Dressed To Kill: How Fashion Is Harmful to the Environment

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T-shirt made of 100% organic materials.

Environmental damage and questionable fiber content are so last season. Instead, the hottest fashion trends destined to dominate the runways of Paris and Milan are sustainable, eco-friendly garments.

Many of the fashion industry’s negative environmental impacts stem from the production of the materials used to create clothing. These impacts include everything from carbon emissions and other pollutants pumped from factories into the atmosphere, to poorly managed resources, to the usage of toxic chemicals and dyes, to water pollution and wastage, to rainforest deforestation.

Garment manufacturing is one of the heaviest polluting trades in the world, right alongside the petroleum and paper production industries. However, unlike those industries, the extensive damage done in the name of fashion is often ambiguous.

For example, something as mundane as a single white cotton t-shirt or a pair of jeans has a tremendous impact on the environment, specifically on the global supply of fresh water. Cotton requires a lot of water, and in order to grow enough to create a single white t-shirt, over 700 gallons of water is needed. The creation of a pair of jeans can require up to 1,500 gallons of water. This is especially problematic considering the earth has a very limited supply of drinkable water.

Furthermore, processing cotton requires a high amount of toxic chemicals and other contaminants, which can poison both garment workers as well as members of their local communities. 

Cotton isn’t the only culprit, either. Materials such as rayon and viscose, both of which are common in the production of cheap fast-fashion garments, are often made from cellulose fibers derived from old-growth trees in endangered rainforests. Not only is processing the wood pulp into a textile a very toxic procedure, it’s also highly inefficient — it wastes about 60% of the tree during the chemical breakdown.

Aside from the natural fibers and materials, a lot of clothes are now manufactured using low-cost synthetics like polyester. In some ways, these materials can be considered more eco-friendly than environmentally demanding materials such as cotton. For example, the production of polyester doesn’t require nearly as much water as cotton and isn’t subjected to the application of toxic fertilizers or pesticides.

However, as a petroleum-based product, polyester’s carbon footprint is astronomical, ranging from the amount of energy needed to transform and refine the petroleum into a wearable fabric to the carbon emissions produced to transport it.

On top of this, every time polyester and other synthetic textiles are laundered, small amounts of microfibers leech into the water, much of which eventually ends up in streams, rivers, lakes, and even oceans. Although the amounts are tiny, they add up over time and have already caused physical damage to various aquatic ecosystems. Plastic-laced water has also already been consumed by humans, but the effects are so far unknown.

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Animal Welfare in the Fashion Industry

Some of the most common materials used in high-quality clothing production are derived from animals — leather, fur, silk, and wool, just to name a few. Because of prominent animal welfare groups such as the often controversial People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), consumers have become increasingly aware and concerned about how animals used for clothing manufacturing are treated.

While many are critical of large-scale industrial cow and sheep farms for exploiting animals to produce leather and wool, it’s fur that earns the most ire from the public. According to the Humane Society International (HSI), in 2014 approximately 70 million mink and 4 million foxes were bred in captivity for the sole purpose of creating fur clothing. On top of that, fur farms have a long history of mistreating their animals by keeping them tightly restricted and in poor health.

While one can argue that wool doesn’t kill sheep, and that leather is a byproduct of an animal that’s also being used for food, it’s hard to make a similar argument for fur, which is currently rarely used for practical purposes.

Pulled Up by the Bootstraps: Efforts Made by the Fashion Industry

Although far from completely abolishing the use of animal-based materials altogether, many fashion companies have responded to the public outcry in varying degrees. In fact, major luxury fashion brands such as Versace and Gucci have officially eliminated fur from their designs.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are some companies that are cracking down on their checkered supply chains.

H&M, a major fast-fashion retailer, is well known for their commitment to sustainability. Although they still sell clothing made from raw animal-based materials, they implement a strict animal welfare policy to ensure that all animals involved in the production of their clothing are treated ethically. The various rules set forth by the policy provides suppliers with a comprehensive list of standards that must be adhered to in order to continue doing business with H&M.

The policy is designed to dig deep into multiple levels of their supply chain by focusing on traceability, farm auditing, education, and collaboration. H&M specifically collaborates with suppliers and farmers to identify problematic areas in animal treatment and take steps to improve them.

Putting Their Thinking Caps On: The Role of R&D in Fashion Textiles

Organically produced cottons blended with alternative fibers such as hemp or bamboo have become increasingly popular among brands and designers. Others are also using hemp and bamboo in their pure forms.

Some companies, instead of focusing on new twists on traditional materials or rabbit holes in the supply chain, are turning to research and development in order to develop biosynthetic materials and render animal-based garments obsolete.

A few innovative companies with a strong focus in bioengineering, such as Bolt Threads, have developed lab-grown leather materials. This company grows their leather from mycelium (a vegetative part of a fungus). They also recently developed a knit fabric designed to mimic the strength, durability, softness, and elasticity of spider silk.

With a little creativity and an open mind, many other textile engineers are also looking to surprising and often overlooked sources to fabricate new alternative materials. For example, one biomaterial textile company called AlgiKnit develops materials made from kelp, a highly renewable resource that can be grown and cultivated rapidly all over the world.

And one Dutch artist and entrepreneur named Jalila Essaidi has actually developed a cellulose fabric from cow manure called Mestic. And no, it doesn’t look... as one might expect. While it has yet to be widely used in commercial fashion, Mestic has already been featured in fashion shows and has even caught the attention of retail giant and sustainability proponent H&M.

This article is Part One of a three-part investigative series. In Part Two, publishing tomorrow on Insights, we will examine the ways in which a fractured supply chain leads to hidden social and human rights issues. 


Image Credit: Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock.com

Image Credit: Tero Vesalainen

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