Sustainability is arguably the most critical issue facing the fashion industry today. This should come as no surprise when you consider that textile products account for an estimated 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions and 20% of global wastewater each year. Yet few companies understand the extent of their impact on the environment while also struggling to meet the demands of increasingly eco-conscious consumers. Understanding the impact of fashion on the environment is the first step in learning to adapt your product roadmap to meet the needs of our planet and your customers.
Overconsumption & Fast Fashion
Fashion production has doubled since 2000 and is expected to triple by 2050. The average customer buys 60% more clothing than in 2000 and wears it for half as long. Online shopping has been a significant driver of this change due to the ease with which people can buy and return items. Yet few people realize that most items returned to retailers are thrown away or destroyed rather than being resold or donated.
One of the biggest drivers of this increase has been fast fashion, much of which is produced using poor-quality fabrics due to their low cost. Fast fashion has been pioneered by companies like H&M and Zara, whose product roadmap is to create big profits by relying on producing large quantities of cheap clothing, with new styles offered monthly to entice buyers to make even more purchases.
The biggest drawback to fast fashion is how much of it is thrown away. An estimated 20% of clothing purchased in the US is never worn, and in the UK, upwards of 50% of clothing is never worn. Because many fabrics are made with fibers derived from petroleum, recycling is difficult or impossible. This leads to an estimated 85% of all clothing either being burned or sent to US landfills every year – further contributing to the fashion industry’s carbon footprint overall.
The Environmental Impacts of Fashion
From greenhouse gas emissions to waste water, fashion has an enormous impact on the environment every year from its early stages to product launch. Here is a breakdown of fashion’s more specific environmental impacts on our planet.
Fashion’s Impact on Water
Globally, the fashion industry consumes 93 million metric tons of water – about half of the amount Americans drink yearly.
One of the biggest water consumption drivers is cotton production, which is still the most common textile fabric used today. The amount of cotton used to make one pair of jeans requires 3,250 to 5,000 liters of water to produce, equal to the amount of water one would drink in 5 years. While there are technological advances in manufacturing that significantly reduce water usage, few companies are currently utilizing it due to its high cost.
Cotton growers also rely on many pesticides and insecticides, which end up in the soil and pollute groundwater. Runoff also spreads these chemicals to larger bodies of water, causing algae blooms that harm native plants and animals.
Fabrics must also be dyed before being made into clothing, which typically relies on chemicals that are toxic to the environment. Issues like spills and poor regulation means these chemicals often end up in the local water supply, causing up to 20% of global industrial water pollution each year.
Fashion’s Impact on Climate Change
Many popular fabrics, including viscose and rayon, require wood pulp to be produced. Current demand requires 70 million trees to be cut down annually, and the increasing demand for fast fashion is only increasing deforestation. It is estimated that the number of trees required for fabric will double by 2034, further endangering forests worldwide.
A study conducted by the MacArthur Foundation in 2021 estimated that the fashion industry produces 1.2 million tons of CO2 annually. This is the same amount of carbon produced by France, Germany, and the UK in 2018.
Polyester, used in 65% of all clothing, is a plastic product made from petroleum. Each year, polyester production requires 70 million barrels of oil. The fashion industry also uses large amounts of other petroleum-based plastics for packaging, hangers, and more.
Fashion’s Contribution to Waste
Globally, less than 1% of the fabric is recycled to make new clothing yearly. Why is this rate so low? For a few very difficult to circumvent reasons. Firstly, so much clothing is made with materials that weaken each time they are washed. When most of these items are discarded, the fabric is too weak for recycling and remade into a new item.
Additionally, today’s fabric recycling techniques cannot remove dyes or contaminants from clothing items or separate fibers from blended fabrics. Even fabrics that can be successfully recycled are not always a good fit for use due to the limited color options they can offer.
