Getting Fashion Sustainability Straight

Written By Chiara Codazzi

Earth Overshoot Day, climate change, environmental pollution and unsustainable labor practices are some of the headlines we read everyday. Problem is that these catastrophic headlines don’t allow us the time to fully process the major environmental consequences of different economic industries. Through this article, I want to provide some clarity on the issue of sustainability in the fashion industry –the fifth biggest industry in the world by employment. No matter who you are or where you come from, you are an active participant in this industry. In the hope of making you a more aware consumer, I will attempt to unpack some of the issues surrounding sustainability within the fashion industry. 

To start, there are certain basic assumptions about the fashion industry and its consumers that one should be aware of. First, when a brand creates a new product they create a carbon footprint through the amount of polluting emissions generated in its production. This implies that there is a high chance that fashion firms will have negative effects on both the environment as well as workers and communities. Some of these effects include carbon dioxide emissions, amount of wastewater produced and plastic microfiber dumping.

According to the World Bank, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Additionally, 87% of the total fiber input used for clothing production ends incinerated or dumped into a landfill. These types of unstable production practices not only will have extreme consequences on climate change, but also will cause side effects onto communities and entire ecosystems.  

The industrial landscape of the fashion world is tightly linked to its supply chain, and revolves heavily around volume. It is in a business’s best interest to produce until they achieve economies of scale. This means that the more a brand produces, the lower the unit cost per item will be as costs can be spread over a larger amount of goods. Fashion companies, therefore, are likely to produce more than they are capable of selling, leading to an increase in both wasted resources and wasted final items. 

Despite the massive amount of waste, many businesses are not taking steps to increase their sustainability. It is naive to think that corporations will sacrifice profits and shareholder returns to pursue environmental sustainability. There are many firms that decide to go green so that they can improve their public image,  cut their costs, or as a way of bypassing anticipated regulations. Next time you see a brand promoting itself as “green” , bear in mind that they may not have a purely environmental motivation for doing so, and may therefore be participating in greenwashing. Often fashion brands will advertise their products as sustainable even without doing the groundwork to support their claims. Thus, the practice of greenwashing mostly consists of misleading consumers into thinking that the company’s products are environmentally friendly. Ultimately, consumers will not be able to detect whether these brands are truly authentic or not, thereby falling into the swirl of greenwashing.

On the other side of the fashion industry, opposite corporations, are consumers. To help this industry, consumers should not over-consume fast fashion products. However, you cannot tell them to buy less. To offset the fashion industry’s negative consequences, it would be ideal to buy fewer things of better quality so that they can last longer. This model of consumption is typically referred to as “slow fashion”, in contrast to the harmful “fast fashion” that has become standard. This would lead to a general decrease in the production of garments, and less environmental damage arising from supply chains. However, it is within consumer nature to buy indistinctly when they see something they like, making this a difficult change to implement. 

With this general industry overview as background, it is important to analyze several sustainable fashion issues that we come across in our daily lives. As you are reading this article, there is a high chance that you are wearing jeans. Have you ever considered what goes into the making of your jeans? 

Traditionally, finishing a pair of jeans requires an average of 18 gallons of water and 5 ounces of chemicals such as fabric dyeing and treatments. Now, to put things into perspective: every year the fashion industry uses enough water to meet the consumption needs of five million people, and  around 20% of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric dyeing and treatment. When toxic chemicals are 

dumped into the ocean these can spread throughout the food chain. This in turn implies side effects incurred on  people and communities such as increase in diseases and healthcare costs. 

Also, think of all of those jeans you once owned and have thrown out or given away. Those too underwent the same process. Although new technologies have been implemented to reduce the resources used to produce clothing, there are ways that you as a consumer can make a difference. For example, Levi’s has recently introduced a second hand shop for their denim products. If you own a pair of Levi’s that you want to get rid of, you can schedule an appointment with a store and have them inspect and acquire your jeans. In return, you will get a gift card to their store. Even if small, these types of contributions will make a difference. 

Lastly, I want to invite you to check the label of any garment you are wearing. There is a high chance that it is made of organic cotton, polyester, or a combination of the two. Polyester is the cheapest and most popular of fabrics. However, it is petroleum based, making it one of the most environmentally harmful. Nearly seventy million barrels of crude are required to make the polyester used for textiles each year. Next time you go shopping, keep an eye out for materials. Try to avoid polyester, or at least try to buy recycled polyester garments. Again, even small contributions can make a big difference.

To conclude, I would like to leave you with some thought provoking questions.

Is all the wastewater really worth a new pair of jeans, or can I hold off until I sustainably dispose of the old ones that I have? Is this 92% polyester dress part of a fast fashion brand’s fortieth microcollection of the year really indispensable? Keeping in mind that seven is the average time a garment is worn before being thrown away, will I wear the item that I am about to purchase at least twice as much as the average? 

These three guiding questions will help you shop responsibly and somewhat restrain the detrimental effects that the fashion industry has on the environment and communities. 

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