfills. In total, 87% of the fabric used in clothing is incinerated or in landfills. 

Many fast fashion companies are beginning to recognize the environmental impacts of their production. Rather than actually fixing the roots of their issues, they have begun greenwashing — deceptively marketing that their companies are environmentally friendly when in reality they are not. For example, H&M and other retailers have started a “recycling” program for their customers to leave unwanted clothes in garment collecting bins in stores. By advertising that they are recycling clothes, these stores are able to appear green, when they are really just giving buyers an incentive to shop more by providing discounts to customers who “recycle.” In actuality, 90% of those clothes are burnt or thrown away. 

To reduce these environmental impacts, change first begins in reducing our consumption and reusing more. Brands must also reassess their business priorities by focusing on producing smart and producing less to reduce overconsumption. The industry can also make a change from collaboration across organizations, policymakers, manufacturers and investors.

Individually, one can still buy cheap, trendy clothing; he or she should simply wear it longer. By wearing clothes for nine months longer, research shows that one can reduce his or her carbon footprint on that garment by 30%. Buying second hand items from thrift stores also makes a difference. In fact, if every person bought one used item this year instead of a new one, 6 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions could be saved — the equivalent of removing .5 million cars of the road for one year. 

Fashion is not free. The “easy come, easy go” attitude that embodies cheap clothing contributes to the growing issue of climate change. With the fashion industry expecting to expand by 2% per year, people must be aware of the environmental impact that each garment they own has.