13.1 million tons of clothing is thrown out every year in the US alone. Yep, you read that right! You can only imagine how much is sent to the trash, around the world.
Thanks to fast fashion and low-wage manufacturing opportunities in poor countries, clothes have become cheap disposable items that we keep for just one season and move on to the next with a new wardrobe.
While keeping up with new trends is fashionable, a lot of damage comes with it. Synthetic chemicals and dyes produced by the textile industry cause almost 20% of industrial water pollution. Additionally, so much water goes to waste while producing clothes. For instance, 2.6 percent of our global water is used to produce cotton alone.
The damage is not limited to the environment. People working in clothing factories work in deplorable conditions and earn close to nothing.
When it comes to our precious animals, millions are killed each year for their fur and skin.
These are just a few reasons why we need to embrace sustainable fashion. Sustainable clothing leaves you looking good and trendy while helping the environment, people, and animals.
Sustainability issues in the fashion industry
There are a whole lot of issues brought up by the fashion industry. Let’s take a look at the most impactful ones:
The fashion industry is the second-largest polluter in the world after the oil industry.
The environmental damage caused by the fashion industry continues to increase by the day. Most clothing factories dump untreated toxic wastewaters directly into the rivers.
This type of waste contains chemicals like lead, mercury, and arsenic, among others. These chemicals are extremely harmful to aquatic life. They also cause a myriad of health problems for millions of people living near those rivers banks.
Toxic chemicals are not only produced during the manufacturing process but also during production. Fertilizers used to produce cotton heavily pollute runoff and evaporation waters adding to water contamination around the world.
And the kicker is, as the fashion industry continues to contaminate water, it’s also a major consumer of freshwater. Tons of freshwater is used in the dyeing and finishing process for all of our clothes.
The global fashion industry is also one of the highest emitters of greenhouse gases. Synthetic fibers such as polyester, acrylic, nylon, etc., used in the majority of our clothes, are made from fossil fuel. These fibers require much more energy-intensive production than natural fibers.
Related article: What is Fast Fashion?
While the fashion industry may brag of creating thousands of jobs around the world, the annual wages paid to the workers are nothing to brag about.
Most clothing companies have their clothes made in third world countries where labor is cheap and even though they pay the workers minimum wage, this is not even enough to cover their basic needs.
To produce clothes cheaply, major fashion brands often relocate their production facilities to Third World countries where anyone willing to work gets a job, including children.
Because of the high level of poverty in these countries, children are forced to work in order to contribute to the family budget.
For instance, there is a program in South India where 250,000 girls from poor families work in textile factories for three or five years in exchange for a basic wage and a lump sum payment at the end to pay for their dowry.
These girls, like most other child workers, are overworked and live in really bad conditions. They also don’t get to enjoy their fundamental right to education.
Health and safety of workers
In addition to receiving poor wages, workers in the fashion industry work in conditions that put their health at risk.
Most of the apparel production units are cheaply and shoddily constructed. The employees usually work with no ventilation, breath in toxic substances, inhale fiber dust, or blasted sand.
Furthermore, workers have to endure long-term exposure to pesticides, lead-based dyes, and poisoning from chemicals, leaving them at the risk of suffering from respiratory diseases, impaired memory, seizures, and extreme depression and palpitation, among other conditions.
Animal abuse is a huge problem in the fashion industry. Animals are tortured for their fur, skin, or hide. These animals are bred in captivity and killed to harvest their skin and hide. Animals like snakes and crocodiles are bred for the sole purpose of extracting skin to make shoes, handbags, and other accessories.
Millions of fish die every year from water pollution caused by pesticides from cotton farming and dyes from textile processing that wash into rivers.
Related article: Fashion Industry Facts
What is sustainable & ethical fashion?
Sustainable fashion causes minimal impact on the environment.
According to the sustainability-focused consultancy firm Green Strategy, “sustainable fashion can be defined as clothing, shoes, and accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects.”
Ethical fashion focuses on sourcing, manufacturing, and designing clothes in a manner that maximizes the benefits to the industry and society at large while minimizing the impacts on the environment, people, and animals.
Sustainable and ethical fashion, therefore, promotes morally right and acceptable processes in the manner clothes are produced and even sold. This involves using natural resources — like water, land, and soil — efficiently and carefully. In fact, what is preferred is the use of renewable energy sources.
Sustainable fashion also ensures that the working conditions on the field, in factories, in transportation, and in stores are as ethical as possible.
