Environmental impact of fashion

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The fashion industry is one of the largest polluters in the world, just after the oil industry.[1] And the environmental damage the fashion industry causes is increasing as the industry grows as well. The fashion industry should be held accountable to more sustainable practices because that the industry is a large contributor to climate change. Less than one percent of clothing is recycled to make new clothes and the production of green house gas emissions continues to increase everyday. To be more sustainable, the fashion industry needs to find new ways to reuse materials and eliminate pollution to minimize the damage that has been done.[2] The industry produces an estimated 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions.[3] The production and distribution of the crops, fibers, and garments used in fashion all contribute to differing forms of environmental pollution, including water, air, and soil degradation.[citation needed] The textile industry is the second greatest polluter of local freshwater in the world,[4] and is culpable for roughly one-fifth of all industrial water pollution.[5] Some of the main factors that contribute to this industrial caused pollution are the vast overproduction of fashion items,[6] the use of synthetic fibers, and the agriculture pollution of fashion crops.[7]

Fast fashion[edit]

The amount of new garments bought by Americans has tripled since the 1960s. Because fashion has had a major outbreak, the amount of clothing being produced increased. Because of this, we now have what is called fast fashion. Globalization has encouraged the rapid growth of the fast fashion industry. Global retail sales of apparel in 2019 reached 1.9 trillion U.S dollars, a new high – this number is expected to double to three trillion U.S. dollars by the year 2030. As of 2022, the global retail sales have reached almost 27.3 trillion. [8] Fast fashion can also be seen as an overproduction of clothes, apparel, shoes, accessories, and more. This exponential increase causes the need for more resources and the need for a speedier process from which clothes are produced. One of the main contributors to the rapid production of pollution is the rapid production of clothes due to the rapid consumption of customers. Many of these fast fashion items are often bought by those who cannot afford name brands due to inflation. Although, these individuals don’t have that luxury as inflation is causing for even fast fashion prices to increase. Every year the world as a whole consumes more than 80 billion items of clothing.[9] Those clothes contribute to resource pollution and waste pollution, due to the fact that most of these items will one day be thrown out. People are consuming more and they want it for cheaper prices. And the companies producing these cheap items who are making a profit want the clothes as fast as possible, this creates a trend called fast fashion. Fast fashion is "an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers."[10] The idea is that speedy mass production combined with cheap labor will make clothes cheaper for those buying them, thus allowing these fast fashion trends to maintain economic success. The main concern with fast fashion is the clothes waste it produces. According to the Environmental Protection Agency[11] 15.1 million tons of textile clothing waste was produced in 2013 alone.[12] When textile clothing ends up in landfills the chemicals on the clothes, such as the dye, can cause environmental damage by leaching the chemicals into the ground.[citation needed]The excess waste also contributes to the issue of using so many sites just to store waste and garbage. When unsold clothes are burned,[13] it releases CO2[14] into the atmosphere. As per a World Resources Institute report, 1.2 billion tons of CO2 is released in the atmosphere per year by the fast fashion industry.[15] In 2019, it was announced that France was making an effort to prevent companies from this practice of burning unsold fashion items.[16][17]

Chile's Atacama Desert is said to be where fast fashion goes to die. The rampant consumerism in the clothing industry and its disastrous effects on the environment, is not well publicized and is less known than other effects. Clothing from all over the world arrive at the Iquique port in the Alto Hospicio free zone in northern Chile each year, an important center for trade in South America. Chile has long been a hub for unsold clothing, that was made in China or Bangladesh and passing through Europe, Asia or the United States before arriving in Chile, where clothing merchants then resell it around the continent. What is not sold around South America or sent to other countries to be sold, stay in the Alto Hospicio free zone, because no one pays the necessary tariffs to take it away, it then ends up being dumped in the Atacama Desert.

Synthetic fibres and natural fibres[edit]

Now that there is continuous increase in the amount of clothing that is consumed, another issue that arises is that the clothing is no longer made from natural materials/crops. Clothing used to be produced by mainly "natural fibers"[18] such as wool, cotton or silk. Now there is a switch from natural fibers to inexpensive synthetic textile fibers[19] such as polyester or nylon. Polyester is one of the most popular fibers used in fashion today, it is found in about 60% of garments in retail stores, that is about 21.3 million tons of polyester.[20] The popularity of polyester keep increasing as well, seeing as there was a 157 percent increase of polyester clothing consumption from 2000 to 2015.[20] Synthetic polyester is made from a chemical reaction of coal, petroleum, air and water[21] two of which are fossil fuels. When coal is burned it creates heavy amounts of air pollution containing carbon dioxide.[clarification needed]When petroleum is used[clarification needed]it creates several air pollutants such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide.[22] The creation of polyester creates pollution,[citation needed]as well as its finished project. Polyester is "non-biodegradable"[23] meaning it can never be converted to a state that is naturally found in the natural world. Due to all of the time and resources it takes to make polyester and it never being able to revert to a state that can contribute to any natural nutrient cycles polyester can be considered energy intensive with no net gain. When polyester clothing is washed micro plastics are shedding and entering the water system which is leading to micro pollution in water ways, including oceans.[24][25] Due to the micro pollutants small size it is easy for fish within waterways to absorb them in their body fat. The fish can then be consumed by humans, and these humans will also absorb the polyester micro pollutants in the fish in a process called biomagnification.[26]

While it has been stated that synthetic fibers are having a negative impact on the environment, natural fibers also contribute to pollution through agricultural pollution. Cotton production requires a large amount of pesticides and water use.[27] Cotton is considered the world's dirtiest crop because it uses 16% of the world's pesticides.[28] Two of the main ingredients in pesticides are nitrates and phosphates. When the pesticides leak into stream systems surrounding the cropland, the nitrates and phosphates contribute to water eutrophication. Animal-based fibers such as wool and leather also have quite the impact on the environment, being responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2005.[29] Cattle have digestive systems that use a process known as foregut fermentation, which creates the greenhouse gas methane as a byproduct. In addition to the CH4 released from the ruminants, CO2 and N2O are released into the atmosphere as byproducts of raising the animals. In total, 44% of emissions caused by livestock are from enteric fermentation, 41% comes from the feed needed to raise the livestock, 10% comes from manure, and 5% comes from energy consumption.[30] For temperate zones, linen (which is made from flax) is considered a better alternative.[31] Also, hemp seems to be a good choice.[32] Textile that is made from seaweed is on the horizon. As an alternative to leather, biofabricated leather would be a good choice.

