Take a second to consider pollution. Picture the widespread images of trash-covered beaches, wildlife swimming in streams of waste or clouds of grey smoke rising into the sky. Anti-straw and reusable bottle campaigns are on the rise in an effort to reduce waste. Where does this waste come from? Plastic? Oil? Yes. But another culprit has arisen in 21st-century fast-fashion: the fashion industry.
Annually, the average American disposes of 70 pounds of clothing, which is approximately 11.4 million tons of textile waste contributed by the American people. When these massive amounts of textile waste are sent to landfills or incinerators, it contributes greatly to the emission of greenhouse gases, and thus to global warming. The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world, trailing only the oil business, and this must be addressed.
It is important to break down the concept of fast fashion as an alternative to traditional. In a traditional fashion model, two complete cycles of production and distribution occur each year. With recent fast fashion, fifty cycles occur per year, putting an obvious strain on the earth and its resources.
“Fast-changing trends and low prices have allowed people to consume more. The average consumer is now purchasing 60 percent more items of clothing compared to 2000, but each garment is kept half as long,” according to the World Resources Institute. Additionally, the average consumer bought 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2000 but kept the garment for less than half of the time.
Not only does the disposal of fashion contribute to pollution, the production of the clothes themselves puts a large strain on the global water supply. According to the World Resources Institute, it takes 2,700 liters of water, equivalent to the amount one person drinks in 2-and-a-half years, to make one cotton shirt. If all Ursuline students own at least one cotton shirt, that is over 2 million liters of water. This seems like a large number, but it is just a fraction of the truth. In production, global fabric dyeing uses 5 trillion liters each year.
So, what do the actual clothing items contribute? Most clothes in the modern day are made from synthetic fibers such as polyester, spandex and nylon, while others are made from natural fibers. Athletic wear may be an easier choice, but its harder on the environment. “The big difference is that cotton is natural and will be degraded, digested and disappear into the environment very quickly; as opposed to synthetic microfibers, which will remain in the environment and float around for ages,” says Dimitri Deheyn for Teen Vogue.
Microplastics are generated when fabric material degrades, and are present in bottled water, table salt and fish. If confusion remains as to why Lululemon leggings are not floating among plastic waste in the aforementioned images , it is because the microplastics are virtually invisible particles that have a very visible impact on the world. “The tiny fragments are approximately 10- to 20-times smaller than the width of human hair, so you won’t see any jarring images of sea life visibly affected by them, but multiple studies confirm they’re infiltrating waterways and oceans,” says Teen Vogue.
As a washing machine turns, a routine, daily process in most households, the microfibers are separated from the clothing and swept away with the wastewater, because there is no trap for them such as a dryer has. The washing of textiles made from synthetic materials contributes to 35% of all releases of microfibers globally into the oceans, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. And the fibers do not break down. Every plastic fiber that has ever been produced is somewhere on the earth, unless it has been burned. “The way I see it: We live in a soup of those microfibers and microplastics that float around us [and] we breathe [them]s ,” says Deheyn.
Consider this: It is estimated that about three-to-five million microfiber pieces are in the human body at one time. And as this is a recent issue, researchers and doctors do not know whether or not this will negatively impact global health in the future.
Companies like Patagonia are actively searching for more eco-friendly ways to minimize their carbon footprint, including the use of materials like recycled polyester and nylon. Lenzing works to develop natural alternatives to synthetic fibers, many of which are already used by a wide range of brands including Patagonia, Reformation, prAna, Gap and Levi’s. The corporations are looking into identical substitutes such as Lyocell fiber TENCEL, Modal and EcoVero and similar materials according to Teen Vogue.
There are various ways in which consumers can work to eliminate the issue. Minimizing the number of washed loads, investing in a washing bag which acts as a filter or buying clothes more consciously and less often can minimize the pollution problem. It is important for big producers, small companies, consumers and others to step in, acknowledge the issue, and work to fix it. If people are informed and aware, the problem will be minimized, and the earth will face a smaller threat from the textile industry.