Is my closet harming the environment?

New event, new outfit.

The high demand to buy newly popular clothes as quickly as they become a trend is known as “fast fashion.” Fueled by social media influencers and celebrities, many people experience “Fashion FOMO”: the anxious need to keep up with changing trends and buying the cheaper version of these outfits as quickly as possible. However, meeting this demand comes at the expense of workers’ health and environmental pollution. These garments are made through outsourced labor in developing countries where workers are underpaid and in poor working conditions. They are also made of cheap fibers that are manufactured with toxic chemicals and practices that harm workers, consumers, and the environment.

When we purchase from these companies, are we thinking about the environmental impact? And what can we do to be both fashionable and responsible to climate and health impacts of our choices?

The fashion industry is the fourth largest polluter in the world following energy, transport, and agriculture, responsible for 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually through waste and manufacturing. This contributes to global climate change, worsening air quality, decreasing food security, and increasing the frequency of extreme weather. Wasteful practices also cause immediate harm at the site of production, especially through water shortages. Cotton needs approximately 20,000 liters of water to produce one outfit and irrigation can deplete aquifers, rivers, and lakes. Over 2 billion people worldwide are affected by water shortages with the hubs for manufacturing and irrigation such as India, Bangladesh, China, and Vietnam suffering the most from water shortages.

These processes contribute not just to water shortages in vulnerable countries, they can destroy large-scale ecosystems. The Aral Sea in China once was one of the largest lakes in the world, and is now almost entirely dried up due to rigorous industrial cotton farming.

Because the business model for many fast fashion companies relies on rapid production and clothing that is not expected to last, fast fashion disproportionately contributes to environmental pollution. Unused clothing is often dumped in landfills as waste and approximately 500,000 tons of clothing are exported annually from the United States to developing countries where they are discarded into waterways and fields. These cheaply made clothes are also carcinogenic as 40% of the dyes used contain hazardous chemicals. Studies have found an increase in bladder, colorectal, and lung cancer among individuals that work in textile production. In addition, exposure to these hazardous materials can lead to lung related illnesses such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). These chemical exposures extend past the worker as discarding these fabrics into leaching landfills release toxins into nearby waterways, predominately affecting residents of low-income neighborhoods near the landfills.

That is why it is important to hold fast fashion companies and ourselves accountable as consumers. We buy outfits we never wear or wear once, donate them to charities or thrift shops that become overwhelmed, and the clothing is exported to landfills; continuing the cycle.

Though there have been small improvements recently in the fashion industry, sustainable solutions aren’t being implemented fast enough to offset the negative environmental impacts, especially within fast fashion companies. Advocates can provide solutions to policymakers by promoting import taxes for garments and textiles or placing caps on annual weight or quantities imported from LMICs.

As consumers we can choose to shop from sustainable brands which produce longer lasting, better quality garments. Though they are slightly more expensive, they can be worn more often, they save you money in the long run, and they lower your environmental footprint. When shopping, look for clothing that is made from 100% organic cotton, as this uses 88% less water and 62% less energy than traditional cotton. Another alternative is to re-use clothing to limit the harms of manufacturing, either through thrifting and renting clothes, or by upcycling. An upcycler might reassemble fabrics to make a different style, making a blouse and skirt from an old dress or creating pants out of curtains. Along with advocacy for systemic changes, these individual actions promote sustainable production, ethical consumption of clothes, and encourage the ideal that less is more.

About the Author:

Janeil McCalla is a Climate and Health Associate within the Emergency, Preparedness, Response, and Recovery portfolio at the National Network for Public Health Institutes (NNPHI) and an ecoAmerica Climate Ambassador. Janeil address gaps in climate and environmental health initiatives, and provides project coordinating support through research and analysis of carbon reduction plans and best practices across the United States.

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