The Real Price Of Your Outfit: Fashion’s Impact On The Environment

Jackets on a clothing rack, Green, brown, black white and blue jackets with a hat perched on the end

These days, a fresh new outfit is never far away. Fast fashion companies, boutiques, major department stores, and designer brands are all competing for your consumer dollar, with new clothes, collections, and launches. So it’s no wonder that 80 billion garments are produced globally every year.

And while it’s great that it’s easier than ever to look fabulous, your clothes come at a higher price than is listed on the tag. The textile production industry is actually one of the world’s leading polluters, second only to oil. So while that shirt may look amazing, and those jeans fit just right, they impact more than just your weekday ensemble. In fact, statistically speaking, you won’t wear them more than 5 times. And since only 15 percent of all clothing is recycled, they will probably end up contributing to the 77 pounds of textile waste per person per year.

We know that this may be surprising, and even a little scary. So let’s break it down and take a broad look at all the ways the fashion industry impacts our environment, and ways that you as the consumer can help put things back on the right track. 

1.Water Waste In Fashion

Unfortunately, the textile and fashion industries are hardest on one of our most precious resources: water. The textile industry alone consumes 1.5 trillion liters of water per year, and 2.6 percent of all global freshwater is used to produce cotton alone. And to put things in perspective, this rampant water usage comes at a time when water scarcity impacts over 750 million people. 

And water usage isn’t the only problem. The textile industry is also responsible for severe amounts of water pollution. In some parts of the world, 700 individual microplastic fibers are released into the ocean per garment, which are ingested by aquatic organisms. 

2. Emissions And Synthetic Fibers

It may be shocking, but 52 percent of all garments produced contain polyester, a polymer and a synthetic fiber. 70 million oil barrels are used annually to produce polyester, and more than 85 percent of polyester and other cheap synthetic fibers end up in landfills. This is highly problematic, as polyester commonly comes in the form of PET (polyethylene terephthalate), a plastic that is also used in beverage containers and packing materials. Plastics like PET can take 200 years to decompose, which means that they linger in any environment they end up in and can fill up landfills at alarming rates.

What’s worse is that synthetic fibers like polyester, acrylics, and nylon are made using fossil fuels, and most of them are made in countries powered entirely by coal. This causes the apparel industry to make up slightly more than 10 percent of all C02 emissions, and according to Forbes: “Cheap synthetic fibers also emit gases like N2O, which is 300 times more damaging than CO2.” 

3. Chemical Waste In The Fashion Industry

Another surprising statistic surrounding fashion: 23 percent of all chemicals worldwide are used in textile production. 63 percent of garments tested from all major brands contain hazardous chemicals, and cotton is responsible for 23 percent of global insecticide and pesticide use, which can have negative effects on human and environmental health. Pesticides and other chemicals like glyphosate used in both the cotton and textile industries also contribute heavily to freshwater and ocean water contamination.  

4. Deforestation And Soil Degradation

The final category of severe environmental impact brought on by the fashion industry is soil degradation and deforestation. 70 million trees are cut down per year to make clothes. 30 percent of Patagonia and 90 percent of Mongolia face desertification due to sheep and goat grazing, which contributes fabrics for the wool and cashmere industry. Unsustainable cotton farming practices contribute to soil degradation and 70 percent of our planet’s soil is classified as degraded. 

What Can Be Done?

The fashion and textile industry is having a severe effect on our environment. And because these businesses are so huge, you may feel like there’s nothing you can do.

Well, not to worry! There are already tons of people, organizations, companies, and brands out there fighting to make clothing a much greener affair! And you as the consumer have a few of the ultimate powers. 

You can re-wear and re-use your clothing far more often, and make sure to recycle, upcycle and donate clothing instead of sending it to the landfill. You can look for durable clothing, and avoid garments that are likely to have a very short lifespan.

Most importantly, however, you can control which products you purchase, and which brands you support. Look for items made from recycled fibers, sustainably farmed or sourced fabrics, and low impact fabrics, like sustainable cotton, linen and bamboo and look for brands that sustainable source and manufacture their clothing!   

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