The fashion industry has been dodging a colossal optics problem, but the aftermath of holiday shopping may finally expose prominent fashion houses for their part in contributing to environmental degradation. The metrics of the fashion industry’s dire environmental impacts are daunting:
- More than 100 billion apparel items are manufactured annually — more than double the fashion industry’s production in 2000 — signaling a problematic upsurge in textile sourcing and processing.
- 92 million tons of textile waste is produced annually — the equivalent of one truckload full of clothes dumped in a landfill every second.
- The average U.S. consumer buys 60 percent more clothes than at the turn of the century, keeps them for roughly half as long, and throws away 81.5 lbs. of clothes each year.
- The fashion industry is responsible for nearly 10 percent of global carbon dioxide output – more than international flights and shipping combined.
- Raw material extraction, dyeing/finishing processes, and fiber production, contribute to global CO2 emissions and over 20 percent of global water pollution.
- Globally, only 12 percent of clothing is recycled.
- Nearly 10 percent of microplastics detected in the ocean come from clothing textiles.
The “Overconsumption Culture” and Its Progeny: The ‘Buy & Return Culture’ & ‘The Throwaway Culture’ Yield Prolific Waste
The devastating facts speak for themselves, but besides being responsible for considerable greenhouse gas emissions, exploiting natural resources, and dumping millions of clothes in landfills every day, the fashion industry handily fosters an overconsumption culture wherein ‘fast fashion’ (cheap, mass-produced items that chase short-term style fads) is in high demand. The overconsumption mindset fueled by social media is simply: If it’s no longer in style, it cannot be worn again.
Because of society’s rampant “buy and return” subculture, clothing is increasingly returned to retailers who largely do not restock, repurpose, or reuse the items, but simply dispose of unwanted fabrics, leaving such to accumulate in landfills. Not to mention, the growing “throwaway culture,” emboldened by the fast fashion trend — and an increasing number of brands marketing disposable, affordable, copycat apparel — many garments are worn only seven to ten times before being discarded.
While some argue that fast-fashion companies and consumers are too-easily scapegoated for the environmental impacts of the aggregate global fashion industry, fast fashion’s mission of mass production has undeniably resulted in a dramatic increase in textile production, which derivatively translates to a dramatic surge in pre- and post-production waste. For instance, due to the large and varied number of patterns to accommodate the spike in garment production, an excessive amount of materials are wasted because they cannot be re-purposed. Production volume alone in today’s largest fast-fashion houses is staggering, with estimates of popular brands producing 20,000 new styles each year.
Most recently, copycat fashion productions with markedly lower price tags than brand-name originals, affectionately coined “dupes,” are being blamed for fostering the mindset of overconsumption that has caused clothing to become increasingly disposable. Fashion’s latest “dupes” trend is fueling the overconsumption mindset. Consumers are buying into the social media dupe frenzy, utilizing direct links to fast-fashion websites — a marketing ploy that thrived this holiday season. The 2022 holiday dupes season unequivocally exacerbated fashion waste: shoppers bought clothes they intended to return and concurrently tossed old clothes to make space for the latest trending dupes. With the pandemic in the rearview mirror, according to market research, consumers were more likely to buy not only dupes, but holiday dress clothes and travel apparel. Retailers urged shoppers to buy, buy, buy in order to clear out inventory accumulated due to unprecedented supply-chain delays — much of which remains untouched and inevitably queued for disposal in landfills.
Fast Fashion Boom → Surge in CO2 Emissions
Truth be told, aside from apparel manufacturing, shopping for clothes itself — whether in person or online — results in alarming CO2 emissions. Today’s fast-fashion houses are transporting garments across the world to meet consumers’ “next day” delivery demands by rail, road, sea and air, yielding a discernible carbon footprint. Add on returns of the ugly sweaters, ill-fitting joggers, and not-so-duplicate dupes, holiday-shopping fallout is estimated to create CO2 emissions equivalent to 3.5 million cars on the road for a year.
Synthetic Fibers Make Recycling Impractical & Shed Microplastics in Waterways
The recent explosive growth in the industry’s use of synthetic fibers has made the process of recycling textile waste increasingly difficult, if not impracticable. Whereas cotton and wood fiber textiles decompose quickly (a cotton shirt takes 6 months to decompose and a wool sock can break down in 5 years), synthetic fibers like Lycra and polyester take centuries to break down. Sorting clothing by material to recycle is labor intensive and requires a skilled workforce, not to mention the process of transforming blended fabrics into reusable yarn requires the use of aggressive chemical solvents, which contributes to further environmental harm. The fashion industry remains encumbered with inadequate technologies to effectively, efficiently, and affordably recycle clothing. Thus, regrettably it becomes more convenient to toss unwanted garments in landfills. Today’s fashion is further environmentally problematic because synthetic fibers that are both hardy, durable, versatile, and inexpensive are a significant source of microplastic contamination. With each laundry cycle, research demonstrates garments shed microfilaments that travel through sewage systems and ultimately end up in waterways, impacting ecosystems and drinking water.
Fashionistas, Do Not Despair!
While the fashion industry’s statistics are daunting indeed, there is a glimmer of hope. Increasingly, more and more high-end and sustainable brands are offering trade-in programs whereby the consumer may return worn clothing in exchange for credit to purchase new apparel, therein creating a truly circular fashion economy. Savvy consumers are taking the fashion industry’s environmental dilemma into their own hands. Secondhand shopping, once reserved for charity, is now a booming industry reportedly thanks to “college culture.” With little time to take on full-time jobs, college students find thrifting to be a lucrative side hustle, with the added bonus of not contributing to the fast-fashion economy. But thrifting is not just appealing to collegiate shoppers. Inflation has all consumers increasingly bargain hunting with re-commerce reportedly growing nearly 15 percent in 2021. At the end of the day, thrifting may salvage the fashion industry’s reputation by shifting consumers’ focus (intentionally or not) toward recycling and repurposing textiles, and away from fast fashion’s mass production and perilous waste.