Techniques to address the environmental impacts of the fashion industry include a marine algal bioabsorbent, which could be used for dye removal through rich algal surface chemistry through heteroatom containing functional groups. [32] Many techniques or potential solutions are difficult in their implementation, for instance the accuracy of marine sediment techniques to detect microplastics is not sufficiently tested among different soil samples or sources.[33] It has also been found that around thirty five percent of all microplastics in the ocean are from laundry of synthetic textiles.[33] In one study, the food consumption rates decreased in crabs who were eating food with plastic microfibers, which further lead to the available energy for growth to also decrease.[34]

Marine Impact[edit]

Improperly disposing of clothing, can be extremely harmful to the environment, especially to our water sources through wastewater. Harmful chemicals from decomposing clothing can be emitted into the air, and can leach into the ground contaminating both groundwater and surface water. Methane gas, a main contributor to climate change, is released when clothes decompose, while adverse chemicals from clothing and dyes, infiltrate our water - exposing humans to carcinogens and toxic chemicals that seep into bloodstreams. Chemicals are not the only thing that is harmful from clothing. Aside from plastic pollution, textiles also contributes significantly to marine pollution. Unlike plastic, textile pollution's impact on marine life occurs in its various supply chain processes.[35] Fibers from clothing and shoes are extremely detrimental to the environment. Increasingly, clothing is becoming more and more synthetically made, the fibers from this clothing are similar to micro plastic pollution in Earth's waters. Infiltrating our water sources and beaches, they then can become bonded to toxic chemicals. Pollutants like pesticides and clothing manufacturing chemicals cling to particles that accumulate in the waters ecosystem and consequently enter into human food chains.[36] Microplastics and microfibers are being released into oceans due to washing synthetics textiles, this type of waste is most commonly found from washing machine cycles, where fibers of clothes fall loose during the tumbling process.[37] Fabrics like polyester, acrylic, and nylon are washed, they release tiny plastic fibers. It is said that more than a third of the microplastics found in the ocean come from fashion-related processes and waste.[38]

Plastic and textile are both created from a chemical structure called polymer. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines polymer as “a chemical compound or mixture of compounds formed by polymerization and consisting essentially of repeating structural units.” For plastic, the common polymer found is PET, polyethylene (PE), or polypropylene (PP), whereas for textile, the polymer found the most abundant in the collection of waste is polyester and nylon textiles.[39]

The Ocean Wise Conservation Association produced a study discussing the textile waste. For polyester, it stated that on average, humans shed around 20 to 800 mg micro polyester waste for every kg textile washed. A smaller amount for nylon is found; for every kg of fabrics washed, we shed around 11 to 63 mg nylon microfiber waste to the waters.[40]

The Association also released a study stating that on average, households in the United States and Canada produce around 135 grams of microfibers, which is equivalent to 22 kilotons of microfibers released to the wastewater annually. These wastewater will go through various waste water treatment plants, however, around 878 tons of those 22 kilotons were left untreated and hence, thrown into the ocean. For comparison, 878 tons of waste is equivalent to around 9 - 10 blue whales in the ocean. This is how much we pollute just from textile.[41]

Eutrophication in a water source

Clothing often contains non-organic, excessively farmed cotton which is grown with chemicals that are known to cause eutrophication. Eutrophication is a process in which fresh water sources such as lakes and rivers become overly enriched with nutrients. This causes a dense growth of plant life that is harmful to the ecosystem, which can eventually kill all living things in the local ecosystem.[42] The fashion industry heavily relies on water throughout its entire production process for materials and garments. It takes on average 10,000-20,000 liters of water to cultivate a simple kilogram of raw cotton.[43]

Pollution in our water sources, is not the only detrimental affect that the fashion industry has on the environment and our water. The fashion industry also consumes and uses a large amount of water to produce fabrics and manufacture garments every year. According to a study done by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an estimation that more than 90 billion cubic meters, or about 20 trillion gallons of water, is used every year in order to create our clothing each year, which is four percent of all freshwater withdrawal globally.[36] With this current trend, this amount is set to double by 2030.[44] According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the fashion industry is responsible for 20 percent of global wastewater.[45] Manufacturing a single pair of Levi jeans, will on average, consume about 3,781 liters of water to make.[46]

Thirty five percent of the microplastics that are found in marine ecosystems, such as shorelines, are from synthetic microfibers and nanofibers.[47] Such microfibers affect marine life in that fish or other species in the marine ecosystems consume them, which end up in the intestine and harm the animals.[48] Predators of the affected marine individuals are also harmed, as they consume their prey who now contain the microfibers.[48] Microfibers and microplastics from the production of clothing are found to be significant through the facts that the yearly shellfish consumption of microplastics was found to be 11,000 pieces, and microfibers were found in eighty three percent of fish caught in one lake in Brazil.[48] Further, about two thirds of synthetic fibers from clothing production will be found in the ocean from 2015 to 2050.[49] It is also found that eighty percent of microfiber pollutants in marine environments actually are from terrestrial sources.[48]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]