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Environmental Impacts of Fashion

Simply put, “Sustainability is about sustaining things – most obviously our planet.” - Anna Fitzpatrick (Centre for Sustainable Fashion). With fast fashion currently being all the rage, fashion is having an extremely negative impact on the environment. In fact, the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Sustainability issues can range from the growing and manufacturing of the materials used to make the clothes, to the transportation of finished product.

Think of fast fashion like fast food: “Mass-produced clothing, like fast food, fills a hunger and need, yet is non-durable and wasteful. Home sewn garments, similar to home cooked foods, are made with care and sustenance.” — Sarah Kate Beaumont. Fast fashion produces clothes quickly and cheaply, with the intention of being thrown in the trash as soon as we are done with them. Today, we are going to be looking at the sustainability issues in the first part of garment production: the growing and production of common materials. Clothes used to be made from more sustainable fabrics such as wool and linen; nowadays, our clothes are mostly made with either cotton (natural) or synthetic (not natural) fibers such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic.

Cotton requires a lot of water to grow and pesticides are commonly used to grow crops. It is also a very thirsty crop, and it takes 2700 litres of water to make one cotton shirt. To put it in perspective, that’s enough water for one person to drink for 2.5 years. The amount of water cotton consumes, poses a threat to our planet by using up so much of a natural resource. Cotton is often also grown in dry places, where water is already scarce to begin with. Not all cotton is unsustainable, however. Organic cotton is a much better alternative, since you at least know that there are no harmful pesticides being used in the growing process, and recycled cotton is another option which reduces water consumption.

Polyester and other synthetic fibers are made from fossil fuels. They require a lot of energy to turn them into clothing, as well as water for the cooling process, and they can take hundreds of years to decompose. They also release microfibres (plastics) into the water system every time we wash them, which can seep into the water system, and end up being eaten by fish (Good On You).

While we may be conscious about our plastic consumption in other aspects of our lives, we don’t typically expect to find plastic in our clothes. Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed, shares her own experience, stating, “I intentionally avoid buying plastic products such as bottled water because they are oil-dependent and not biodegradable, yet here I was with a closet full of the stuff.”

I challenge you to be more conscious about what your clothes are made of. Check the tag of the shirt you are wearing today, check the tag of the cute sweater you see at the store. If you are making the choice to cut out plastic bags or plastic straws out of your everyday use, I encourage you to also consider opting out of purchasing clothing made from synthetic fibers.

Dyes & water pollution

Textile dyeing is the world’s second largest water polluter. The fashion industry uses 1600 chemicals in their dying process, many of which are Azo dyes (Global News). Azo dyes are commonly used because they are cheap, but they can be costly to our health.

The waste water leftover from the textile dyeing process containing hazardous chemicals are often improperly disposed of in rivers and streams, polluting bodies of water, which can lead to having very harmful effects on aquatic plants and animals.

What can you do?

1. Do your research. Find brands that make sustainability a priority; when you shop, check to see what the clothing is made of.

2.Wash less (especially clothing made of synthetic fibers)

3. Ultimately, buy less.

If you care about what you put in your body, I encourage you to also care about what you put on your body. If you try to resist fast food, I urge you to try to resist fast fashion. It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for our planet. Actress and activist, Emma Watson says, “As consumers, we have so much power to change the world by just being careful in what we buy.” What you buy does have an impact, so start acting like it!

Stay tuned for future posts in which we will look at more sustainability issues in the fashion industry, and how we as consumers can make a difference.


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