Sustainable fashion fights environmental woes

Samantha Savery
Opinion Editor
ssavery@unca.edu

Fast fashion became an epidemic the minute the first trendy skirt hit the racks in the 1980s.

Cheap and modern clothing filled American malls, chain stores offering any sort of deal they could to entice buyers to spend money on their products.

“The emergence of fast fashion is basically the emergence of clothing that is intentionally not durable. Some clothing is used only once or is purchased to be used only once, like a three dollar t-shirt. This is extremely unsustainable,” said Dee Eggers, an associate professor of environmental studies at UNC Asheville.

A contemporary term, fast fashion is an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions which emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.

According to McKinsey and Company, between 2000 and 2014, trend fashion increased the number of garments purchased each year by the average consumer by 60 percent, but the consumers kept these new pieces for half as long.

The discarding of clothing continues to be a current issue with Americans disposing 12.8 million tons of textiles a year, reported Yale Environment 360. That’s 80 pounds for everyone man, woman and child in the country.

Instead of tossing out gently-worn clothes one no longer wears or wants, The Huffington Post suggested donating these pieces to homeless, domestic violence and women’s shelters. Prom, formal and wedding dresses — often only worn once — can be donated to Fairy Godmothers Inc., allowing girls to afford formal clothes, or Brides Across America, which gives military brides a wedding gown. Business suits can be donated to Dress For Success and Career Gear to help women and men re-entering the workforce.

Similarly, thrift stores like Goodwill and the Salvation Army are often in need of donations. Shannon Herlihy, a senior environmental studies student, said thrift stores are some of the most sustainable places anyone, including college students and people on a budget, can shop.

“It’s more sustainable. There’s so much clothing that already exists, you might as well be buying things that are already made than supporting a bunch of new resources being used,” Herlihy said.

Eggers said she agrees with the sentiment, noting she thrifted a lot of her wardrobe through the years.

Herlihy, whose focus is sustainable agriculture within communities, said more brands could work on repurposing clothing that already exists instead of using more resources and creating more pollution to produce trendy pieces.

According to Finch and Beak, the trend mindset within fashion wreaks havoc on our planet, the global textile industry accounting for 10 percent of total CO2 emissions. Annually, nearly 177 billion pounds of textiles are produced, with an average of 22 pounds of CO2 emissions per pound of textile.

According to the World Resources Institute, one cotton t-shirt needs 713 gallons of water to be made, making the water toxic and unusable. This same amount of water is enough for a single person to drink in two-and-a-half years.

“I think there are important ethical questions to ask as well. I think fast fashion is possibly unethical because most people don’t understand the amount of water, pesticides and fertilizers that go into growing cotton globally,” Eggers said. “To put that much stress on the environment for a single-use product, or a product that may last for 10 washings, is a very short-sighted and self-destructive behavior.”

The World Wildlife Fund reports that while cotton is grown on 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland, it makes up 24 percent and 11 percent of global sales of insecticides and pesticides.  Cotton and other textile scraps make up five percent of waste worldwide.

Today, Americans discard 12.8 million pounds of textiles annually. Photo by Bryce Alberghini.

Brands like Everlane, Girlfriend Collective and Reformation fight back against these issues with their sustainable and ethical business models. While shopping these brands may cost a little more than Forever 21 and H&M, the money consumers spend goes toward sustainable practices and safe and healthy working conditions at the factories used.

Experts say supporting sustainable businesses and thrift stores can help lessen the impact of the fashion industry on our planet and the people who manufacture our clothing.

Everlane, a brand selling itself as radically transparent, partners with ethical factories around the world to create their products. Each factory undergoes a compliance audit to evaluate fair wages, reasonable hours, and environment among other factors, with the brand’s goal of a minimum score of 90 for every factory.

Bloomberg reported a common pair of jeans produces 44 pounds of carbon dioxide and uses up to 2,642 gallons of water to make. Much of this contaminated water ends up in waterways, greatly affecting those who work in the factories by contaminating their source of freshwater and exposing them to the toxic dyes and chemicals deployed in making denim.

Everlane launched their ethical denim line last fall. Working with the Vietnamese company Saitex International, sustainable jeans and denim jackets became best-sellers, with denim skirts and shorts planned for the coming months.

“Saitex’s unique closed system recycles 98 percent of all water used—and when it comes out the other side, it’s so clean you can drink it. How? They reduce, reuse, and recycle,” Everlane writes on its website.

The factory’s closed water system and jet washing machines meant only 0.4 liters of water were lost during production. This 0.4 liters was due to evaporation. According to Everlane’s website, on-site rainwater collection allows Saitex to minimize the impact consumption, while a five-step filtration process separates water from toxic contaminants before sending clean water back into the system.

Consumers can see where pieces they purchase — like shoes or sweaters — are made, how many workers are employed by each factory, and how Everlane built their partnerships all on the factory tab of the website.

Girlfriend Collective, an eco-friendly brand in Seattle, manufactures exercise wear out of recycled water bottles.

Girlfriend Collective’s Cupro Collection uses cotton waste to create their Jane and Frances t-shirts, along with the Stella and Celia tanks. The collection saves 682 gallons of water per shirt and 10 percent of net profits will be donated to Charity Water to make water accessible to people around the world.

Inclusive sizing has always been an issue in fashion, with many brands stopping at size 12 or in some cases, size 8, Britt Aboutaleb reported for Racked.

Racked will never be as inclusive and accessible as we want to be until more brands jump on board,” Aboutaleb wrote.

Many sustainable brands only go up to an XL or size 14, the average size of the American woman. Girlfriend Collective recently broke this cycle by going up to XXXL in leggings and t-shirts. In order to grow, Aboutaleb said brands must adapt more inclusive sizing to attract all potential buyers.

Reformation is another brand starting to serve anyone from a size 0 to a size 22. They recently launched their Reformation x Ali Tate Collection spanning these sizes after previously only serving up to a size 12 consistently.

Fast fashion brands are slowly starting to change their ways. According to Yale Environment 360, H&M started a garment collection initiative in 2013, customers bringing a total of 55,000 tons of textiles to the company’s 4,000 stores. I:Collect, H&M’s partner, collects and sorts the textiles into three categories: rewear, reuse and recycle.

The same report also states American Eagle Outfitters, Levi-Strauss & Co., Nike and Patagonia also collect old garments or shoes in their stores to be reused and recycled.

“In the end, cheap clothing is not worth. It’s not worth it to the individual, if nothing else, because later in life they’ll realize what a morally bankrupt act that was,” Eggers said. “It’s not worth it certainly in terms of the planet, in terms of our soil and water quality and biodiversity today, or in the future. It’s just a rip-off.”

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