“The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world … second only to oil,” the recipient of an environmental award told a stunned Manhattan audience earlier this year. “It’s a really nasty business … it’s a mess.”While you’d never hear an oil tycoon malign his bonanza in such a way, the woman who stood at the podium, Eileen Fisher, is a clothing industry magnate.
On a warm spring night at a Chelsea Piers ballroom on the Hudson River, Fisher was honored by Riverkeeper for her commitment to environmental causes. She was self-deprecating and even apologetic when speaking about the ecological impact of clothing, including garments tagged with her own name. Fisher’s critique may have seemed hyperbolic, but she was spot-on.
When we think of pollution, we envision coal power plants, strip-mined mountaintops and raw sewage piped into our waterways. We don’t often think of the shirts on our backs. But the overall impact the apparel industry has on our planet is quite grim.
Fashion is a complicated business involving long and varied supply chains of production, raw material, textile manufacture, clothing construction, shipping, retail, use and ultimately disposal of the garment. While Fisher’s assessment that fashion is the second largest polluter is likely impossible to know, what is certain is that the fashion carbon footprint is tremendous. Determining that footprint is an overwhelming challenge due to the immense variety from one garment to the next. A general assessment must take into account not only obvious pollutants—the pesticides used in cotton farming, the toxic dyes used in manufacturing and the great amount of waste discarded clothing creates—but also the extravagant amount of natural resources used in extraction, farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing and shipping.
While cotton, especially organic cotton, might seem like a smart choice, it can still take more than 5,000 gallons of water to manufacture just a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Synthetic, man-made fibers, while not as water-intensive, often have issues with manufacturing pollution and sustainability. And across all textiles, the manufacturing and dyeing of fabrics is chemically intensive.
Globalization means that your shirt likely traveled halfway around the world in a container ship fueled by the dirtiest of fossil fuels. A current trend in fashion retail is creating an extreme demand for quick and cheap clothes and it is a huge problem. Your clothes continue to impact the environment after purchase; washing and final disposal when you’re finished with your shirt may cause more harm to the planet than you realize. Fisher is right, the fashion industry is truly a mess
A Thirsty, Needy Plant Cotton is the world’s most commonly used natural fiber and is in nearly 40 percent of our clothing. It has a clean, wholesome image long cultivated by the garment industry. But the truth is that it is a thirsty little plant that drinks up more of its fair share of water. It is also one of the most chemically dependent crops in the world. While only 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton, it consumes 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals and 25 percent of insecticides. Some genetically modified varieties, which are resistant to some insects and tolerant of some herbicides, now make up more than 20 percent of the world’s cotton crop. Cotton is indeed grown all over the world with China being the largest cotton grower followed by India, the U.S., Pakistan and Brazil.
Uzbekistan, the world’s sixth leading producer of cotton, is a prime example of how cotton can severely impact a region’s environment. In the 1950s, two rivers in Central Asia, the Amu Darya and and the Syr Darya, were diverted from the Aral sea to provide irrigation for cotton production in Uzbekistan and nearby Turkmenistan. Today, water levels in the Aral are less than 10 percent of what they were 50 years ago. As the Aral dried up, fisheries and the communities that relied on them failed. Over time, the sea became over-salinated and laden with fertilizer and pesticides from the nearby fields. Dust from the dry, exposed lakebed, containing these chemicals and salt saturated the air, creating a public health crisis and settling onto farm fields, contaminating the soil. The Aral is rapidly becoming a dry sea and the loss of the moderating influence that such a large body of water has on the weather has made the region’s winters much colder and summers hotter and drier. While Uzbekistan is an extreme example of how cotton farming can wreak havoc on the environment, the impact of cotton agriculture is felt in other regions, including Pakistan’s Indus River, Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin and the Rio Grande in the U.S. and Mexico.
Organic cotton is a much more sustainable alternative, but today it is only about one percent of all the cotton grown worldwide and quite expensive to grow compared to conventional cotton. It is not without its downsides, however. Organic cotton still needs large amounts of water and the clothing made from it may still be dyed with chemicals and shipped globally, meaning that there’s still a big carbon footprint with cotton garments carrying the “organic” tag.
