The Environment - The Clothing Industry
Updated: May 13, 2022
"How can there be unlimited economic development on a planet with finite, natural resources?"
- Jane Goodall - Primatologist and Anthropologist
Our clothes are filthy. Absolutely grotesque. Not from the dirt that accrues from our daily wear, but rather the grimy ways in which our clothes are manufactured. Most of us shop and put on layers of clothing daily without giving any thought to how, where and by whom our clothes are made. But if we stop to think about it, the world of clothing is a machine that requires alteration.
Together, we need to pay more attention to:
- how our clothes are made,
- by whom our clothes are made,
- with what fibers and dyes are used to make the clothes,
- how do our clothes arrive in the stores,
- who makes the money in this industry?
Why is clothing such a dirty business you might ask?
There are several contributing factors that make the clothing industry such a detriment to the environment.
- The negative and exploitative human toll the fashion industry imparts on those employed is a shameful abuse of power.
- The use of pesticides and insecticides used to grow and produce the plants (primarily cotton), leaves toxicity in its wake.
- The cruelty of animals.
- The exorbitant use and waste of water is immense. The dyes often used when creating the clothes are toxic and harmful to the environment and its people, meaning the runoff pollutes our waterways.
- Over half of the clothing produced today is made of synthetic fabric, which sheds microfibers all of which contribute to water pollution and the occurrence of micro plastics.
- The transportation of the clothing on a global scale for distribution contributes to our dependence on oil. In addition, global shipping contributes to water and air pollution, all the while the emission of greenhouse gases.
The Environmental Impact:
The environmental impact of the clothing production, especially when it comes to fast fashion, is truly disturbing. The clothing business is one of the largest manufacturing industries on the globe. The clothing industry comes in high when examining its negative environmental impact, especially when looking at water pollution. Those facts leave us viewing our clothes in a while new light.
The industry is a cash cow, bringing in over $2.5 trillion dollars in 2019 alone.* With the millions of materials produced on an annual basis, sadly only 70% of the garments make their way to the hands of the customers. The items that are not sold are often times dumped in landfills, incinerated or occasionally shipped to the third world. This is irresponsible business model on all levels.
Clothing: A Brief History
The history of the clothing is ancient. Humans have been creating clothes in some capacity for over thirty-four thousand years. Whether it be through the use of animal skins, or through weaving fibers, or dying linen, the use of fabric and materials used for clothing is an extremely old trade and a necessary one. While we once created clothing as a means to protect ourselves from the harsh elements and to shield our bodies, we now wear clothes as a status symbol. One season certain colors are on display, while the next, those colors are deemed unfashionable. It is a cycle that has no end, which is great for the companies, however, horrible for those humans creating the clothes and for the planet.
Notoriously our clothing was repaired instead of trashed. By placing patches on knees, darning socks, taking in a waistline or mending a tear, we were able to expand the longevity of our clothing. Now, we would rather discard our clothes than take the time to fix what is broken.
Throughout the years, as technological advances ensued, we used such advances to expand the textile industry, thus giving way to the Industrial Age. With this, goods were made at a faster and less expensive rate. With our fast pace industrial way of creating products, we created a very lucrative market. Throughout the years, however, we have come to realize that cheap clothing comes with an immense human and environmental toll.
The Fresh Air Kids believe that we, as individuals have the power to inspire positive change. While that change may not transpire overnight, we must always remember that we as individuals do poses a great deal of power. Understand that we vote with our money. Where we place our money, we place our value. If you do not value the business model of a particular company, please stop spending your money on their goods. We have done that in our own family and refuse to purchase certain brands due to our own personal conflict with their business policies.
And finally, consider this. What if we transformed us, the customer into activists, demanding a better way of creating those goods we purchase? What immense power that would have on industries. It's time for us to ask the questions, to dig deep with our research and be OK with being uncomfortable with what we discover. We need to allow those discoveries to fuel positive and lasting change in the industries that need it the most.
- Opt out of fast fashion and consider building a universal wardrobe with interchangeable pieces that can be worn year-round. A wardrobe that consists of good quality items that are built to last and do not fall prey to fashion trends. Create your wardrobe with sustainable, natural fiber items that you love in colors that best suit you. We also love the idea of a uniform, which removes the decision making process out of the clothes we wear. We are still working on creating a wardrobe with timeless pieces, but for now, we plan to make the most of the clothing we have.
- Remove the stigma associated with purchasing used clothing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with purchasing used clothing and in fact, it brings new life to discarded or outgrown garments. This model is ideal for children, as they quickly outgrow their clothing and another child will benefit from your child’s outgrown clothes. Remember, our planet already has all of the clothes we need. Find a unique style by breathing life into pre-loved or vintage clothing.
