I live in a thrifty home. My family takes trips to second-hand stores and has thrived with hand-me-downs since my second oldest sibling was born. I was not raised worrying about what other people might think about what I was wearing, and when clothes became damaged, we donated them to our local GoodWill or mended them ourselves. We strove to throw away as little as possible and fix anything we knew how to. However, when I buy new clothes now, I notice how quickly they fall apart and how impossible they are to repair.
When a new trend shows up, a company wants to maintain its influence by producing a relevant line of clothing. The problem with this strategy is what happens to the trends of the past: Consumers and companies alike dispose of unfashionable clothes by dumping them in landfills, donation booths or burn piles. Although some brands are supporting ethical factories, using recycled plastic and organic material, and donating deadstock en masse to countries perceived as needy, these efforts are either shallow, partial or their consequences are not fully considered. Unfortunately, it is much easier for outsourced factories to only briefly present themselves as safe environments, for non-United States cotton be falsely sold as organic and for brands to donate cheap and no-longer-trendy clothes for publicity, than to invest the time and money required to be genuinely sustainable.
The origin of fast fashion as we know it today began in tandem with the origin of nearly every consumable item: The Industrial Revolution. Production factories embedded practices such as quantity over quality, regulated sizes and cost-cutting wherever possible. As marketing became aggressive and materials became cheaper, companies began to produce more in order to sell more. Society started to view clothing as disposable and temporary. The concepts of altering clothing to suit its owner, patching clothes back up when torn and reusing the fabric of otherwise tattered items are little more than antiquated since the turn of the century.
Because the clothing industry demands such a large quantity of clothing so frequently, harmful chemicals are used to manipulate crop production to produce the most material in as short a time period as possible. The declining amount of biodiversity is incredibly stressful on the soil as it depletes it of some elements while filling it excessively with others. Farmers often attempt to fix this imbalance with fertilizers and other supplements, which are frequently useful only in the short-term and negatively impact both the soil and the farmers. According to Pesticide Action Network UK, these affect the land by “decreas[ing] the general biodiversity in the soil. Soil quality is higher without chemicals and this allows for higher water retention, necessary for plants to grow.” The more unnatural chemical solutions are applied to a naturally rich environment, the more drained and barren that environment becomes. A once-bountiful property may turn into a desolate wasteland after several years of treatment, and farmers will have to look elsewhere for nutritious land to plant on. To keep up with rising demand, farmers will use a piece of land, pump chemicals through it until it becomes unusable, then find another larger piece of land only to make it just as barren. Clearly, this process cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.
So, cut out the chemicals, right? Organic farming is heavily debated, particularly whether organic cotton production would be beneficial overall, but most of this debate revolves around organic cotton’s inability to fully compete with conventional cotton’s crop production rates. Because more chemicals are used to manipulate crop production in conventional farming, which includes exhausting the soil of natural resources, they tend to have moderate to significantly higher crop yields. The American Council on Science and Health confirms that “the overall average is that organic farming produces 20% fewer crops.” When deciding if organic or inorganic cotton is superior in sustainability practices, producers and consumers alike need to consider the extreme variety of ways that organic methods affect the soil.
Organic is not intrinsically biodiverse, soil-health focused or moderated supplementation. Farms that promote themselves as organic can be just as guilty of ravaging soil for profit as non-organic farms. Natural does not equate to beneficial in every case.
The current alternative to natural fibers, however, is no better for the health of the environment. Synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, spandex and acrylic are produced using chemicals and plastics that, as reported by Greta Eagan, “come with a heavy dose of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). According to the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], PFCs have been classified as cancer-causing compounds.” Eagan cites that this carcinogenic characteristic can seep into the soil, water and even the open air. These cancer-causing chemicals could “be absorbed or inhaled directly” by anyone unlucky enough to walk near a clothing factory.