How to shop and dress environmentally friendly? (Tips)
1. Be more informed
Embracing ethical fashion can only be possible and easy if you understand what it entails. So do some research to understand what sustainable fashion is, why it is important, where to start, and where/what to shop.
Research your favorite brands to find out what their stand is on sustainability and ethical fashion. Are they actively trying to incorporate sustainability into their manufacturing process? Are they employing ethical practices when sourcing for materials and in the way they handle their workers? Do they have programs or projects in support of employee development, and/or environment and animal protection?
Also, try to look out for certifications and badges that show the brands have met certain ethical standards.
2. Embrace second-hand clothing
Reusing is one of the best ways of promoting sustainability in the fashion industry. Instead of buying new clothes, which encourages brands to produce more clothes, consider buying second-hand clothes.
You can buy second-hand clothing from vintage/second-hand clothing stores, or accept clothing that is handed down or swapped with friends and family.
Second-hand clothes are cheap, unique, and even vintage and can’t be found anywhere else. Swapping clothes with friends and family can also be quite fun. Bring your friends together and swap clothes you no longer need or wear. Often, you’ll have more variety and the quality is better than the high priced, low-quality clothes in most stores.
Most second-hand stores donate proceeds from their sales to charities. So by buying second-hand clothing you’ll be supporting a good cause by extension.
3. Buy quality, ethical clothing
Every once in a while there will be something you need that you can’t buy or receive second hand.
When you go shopping for new clothes, buy from brands you know follow strict ethical values, and promote sustainability.
Secondly, buy high-quality clothes that will last a long time and won’t go out of style in just a few seasons. This way, you won’t have to replace them after just a few wears.
4. Choose your fabrics wisely
Some fabrics are much more eco-friendly and sustainable than others. Learn about all the fabrics out there and how each impacts the environment.
Understand the origins of these materials so that when you’re shopping for clothes you can buy the ones made from ethical and sustainable fabrics.
5. Invest in trans-seasonal clothes
Fast fashion is often fueled by the need to dress the part for each season. We want to have specific dresses for summer, pairs denim for spring, special shoes for winter, and so on. This means you buy new clothing as the seasons change.
To avoid this kind of wasteful shopping, only buy clothing items that you know are going to work for you all-year-round regardless of the season. It will be wasteful to buy an entire summer wardrobe each year when you live in a cold and rainy city.
Instead, go for pieces that will see you through more than one season such as Jeans, T-shirts, classic dresses, timeless coats, and jackets.
6. Take care of the clothes you already have so they last longer
If you buy high-quality clothes, they are more likely to last longer and if you take good care of them, they will last even longer.
Look after your clothing properly and you won’t have to keep replacing them every so often. Store your cashmere properly, wash your denim inside out, just do anything to ensure your clothes stay at their best for longer.
This not only does some good to the environment but to your wallet too.
7. Learn how to repair clothing yourself or use a good tailor
No need to throw out a dress just because the zipper broke or the slit ripped. Learn how to repair it and if you can’t or don’t have the time to do it, pay a professional to do it.
Don’t use a missing button as an excuse to buy something new. Just because it’s broken doesn’t mean it belongs in the trash bin, simply repair it.
8. Go for quality over quantity
High-quality, ethical clothing may cost you a lot more money than buying a cheap high-street product. However, it is worth it in the long run. It’s better to have one item that will last years, than have three that will only last you a couple of months.
Buying just 10 high-quality items a year, instead of 60 cheaper, less eco-friendly pieces will dramatically reduce your carbon footprint. So, save up, buy less, and invest in high-quality items.
9. Donate your unwanted clothes
I’m pretty sure you have a suitcase in your closet full of clothes that you no longer wear. Or a side of your closet with clothes you haven’t even looked at for a long while now. Instead of having them pile up there give them away to someone who needs them.
Donating your unwanted clothes to a good cause will have more people buying second-hand clothes and, therefore more people will be promoting sustainable fashion.
And to continue keeping your wardrobe clutter-free, live by the one-in, one-out policy. So every time you buy something, donate something else in your wardrobe.
Where to buy sustainable clothing
More and more brands are starting to pay attention and focus on producing sustainable products. It’s now much easier to find gorgeous ethical fashion items that you’ll love. Here are five of our favorite ethical fashion brands:
Everlane focuses on bringing you ethically-made clothing items that you can wear year long. With Everlane clothing you can easily turn basics into bold, trendy fashion statements that will stand out no matter the season.