Disposable Dress In the first world, shopping has become a way of life, a weekly pastime and for many an addiction. Shopping malls, glossy fashion magazines, catalogs and Internet ads bombard us with entertaining opportunities to spend money. Feeding this rampant consumerism is the “fast fashion” trend, in which clothing is designed to be moved as quickly as possible from catwalk to store. Only about 10 years old, fast fashion is leading the way in actual disposable clothing and it is particularly worrisome because it creates demand for and then constantly churns out massive amounts of cheap clothes, ultimately accelerating carbon emissions and global warming.
At $108 for a white organic cotton tank top, Eileen Fisher is a high-end retailer, out of reach for most consumers. The vast majority of us shop at the giant fashion retailers, which have the biggest carbon footprint—and many of them specialize in fast fashion. Swedish giant H&M is the current largest clothing retailer in the world at $20.2 billion in sales (as of January 2015) followed by Zara, another fast fashion specialist. The fashion industry by design is constantly changing with the seasons, but fast fashion can change weekly, summed up by a sign in H&M, “New stuff is coming in each and every day. So why not do the same.” It’s not uncommon for shoppers to wear an item once or twice before throwing it away for next week’s style, aided by the poor quality of many of the clothes causing them to fall apart after several washes. Fashion is all about image, so many retailers have recently made efforts to cultivate a greener image. H&M has a sustainability effort called H&M Conscious: a “promise to bring you more fashion choices that are good for people, the planet and your wallet.” But what of its claims of sustainability? There is some question as to whether this is real greening or just greenwashing.
As stated In its 2014 sustainability report H&M’s CEO Karl-Johan Persson said, “In order to remain a successful business, we need to keep growing and at the same time respect the planetary boundaries.” The intense consumerism and rate of production needed to grow these fast fashion retailers does not reflect the fact that energy is increasingly expensive and resources are limited. Globalization and the never-ending search for the lowest labor rates that made those jeans possible has limits as well.
Crude Duds Made from petrochemicals, polyester and nylon are not biodegradable, so they are unsustainable by their very nature. While the manufacturing of both uses great amounts of energy, nylon also emits a large amount of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, during manufacturing. The impact of one pound of nitrous oxide on global warming is almost 300 times that of the same amount of carbon dioxide, the most ubiquitous greenhouse gas.
It’s estimated that it takes about 70 million barrels of oil just to produce the virgin polyester used in fabrics each year. But recycled polyester made from discarded plastic polymer products is now being considered as a greener option, as it takes less than half the energy to produce and helps keep plastic products, like drinking bottles, out of landfills. But there are downsides to recycled polyester. Used plastic bottles must still be cleaned and the labels mechanically removed before made into polyester fabric. The process is mostly done by hand and that means these plastic bottles are shipped to countries with low labor rates, using dirty fossil fuels to send them there.
Much of what is touted as recycled polyester is actually greenwashed products. The U.S. still has a very low rate of plastic recycling, only 6 percent. So clothing manufacturers, eager to tout their “recycled” clothes, can’t get enough old soda bottles. Because the demand is so much higher than the supply, some cynical suppliers are buying unused bottles directly from their manufacturers to make polyester clothing which they can label recycled.Even when they’re being laundered by you, your polyester clothes are harming our waterways. Ecologist Michael Browne examined sediment along the world’s shorelines and noticed fibers everywhere. The threads he found were tiny, synthetic and ubiquitous near sewage outflows. Eighty-five percent of the microfibers found along the shoreline were human-made material and “matched the types of material, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing.”Going down the drain from our domestic washing machines Browne estimates that around 1,900 individual fibers can be washed off a single garment and find their way into the oceans and on shores everywhere. These fibers are another pathway for the chemicals in the fabric to get into the environment.
A Thread Of Hope Some top clothing designers, such as Fisher, Stella McCartney and Ralph Lauren are on the leading edge toward reforming the fashion industry. Eileen Fisher’s eponymous company is already using 84 percent organic cotton, 68 percent organic linen and is reducing water use and carbon emissions and working to make its supply chain sustainable by 2020. But as Fisher said in her speech at the Riverkeeper Ball, hers is just one company. And while part of Eileen Fisher’s mission is to share its insight with other clothing manufacturers, one company’s overall impact is still rather small. But Fisher said: “Because [the fashion industry is] the second largest polluter in the world I also think we can be a huge force for change. I have hope. I know it’s possible to make clean clothes, to do it a better way.” But real change in the clothing industry will only come if the big, affordable brands find a way to make and sell sustainable clothing. Until then, consumers can help by changing where they shop and what they buy.