Waste Couture: Environment Impact of Clothing Industry


Buy less, choose well, make it last. -Vivienne Westwood


Major part of this article is reproduced with permission from “ehp” Environmental Health Prospectives, published on The National Center for Biotechnology Information website Sept 2007, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/, and “PMC”- US National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health. The publication is about 9 years old but the information is as relevant today, as it was then)

Waste Couture: Environment Impact of Clothing Industry

On a Saturday afternoon, a group of teenage girls leaf through glossy fashion magazines at a New Jersey outlet mall. Shopping bags brimming with new purchases lay at their feet as they talk excitedly about what’s in style to wear this summer. Far away in Tanzania, a young man proudly wears a T-shirt imprinted with the logo of an American basketball team while shopping at the local mitumba market for pants that will fit his slender figure. Although seemingly disparate, these two scenes are connected through the surprising life cycle of clothing.

How does a T-shirt originally sold in a U.S. shopping mall to promote an American sports team end up being worn by an African teen? Globalization, consumerism, and recycling all converge to connect these scenes. Globalization has made it possible to produce clothing at increasingly lower prices, prices so low that many consumers consider this clothing to be disposable. Some call it “fast fashion,” the clothing equivalent of fast food.

Fast fashion provides the marketplace with affordable apparel aimed mostly at young women. Fueling the demand are fashion magazines that help create the desire for new “must-haves” for each season. “Girls especially are insatiable when it comes to fashion. They have to have the latest thing, always. And since it is cheap, you buy more of it. Our closets are full,” says Mayra Diaz, mother of a 10-year-old girl and a buyer in the fashion district of New York City. Disposable couture appears in shopping mall after shopping mall in America and Europe at prices that make the purchase tempting and the disposal painless.

Yet fast fashion leaves a pollution footprint, with each step of the clothing life cycle generating potential environmental and occupational hazards. For example, polyester, the most widely used manufactured fiber, is made from petroleum. With the rise in production in the fashion industry, demand for man-made fibers, especially polyester, has nearly doubled in the last 25 years, according to figures from the Technical Textile Markets. The manufacture of polyester and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil and releasing emissions including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, all of which can cause or aggravate respiratory disease.

Issues of environmental health and safety do not apply only to the production of man-made fabrics. Cotton, one of the most popular and versatile fibers used in clothing manufacture, also has a significant environmental footprint. This crop accounts for a quarter of all the pesticides used in the United States, the largest exporter of cotton in the world, according to the US Department of Agriculture. The U.S. cotton crop benefits from subsidies that keep prices low and production high. The high production of cotton at subsidized low prices is one of the first spokes in the wheel that drives the globalization of fashion.

Much of the cotton produced in the United States is exported to China and other countries with low labor costs, where the material is milled, woven into fabrics, cut, and assembled according to the fashion industry’s specifications. China has emerged as the largest exporter of fast fashion, accounting for 30% of world apparel exports, according to the UN Commodity Trade Statistics database. In her 2005 book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, Pietra Rivoli, a professor of international business at the McDonough School of Business of Georgetown University, writes that each year Americans purchase approximately 1 billion garments made in China, the equivalent of four pieces of clothing for every U.S. citizen.

Industrialization brought consumerism with it as an integral part of the economy. Economic growth came to depend on continued marketing of new products and disposal of old ones that are thrown away simply because stylistic norms promote their obsolescence. When it comes to clothing, the rate of purchase and disposal has dramatically increased, so the path that a T-shirt travels from the sales floor to the landfill has become shorter.

The journey of a piece of clothing does not always end at the landfill. A portion of clothing purchases are recycled mainly in three ways: clothing may be resold by the primary consumer to other consumers at a lower price, it may be exported in bulk for sale in developing countries, or it may be chemically or mechanically recycled into raw material for the manufacture of other apparel and non-apparel products.

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In 2012, “Shwopping” project by Marks and Spencer displays 10,000  discarded    clothes  encourage recycling & decreasing waste. The cause claims that approximately 10,000 articles of clothing go to landfills every five minutes.

Domestic resale has boomed in the era of the Internet. Many people sell directly to other individuals through auction websites such as eBay. Another increasingly popular outlet is consignment and thrift shops, where sales are growing at a pace of 5% per year, according to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops.

Only about one-fifth of the clothing donated to charities is directly used or sold in their thrift shops. Says Rivoli, “There are nowhere near enough people in America to absorb the mountains of castoffs, even if they were given away.”

Because women in the West tend to buy much more clothing and discard it more often than men, the world supply of used women’s clothing is at least seven times that of men’s. Thus, in the mitumba markets around Tanzania, men’s clothing generally costs four to five times more than similar women’s clothing. Winter clothes, although generally more expensive to produce, command the least value in the secondhand African markets. Companies such as Trans-America are therefore seeking to expand into colder climes such as Eastern Europe.

Each step of the clothing production process carries the potential for an environmental impact. For example, conventionally grown cotton, one of the most popular clothing fibers, is also one of the most water- and pesticide-dependent crops.

Fierce global competition in the garment industry translates into poor working conditions for many laborers in developing nations.

To make things better, 0ne approach has been to use sustainably grown cotton, hemp, bamboo, and other fiber crops that require less pesticides, irrigation, and other inputs. Organic cotton is grown in at least 12 countries.

When we choose organic cotton instead of conventional cotton, we protect the health of our families and the environment.

Once a rarity, organic cotton is being grown in greater quantities every year. It’s now possible to find equally attractive and durable organic versions of almost every traditional cotton product, from bed sheet to swaddles of cloth diapers to blue jeans.

Look for these organic options online. You may also be able to find clothing made from eco-friendlier sustainably grown cotton which will contain less residues than conventional cotton but not as little as organic.

Image courtesy: http://www.recyclinginternational.com/recycling-news

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