Once synthetically constructed clothing leaves the factory, they continue to incrementally poison water sources and human health. A National Geographic article by Alejandra Borunda states that, though the microscopic size of microfibers could imply very few consequences, “more than 600,000 tons of plastic microfibers are estimated to enter the ocean each year, shed from fleece, polyester, and other synthetic fabrics during washing.” Greta Eagan notes that, once these bits of waste enter the environment, they can “take anywhere from two hundred to four hundred years to biodegrade…contribut[ing] to major shifts in our natural atmospheric balance.” The longevity of synthetic textiles seems appealing until the consumer understands that they stick around in every part of the textile’s life, including death.
Besides the textiles used for production, the dyes and finishes on many pieces seep out of the textile and eventually into ocean water once they are washed. Because of all of the evidence available for the dangerous qualities of synthetic materials and solutions, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created a rule in 2003 that raised the standards for clothing operations whose emissions were deemed dangerous upon exposure, stating that exposure to certain chemical “substances has been demonstrated to cause adverse health effects…the EPA has classified two [of these chemicals]…as probable or possible human carcinogens.” As progressive as this rule was in regarding the health of factory workers, it only applies to the United States. Other countries may not necessarily be required to serve under these regulations, so in cases of outsourcing, it is decided by the customer whether to support a manufacturing plant that considers the dangers of certain chemicals used in textile production.
Clothing’s lack of sustainability does not end at its production, however. Cheap clothing often has a shelf life. If it does not go out of style first, then its weak structural integrity will inevitably render a sloppily-stitched t-shirt useless. Andrew Brooks claims that a majority of consumers, having paid a likely inconsequential amount for said piece, will consider a ruined garment to not be worth the hassle of repair, since “garments are priced far too low to reflect their true social and ecological value as capital mobility and excess global labour.” A plain t-shirt can be found at the same price as a few rolls of paper towels; if priced in such a manner as to imply that a purchase is not an investment, customers will not treat said product as an investment and will therefore deem repair and maintenance unnecessary.
According to Greta Eagan, pressures to remain current and fashionable as well as physical defects on a textile such as stains or tears encourage consumers to rotate their entire wardrobe on a regular basis: “By 2011 the average American was purchasing sixty-eight new wardrobe items a year…[they also] throw out an average of sixty-eight pounds of clothing each year, which amounts to 13.1 million tons of textile waste that goes to US landfills each and every year … 95 percent of that waste is … recyclable.”
Clothes that are thrown into landfills are considered solid waste. Natural materials such as cotton, hemp and wool begin the biodegradation process, but synthetic materials including dyes and finishes remain for decades longer. Runoff from rain rinsing synthetic fibers, dyes and finishes all seep into the soil and poison the surrounding area, rending it unfit for plant growth of any kind for an indeterminate amount of time. While creating trash is incredibly easy, there are innumerable alternative options that generate a significantly lesser amount of garbage.
The next, most obvious option is for consumers to donate their clothing to thrift stores. Once clothing is collected from large donation bins behind the store, employees sort out what is able to be sold and what is not. Clothing that is not sellable is not wasted, however. Stained or torn clothing as well as a majority of the clothing donated to collection boxes is all put to use. Unsellable clothing will be torn into smaller rags and is often sold for insulation or stuffing for anything from car seats to mattresses. Clothing that is able to be sold will be put out in the store, but only for three to five weeks. After that period, thrift stores will pull clothing off the racks and bring it into larger warehouses and have it sold by the pound. Clothing that is still unsold from the warehouses will be thrown into a large bundle that is sold by the pound at a much lower rate, then after that, into bundles weighing over a ton, sold by the ton. The customers of these earlier processes are often resellers or hobbyists, and of the later processes, foreign countries in need. Though this clothing is put to good use, this process still creates waste, especially if the largest bundles are not sold. Consumers can continue to reduce the amount of waste they produce by reusing, repurposing, and selling the clothing that they no longer want to wear before considering donation.
By foremost, confronting consumers with the reality of their clothing’s origins and providing education for less impactful solutions, demands for new and cheaply produced clothing will decrease resulting in proportionally decreased demand in cotton production. This reduces overall pesticide, water, land and energy use, thus demanding less from the soil, which then requires less chemical-based growth assistance for high quantities of fiber production. The overall impact of the clothing industry will decrease with less consumer interest and support.