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The fashion industry often comes under intense scrutiny for perceived failings in diversity, workers’ rights, and animal welfare. But while we focus on these issues, we often overlook an equally important problem: fashion’s environmental impact. The clothing and textile industry is one of the largest polluters in the world. Not only does it contribute 10 percent of total global carbon emissions, but also a whopping 20 percent of global wastewater. (It takes more than 5,000 gallons of water to produce just over 2 pounds of cotton — enough for a single T-shirt and pair of jeans.) And that’s not to mention the approximately 15 percent of manufactured fabric that’s left on the cutting room floor.
Worse, it’s not only clothing production that causes waste. Per person, consumers throw away an average of 70 pounds of shoes and clothing annually, 95 percent of which could be recycled instead. And the retailers? In July 2018, Burberry admitted to burning $40 million in unsold clothes, accessories, and perfume instead of selling it off at a cheaper price, in order to protect the brand’s exclusivity and value. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 10.5 million tons of textile waste was generated in 2015, the most recent data available. Even designers of eco-friendly and vegetarian labels, such as Stella McCartney — who famously shot a 2017 fashion campaign in a Scottish landfill to highlight the issues of consumer culture and waste — can’t counteract that alone.
The Factory Defect
The level of waste apparent across the fashion industry can be traced almost directly back to the emergence of our modern-day idea of “fast fashion,” in which new trends move rapidly from catwalk to closet. Until the mid-1900s, most shoppers bought clothing in small quantities from large department stores that sourced apparel from manufacturers. But alongside the emergence of textile mills and factories in developing nations, such as China, in the 1970s retailers realized they could control their own manufacturing and distribution processes at a fraction of previous costs, allowing larger orders to be placed and larger shipments to be made.
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Today, computer technology and outsourced production have brought clothing prices down to a level that would’ve been unthinkable a mere 50 years ago. This mass-produced clothing also means that brands can release many changing styles for new fashion “seasons” more frequently throughout the year, enticing buyers with the latest and greatest in fashion-forward attire, even if that fashion only lasts a month. Its affordability means shoppers don’t have qualms about purchasing a garment they plan to wear just once or twice before losing it to their closet, or, more harmfully, disposing of it completely.
Luckily, global consumer culture is gradually becoming more self-aware. And while textile waste numbers are still staggering, more companies, shoppers, and nonprofits are calling for change.
Wearability Without Waste
Leading the charge for change is a charity in the United Kingdom with a plan for action. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) focuses its work on resource efficiency in governments, businesses, and communities. While WRAP champions global changes in the food, electronics, and plastics industries, it’s also found great success in its Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP). Launched in 2007, SCAP is challenging its partners, and the fashion industry as a whole, to reduce carbon, water, and waste when it comes to the production and disposal of clothing. Almost 90 organizations — that together represent over half of the U.K. retail market — have pledged to work toward a 15 percent reduction of their carbon footprints, water footprints, and waste to landfill per ton of clothing by 2020. If these targets are met, SCAP says it could save the equivalent in carbon dioxide emissions of 250,000 cars annually, plus enough water to fill 160,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and reduce 16,000 tons of waste.
In 2013, WRAP identified action areas that would be key to SCAP’s 2020 goal: the use of low-impact fibers, an increase in product durability, and an increase in clothing that’s reused and recycled. For this, it created the “Sustainable Clothing Guide,” which focuses on the ways brands can increase clothing durability, and which businesses and consumers alike can access through the WRAP website.
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According to WRAP, carbon, water, and waste footprints would be reduced by 4 to 10 percent if the life of clothing was extended by just nine months of active use. The charity claims that designing apparel for longevity is the single largest opportunity for the clothing industry to reduce footprints in its three key areas. If clothes last longer, consumers replace them less often, and fewer manufacturing resources are required. This change begins when clothes are designed. By constructing clothing that can be reasonably adjusted to allow for variations in a customer’s body shape; using high-quality fabrics; implementing styles, colors, and shapes that won’t go out of style; and advising customers on the best method of care for their clothes, WRAP believes brands will not only be helping the environment, but that they’ll also see an increase in long-term customer loyalty, as well as gain new customers more regularly.