A total of 53 million metric tons of clothing are thrown away or burned every year. Natural fibers like cotton and linen typically break down in weeks or months when sent to a landfill. Synthetics, however, can take 200 years or more to break down. And as any fabric degrades, it produces methane, one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gasses and climate change.
Used clothing isn’t the only contributor to this problem – many manufacturers opt to destroy unsold items rather than recycling or donating them. For instance, in 2017, Burberry burned over $35 million worth of unsold clothing, bags, and perfumes.
Fashion & Microplastics
Recent fashion trends had significantly increased the popularity of athleisure wear, especially during the pandemic when so many people shifted to a work-from-home lifestyle. These items focus on stretch and breathability, which may be a boon for comfort but not sustainability. The synthetic fabrics used to achieve these qualities, including nylon, acrylic, and spandex, are made from plastics.
When synthetic fabrics are washed, their fibers shed microplastics into the water, which then go down our drains. Some are filtered out during treatment at wastewater facilities but then end up in our soil as the leftover sludge is used as fertilizer in commercial crops. The microplastics that aren’t removed in wastewater treatment end up in rivers and oceans, harming many animals. Some have even been found in our food, the air, and drinking water, with a study estimating that Americans inadvertently consume over 70,000 microplastic particles each year.
While some polyester fabrics are made using recycled PET bottles, which helps to reduce emissions by 25 to 50% over virgin polyester, its use is still minimal. And these fabrics will still likely end up in landfills, continuing to contribute to the microplastic problem.
How Can Fashion be More Sustainable?
To make fashion more sustainable, we have to change our current model. Fast fashion is unsustainable by nature. It focuses on high production with cheap materials and encourages people to discard clothing to purchase more. Many entities within the fashion industry – and even some outside– are working toward finding ways to make fashion more sustainable. Here are the biggest takeaways from current sustainable fashion research.
Produce Less Waste
Up to 90% of sustainability in fashion is ruled by decisions made during the design stage. When cutting traditional clothing patterns, up to 15% of fabric ends up on the floor as waste. To reduce this, many designers have begun to devise zero-waste patterns, fitting each pattern together like a puzzle to significantly reduce or even eliminate fabric waste.
Another waste area is in samples, which designers rely on to perfect a pattern before production. Recently, 3D modeling has been utilized instead of physical samples, allowing companies to see the finished product and make adjustments without wasting materials and resources.
Use Better Materials
Many brands are shifting to using textiles made with more sustainable fabric, but the process is still imperfect. While bamboo is a highly renewable resource, its increased popularity has resulted in the destruction of many old-growth forests to make room for bamboo cultivation.
Organic cotton also presents its own issues. On the one hand, it significantly reduces pesticide and insecticide use, but it also requires the use of up to 30% more water than conventionally grown cotton. Many major brands have promoted the cultivation of regenerative cotton instead, utilizing cover crops to reduce water evaporation, enhance soil health, and eliminate tilling and weeding.
Hemp is growing in popularity in fashion due to its reduced impact on the environment and health benefits for wearers. We believe hemp to be the best option to promote sustainable fashion for the future, and we are actively finding new ways to help provide our customers with high-quality hemp fabric for their clothing needs. Yet since it is still in its infant development stage and not ready for mass production, hemp is expensive and has limited capacity/availability.
Increasing Sustainability in Fashion Starts at the Source
Decreasing the fashion industry’s environmental impact isn’t a change we can make overnight. Instead, it is up to all of us to make changes where we can to reduce our footprint when we can.
At Dominisii, we understand the need for quality clothing and the importance of reducing our carbon footprint. Producing clothing for our potential customers that is ecologically and socially responsible is something that matters to us. We offer and emphasize utilizing sustainable practices in our product development cycle that secure a future for the planet, not just life on land but below the water.
By utilizing state-of-the-art product design, as well as recycled, sustainable, and deadstock fabrics, we can help our potential customers to produce environmentally conscious clothing for everyday fashion, medical industry wear, and more.
Contact us today if your company is interested in learning more about how we promote sustainability in our fashion.