PACT clothing is all made following strict fair trade values. From leggings to underwear, tees to hoodies PACT’s clothing will leave your entire family looking gorgeous and feeling comfortable. Their clothing items are known to last ages.
ThredUp is the shop of choice for a new sustainable wardrobe without emptying your wallet. ThredUp is an online thrift shop with sales of up to 90% off. The brand stocks clothes made by ethical clothing brands but at very affordable prices. Each clothing item is thoroughly examined to make sure it’s in mint condition before reselling.
4. People Tree
When it comes to fair trade clothing, UK based People Tree is a pioneer. All of the brand’s clothing pieces are made using eco-friendly and organic fabrics. The company also follows strict fair trade practices. People Tree’s clothing is beautiful, timeless and stays fashionable all year round.
Looking for soft, trendy eco-friendly tees and sweatshirts? Check out Kotn. The tees are made using soft, fine, and remarkably breathable and sustainable Egyptian cotton. The brand’s products are comfortable enough for everyday wear. In addition to producing eco-friendly products, Kotn also ensures that its employees enjoy fair and equal pay as well as safe working conditions.
Related article: Ethical Fashion Brands
Which fabrics are the most sustainable?
Not all fabrics are made equal. Some are quite harmful to the environment and should be avoided at all costs. When shopping for sustainable fashion be sure to check what fabric was used to make the clothing.
Here are some of the most eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics:
- Organic cotton: While cotton is a natural biodegradable fiber, it is also one of the fabrics with the most environmental impact. It takes so much water to grow it and most people use toxic pesticides. When shopping for cotton clothing, always go for organic cotton. This type of cotton is grown without pesticides, therefore, causing less damage to the workers as well as nearby flora and fauna.
- Hemp: Hemp is certainly one of the most eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics. It’s breathable, warm, moisture-wicking, and antibacterial. Hemp also lasts a very long time and in fact, gets softer as you continue to wash and wear it. Hemp is biodegradable and doesn’t require a lot of water to grow to make it highly sustainable.
- Linen: Linen is a great biodegradable, eco-friendly fiber made from flax. It’s highly durable, breathable, lightweight, absorbent, antimicrobial, and moth-resistant.
- Bamboo: Bamboo has become a popular fabric due to its awesome qualities. Bamboo is easy to grow and grows very first making it quick to replace. It lasts really long and is a natural antibacterial, repels odors, doesn’t pull, and is super soft.
- Recycled nylon: Nylon is loved by many especially for swimwear. However, it’s made from oil and is plastic fiber. Thankfully, recycled nylon makes a perfect sustainable alternative. Recycled nylon is made from recycled plastic making it perfect for sustainable bikinis, rainwear, and other items too.
- Peace Silk: Peace silk is ethically sourced silk that pays attention to the welfare of the Silkworms. With normal silk, the silkworm cocoons are boiled with the worms still inside to make silk. But with peace silk, the silkworms are given the time to develop into moths, and their empty cocoons are then collected to create peace silk. The beauty of peace silk is that it’s cruelty-free and has the same gleam and gloss as regular silk.
- Wool: Wool is another natural material, grown naturally by sheep, goats, alpacas, etc. It’s really warm, high quality, and biodegradable. When buying wool products ensure that the brands you buy from promote cruelty-free practices and produce their clothing sustainably.
Related article: Ethical Fabrics
What are the worst fabrics for the environment?
- Elastane (aka Spandex or Lycra)
What makes these some of the worst fabrics, is that they are made from fossil fuels extracted from the ground in a process that badly impacts the environment. Fossil fuels are also the highest emitters of greenhouse gases thus causing air pollution.
These fabrics also shed microfibres when washed and once you throw them away, they take hundreds of years to degrade.
Are clothes bad for the environment?
Not all clothes are bad for the environment. What makes clothes bad is the manner in which the materials used are sourced as well as the conditions under which the clothes are manufactured.
Some of the materials used to make clothes are sourced in ways that affect the environment such as using pesticides and/or too much water to grow them, using too much energy to process them, or even having to cut down trees and kill animals to make them.
Another thing that makes clothes bad for the environment is that they create waste. People nowadays buy more clothes than they need and throw out clothes so fast that our landfills are full of clothes. Most of these clothes are made from materials that cannot be recycled and that take hundreds of years to degrade.
However, there are companies and brands that are truly committed to eradicating these harmful issues created by clothes by embracing ethical and sustainable fashion.
As individuals, we can also make changes so that the way we shop and dress can have less of an impact on the environment.