Unsuspecting polluters: Why you may want to rethink the clothes you wear and how you care for them

By Mackenzie Nelson

Imagine you are in a mall surrounded by an endless selection of clothing options. This is a realistic scenario. How do you choose what to spend your money on? Do you consider trends, comfort, looks, price, or brand? Most people factor in all of these things. Our clothing contributes to our identities and represents our values.

There are many factors that come into play when making clothing purchases. Is environmental impact one of yours? Source: Canva.

So, when you are picking out your future clothes, do you think about the environmental footprint of what you choose to wear?

This is an important question to consider because of the size and potential environmental impacts of the global clothing market. In 2015, households in the United States spent an average of $1,846 on apparel and related services. In the same year, the global fashion industry was valued at $1.2 trillion: its influence expanding across borders and continents.

We live in a world of fast trends—preferences that catch on quickly and do not stay for long. In reference to clothing, this is called fast fashion. Consumers are encouraged to buy the next best item, which is soon replaced by an even better option only a short time later. As a result, many clothing designers and companies use inexpensive, low-quality materials to create their products. This keeps their costs down to provide a product that is competitive in the marketplace price-wise. These materials include environmentally-damaging polyester and resource-demanding cotton. However, beyond fabric materials, environmental impacts are of concern at almost all parts of a garment’s lifecycle.

Polyester is made from petroleum, a finite resource that contributes to the emissions of greenhouse gases through its extraction. Each year, 70 million barrels of crude oil are required to meet the needs for polyester production. Along with other human-made fabrics, producing polyester is very energy intensive. Furthermore, polyester takes a long time to decomposearound 20 to 200 years. While this material is not biodegradable, it can be recycled. In fact, companies and designers are looking to use recycled polyester—through mechanical, chemical, or chemical closed loop recycling methods—as a replacement for the first-generation fabric. Recycled polyester can also be made from plastic drinking water bottles, or PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles. Current research suggests that of the 9.5 million tons of plastic waste entering the oceans, 35% of that is the result of textile waste.

US cotton grown by Cotton Incorporated. Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1964887/

Growing conventional cotton requires large amounts of water—around 20,000 liters to for 1 kg of crop—in addition to use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that can runoff into nearby water sources. According to the USDA, as reported in “Waste Couture,” the pesticides used to grow cotton makes up a quarter of all the pesticides used in the United States.  Alternatives to conventional cotton include organic cotton and hemp—options that use less water and fewer chemicals.

Awareness of the disadvantages of some clothing materials has encouraged the rise of “eco-fashion,” a category of clothing where producers and consumers consider the environmental impacts of products and act to minimize them. Apparel companies interested in promoting eco-fashion are implementing methods of clothing production that mitigate their environmental impacts. These include using alternative materials to make clothing fibers like sustainably grown cotton, hemp, and bamboo; designing products that are of higher quality and therefore last longer; developing clothes that are meant to be washed less frequently; and encouraging consumers to take an interest in investing in sustainable fashion. These types of steps are being taken by companies like Levi Strauss & Co. and Patagonia.

Discarded textile waste accumulates outside a garment factory in Bangladesh. Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1964887/

While clothing donations are regularly made to charities and second-hand stores, only a fraction of all clothing is actually used for resale. Meanwhile the items that fail to meet the interests of resellers end up being discarded and sent to landfills or incinerators or exported to developing countries. In 2013, the US was the largest exporter of worn clothing. However, the need for these donated items in other countries is quickly surpassed by the amount of clothing being donated. As a result, these excess donations are thrown away.

Levi Strauss & Co. “A Care Tag For Our Planet” Initiative. Source: http://levistrauss.com/sustainability/planet/

Since 1993, Patagonia has been producing fleece clothing made from post-consumer plastic bottles. More recently, with the launch of its Common Threads Initiative and “Worn Wear” promotion, Patagonia has been implementing methods that work against the influence of fast fashion. This includes caring for products to ensure they last longer, repairing damaged items that can be saved rather than discarding them, and offering opportunities for customers to sell or trade unwanted Patagonia products so that the company can recycle the garment’s fabric. Methods like this prevent clothing items from winding up in landfills.

In addition to paying attention to how clothing is made and what fibers make up the fabrics, how we treat and maintain the quality of our clothes can also have an impact. Around 25% of our clothing’s carbon footprint comes from washing garments. Over 3.3 million tons of textile-based plastic enter the oceans each year as the result of clothing items rubbing together and breaking off or shredding fibers and microplastics when washed. This unintentional waste is then carried through sewers and eventually ends up in our oceans. Some designers are researching new ways to design clothes so that infrequent washes are encouraged. Levi Strauss & Co. have used the initiative “A Care Tag For Our Planet”—a reminder in the form of a tag on their merchandise—to promote alternative methods of washing items, including fewer washes and line-drying clothing.

Furthermore, unlike the fast fashion products found at Forever 21, H&M, Zara, and Topshop, the best way to divert clothing from ending up in landfills is to invest in higher quality clothing—“slow fashion” products that will last. Additionally, most items that are donated have to be discarded because they need repairs. Taking care of clothing will ultimately lengthen its life.

While efforts are being made to mitigate environmental impacts of many industries—including agriculture, transportation, and urbanization—there is little accessible information and reporting on how the clothing we choose to wear affects the planet. Wouldn’t it be nice if clothing had an environmental consciousness score to make decisions easier? Unfortunately, this article can only provide a small insight into the concern of fashion industry pollution. For more information, check out these resources:

Clothing Knowledge Hub from Wrap

An article from NPR

A similar article from Newsweek

Information on “fast fashion”

More from Levi’s