How Fashion and Consumerism Hurt the Planet

Proceed with caution: I sometimes can't help but suck the fun out of everything. My parents love to remind me about this, like during Thanksgiving dinner when I gave a speech about Native American land and climate change instead of saying what I was thankful for. The next day, my dad came home from Black Friday shopping and I told him that his new red shirt wasn't as red as the blood from the cruel labor that was used in its production. So if shopping is fun for you, then I apologize because I've been practicing sucking the fun out of things that people enjoy!


Don't get me wrong, I get it! We want to look hot! We want to use our clothing and appearance as a way to express who we are! We want to save money from our job that doesn't pay quite enough so we look for the stores with the best deals and cheap items! It's SO easy to be sucked into a world that tells us to stay up to date with fashion, buy new things, buy cheap things, and when you realize that everyone else starts wearing mustard yellow instead of maroon, you better jump in the car as quick as you can and head to the mall so that you can update your closet or else you're gonna look so totally lame!


How can we escape this industry that presses us to continue in a cycle of waste? First, we should try to fully understand the impact that this has on lives beyond our own. There are negative social and economical impacts of the fashion industry, but for now let's take a look at how consumerism is killing our planet. Just after the oil industry, the fashion industry has grown to be the second largest environmental polluter in the world.


Consumerism in Numbers


Each year, 80 billion pieces of clothing are produced. Fashion brands that once released two seasonal collections a year for summer and winter, now have new fashion trends for each of the 52 weeks in a year. In just 20 years, fashion industry consumerism has increased 400%. The average person wears a piece of clothing only 7 times and wastes 80 pounds of clothing each year. On average, 70-80% of clothes in a woman's wardrobe are not actually worn.


If all human beings had the lifestyle of the average American consumer, there would need to be four earths to sustain our consumption.


"Throwaway Fashion"


Throwaway fashion takes into account the fast-changing trends decided by the fashion industry. If you know that what's in style this seasons will be out of style by next year, it is understandable why it would make sense to buy the cheapest product in the market. Because styles are constantly changing, products are made to be cheap and easily accessible.


With throwaway fashion taking over, our understanding of what a piece of clothing means has changed as well. When my mom was growing up she got to go to the store and pick out a couple new dresses every year to prepare for the upcoming school year. Because each year she would come home with 4 or 5 new, well-made dresses, she cherished them with all of her heart. She took care of her dresses, she was grateful for them, and she never thought to ask for more than what she was given. It was a different time. Now, I can go to a store and buy a nice dress for less than $10. I don't have to care if it shrinks in the wash, if I stain it with wine, or if I decide it's ugly in a week because with $10 more, I'll just replace it with another one!


The average piece of clothing lasts three years before it is thrown away. Of all clothes thrown away or given away, 85% end up either in a landfill or are burned.


Cotton


Cotton makes up about half of all materials being used in the clothing industry, the majority of which is genetically modified, requiring large amounts of chemicals. Of all the pesticides and insecticides used in agriculture, 18% and 25% respectively are being sprayed on cotton plants. For every pound of fabric produced, there was a pound of chemicals put into its production.


23% of all chemicals produced are used in the clothing industry.


Synthetic Material


Synthetic materials such as polyester, acrylic, and nylon are made from fossil fuels. Polyester production alone takes 70 million oil barrels each year. When washed, clothing made of these materials release microfibers into our water system. This means they end up in our oceans, sea animals, and eventually our own food supply. Each year, 190,000 tons of polluted micro-plastic fibers from clothing end up in the ocean. And those that end up in landfills take up to 200 years to decompose.


Water


Not only is cotton often grown with large amounts of chemicals, but it is also a very thirsty plant! About 10,000 liters of water go into producing a single pound of material and this puts a tremendous strain on our planet, leading to desertification that destroys soil health and water shortages in communities. India, the second largest producer of cotton, has 100 million people who live without reliable access to drinking water. 85% of the entire population of India would have enough drinking water from just the water used to grow cotton in the country.


Besides just growing the material, water is also used in preparation of materials and transportation of finished products. 1.5 trillion liters of water are used by the fashion industry each year. 200 tons of water is used to dye just one ton of fabric for the clothing industry to use. To put this into perspective, it takes 10,000 liters of water to create one pair of jeans and 2,500 liters for a cotton shirt. With 10,000 liters of water you could grow 1,000 potatoes, 3,500 pistachios, or 9,000 grapes. With 2,500 liters of water you could give someone enough water to drink for 2.5 years.


20% of all industrial water waste is created by the clothing industry. Toxic wastewater from clothing production, treatment, and dying are often dumped into rivers, filling them with poisonous heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and arsenic. 200,000 tons of dyes are disposed of in the rivers and seas each year. That's 400 million pounds!


Greenhouse Gas


The production of clothing is responsible for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Most of our fast fashions clothes are made in China, Bangladesh, or India, where coal-powered energy is commonly used. There is an estimated 50 kilograms of greenhouse gas for every pound of fabric made. In a world where it is common for someone to buy clothes and only wear their new purchase 5 times, instead of 50, carbon emission production increases by 400%.


Every second, one garbage truck filled with clothes is either being dumped in a landfill or burned.


What Can I Do?

  • Buy used and try thrift stores

  • Spend more, less often

  • Try to minimize; less is sometimes more. Ask yourself if new clothes will really improve your life before shopping

  • Try not to get rid of clothes. Repair, re-purpose, or do clothing swaps with friends when possible.

  • Support eco-friendly fibers

  • Support eco-friendly brands (If you have the means!)


More Resources


I talked about the environmental impacts of our fast paced fashion industry, but the social impacts are just as important. Check out the documentary, The True Cost, which inspired me to question the clothes I was buying.


References

https://unfccc.int/news/un-helps-fashion-industry-shift-to-low-carbon

https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/old-environmental-impacts

https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/top-cotton-producing-countries-in-the-world.html

https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/01/numbers-economic-social-and-environmental-impacts-fast-fashion



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