- Shift the consumer mindset and seek pleasure in experiences rather than material things. Things will never buy us happiness; they will only create a short-term allusion of joy.
- Host or organize clothing swaps, especially for children. Consider having friends over and swapping clothes that no longer fit or that you have outgrown. Your discarded goods will certainly become someone else’s treasure.
- Repair and fix your clothing. If you are not good at repairing or fixing your own clothing, find someone who is. I recently met with someone who alters and fixes clothing in exchange for services she needs. The idea is a form of barter and exchange allowing her to get the service she needs, while fulfilling a need of someone else.
- Purchase clothing that is manufactured ethically and produced only on demand, avoiding the cycle of overproduction. Purchase items that are either recycled (using products that do not shed micro-plastics please) or made from natural fibers to avoid the use of harsh and toxic chemicals polluting our waterways and the Earth.
- Support companies that are working endlessly to do the right thing. Patagonia (the outdoor clothing company) started the initiative, Worn Wear” as a means to repair torn clothes. If your Patagonia gear is too old and damaged to be repaired, please return it to one of their stores where they will recycle your garment to make new products.
- Educate your children on climate change through age appropriate means. Without knowledge, we cannot expect our children to make the right decisions and grow up to be responsible consumers.
Fast fashion is a huge global issue and one that will not go away unless we, the consumers, take action. We have the power to make great change, but that change comes with knowledge and the understanding that where we spend our money matters. It is also essential to note that change doesn't occur over night. No one is perfect, but we can all make strides with our newly acquired knowledge to make better decisions.
When learning more about the clothing industry, here are a few terms that may prove helpful as you conduct your own research.
Circular Economy: Is a model used primarily to eradicate waste, with three primary goals (1. reduce waste, 2. continue the use goods and items, 3. regenerate nature), the implementation of a circular economy is one that is more sustainable for the planet and its people.
Cradle to Cradle utilizes a similar concept. This concept was published in a book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, written by Michael Braungart a chemist and William McDonough, an architect, examines the way we produce products in an effort to remove waste from the equation.
Sustainability: This is a complicated, overused and abused term. Sustainability should utilize ecological items, consider the social aspect of the goods utilized and produced, and consider a holistic approach to the creation and selling of goods on all levels, including humanity.
Fast Fashion: Is a means to make extraordinary wealth by producing exorbitant amount of goods at a very low cost. Fashions are often based off of the latest “catwalk styles” and the cycle of change are rapid. For the haunting images of the industry, simply conduct a Google search for “fast fashion.”
Linear Systems: Linear systems, take the resources, make and produce a product, sell the product and then the product is eventually wasted or discarded.
Open Loop Recycling: Is essentially using what has already been produced to create a new product.
Closed Loop Recycling: Takes the product and recycles it to be made into the same product it once was.
Greenwashing: Greenwashing is a term often associated with companies that claim to be “green” or environmentally friendly/sustainable when they are not. Companies are in business to target individuals who want to do the right thing and are often times those individuals are swayed by companies’ deceitful marketing practices. This term dates back to 1986 and was coined by Jay Westerveld.
Clothing in Switzerland:
While it was our goal to create a list of sustainable clothing companies within Switzerland, we feared being greenwashed ourselves. If you know of clothing companies in Switzerland working hard to do the right thing when it comes to the clothing industry, we would love to hear from you! Perhaps we can create a list for our community. Our goal was to interview a few individuals making strides to improve or change the way in which we look at clothing; we are still working on that.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation: https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/
The Clean Clothes Campaign
Fashion Revolution Switzerland
Not sure how to mend or repair torn items. Don’t worry, Patagonia has you covered!
Their “Worn Stories” make wearing your clothes for generations an awesome thing to do! Let’s all get on board with that!
The True Cost written and directed by: Andrew Morgan available on YouTube
*Hawken, Paul, (2021). Regeneration Ending the climate crisis in one generation, Penguin Books
*As we learn more about this topic, we will either add to and enhance this piece or create additional posts.
We do not downplay the fact that the clothing industry is one of complexity and politics. When industries create employment for many, the system becomes even more difficult to detangle. We are not naive to this fact, but what we do believe is that we can do better to improve a terribly flawed system. This industry has the power to transform itself in a more positive and sustainable manner and that is why we write, read and share ideas. Education is nothing if we cannot discuss and debate ideas with others. We believe that exchange is essential for growth and the spark of inspiration!
Melinda is currently enrolled in a course at Wageningen University focusing on the clothing industry and circular economies. She is anxious to continue this conversation and her learning has provided some of the inspiration for the above piece.