Brand-New Fashion Fixes
For now, WRAP’s efforts are focused in the U.K. But there are still U.S. and international brands adjusting their own production to become more sustainable. In 2017, at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Global Fashion Agenda called on brands to sign a 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment. Similar to SCAP’s goal with the same deadline, this commitment directs brands to change their design strategies to increase the volume of used clothing that’s collected instead of thrown away, increase the volume of used clothing that’s resold, and increase the use of post-consumer textiles in clothing. By July 2019, 90 companies had signed the commitment, representing 12.5 percent of the global fashion market.
Companies committed to this cause have already begun making changes within their markets, as have plenty of brands not currently affiliated with Global Fashion Agenda. Reformation, a women’s wear brand, makes almost 15 percent of its products from old, leftover, or over-ordered fabric. H&M lets customers drop off any garment of any brand in any condition at its stores for recycling. And from its Reuse-A-Shoe program — where worn-out athletic shoes are collected in its stores for recycling — Nike invented a line of entirely new materials, together called Nike Grind. Recycled or surplus rubber, foam, fiber, leather, and textile blends are transformed into materials that are now used in 71 percent of Nike’s footwear and apparel.
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There are also major brands creating entirely new product lines to draw consumers toward the efficacy of used clothing. Decades ago, a man named Jeff Fuller collected and resold Levi’s jeans from the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. He closed his small store in the mid-1990s, but by then had gathered more than 50,000 pairs of old-fashioned blue jeans. Levi’s is one of the most sought-after brands of vintage clothing in the world, and when the company’s president met Fuller in 2016, he purchased Fuller’s entire collection. Now the brand has launched Authorized Vintage, a line where secondhand Levi’s in all styles and washes are sold. Since the inception of the line, other people have come forward with vintage blue jeans to add to the collection for resale.
Patagonia has made similar strides with their Worn Wear line. Already conscious about the materials and resources used to make its clothing, the brand now buys back used clothing through the mail or in store. These clothes are cleaned primarily with carbon dioxide technology, a process during which 98 percent of the liquefied carbon dioxide is reclaimed. The lowered prices for the cleaned, used items mean more people can afford pieces of clothing that are made for longevity. And as long as a piece stays in acceptable condition, Patagonia will buy it back again and again.
Dress for Sustainable Success
Most of us know to donate gently used clothing to nonprofits or thrift stores. Maybe we’re amongst those who upcycle tired apparel into rags, rugs, or tote bags. But when it comes to clothing that’s stained or torn, we might still turn toward the trash. What change could we create if we simply learned efficient techniques for patching tears? Or sought out thrift stores in our area that accept worn, damaged clothing to ship to a recycling company? What if we helped stop the problem at the source and rented fashion-forward clothes through programs such as Rent the Runway instead of purchasing them?
To shift its call to action from manufacturers and retailers to include customers, WRAP launched a consumer campaign called Love Your Clothes. Here, it works to adjust key consumer behaviors that will reduce the overall environmental footprint of the fashion industry. WRAP’s suggested steps are simple: Make smarter clothing purchases, care for and repair clothing properly, refashion what’s already in your closet, and be conscientious about the way you dispose of clothes when you’re finished with them. On the website, each of these suggestions links to a webpage full of tips, tricks, and thoughtful guides to help consumers save time and energy as they rethink their part in this damaging cycle.
Though it wasn’t alone in the practice of destroying unsold stock, Burberry announced plans to reuse, repair, donate, or recycle unsold products just months after its actions sparked outrage in 2018. Burberry also partnered with sustainable luxury company Elvis & Kresse to keep 120 tons of leather castoffs from the landfill over the next five years, and to instead turn the scraps into new products. If Burberry can make such a drastic shift, why can’t we?
Being an editor at Mother Earth Living supplies Haley Casey with endless inspiration for a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as with a place to read, write, and put her English degree to good use.