When the average person thinks of industrial manufacturing pollution, they probably think of radioactive bilgewater spouting from a sewer pipe into fields of flattened foliage and blackened flora. One might conjure the image of sooty smoke, belched into the sky to dissipate over playgrounds and settle onto window sills, or perhaps misted airborne pathogens entering the lungs, adhering to the walls of vulnerable oxygen pathways, suffocating their victims slowly and insidiously. Rarely, however, does one imagine a stunning, lithe model strutting down a runway, turning with flair to display a luxurious garment. The fact is, the fashion industry, high and low, is the second largest cause of pollution on the planet. In particular, a phenomenon known as fast fashion has us on a runway to ruin.
Fast fashion is loosely defined as the production of too many collections with too many clothes. Much of this clothing consists of microplastics, or very fine plastic that is non-biodegradable and that usually comes from synthetic materials like polyester and nylon. The issue rests in the heart of market competition, with fashion labels engaging in contests to see who can make the most clothing and—one might surmise—achieve the highest level of brand domination. Unfortunately, this contest is producing levels of waste that simply cannot be controlled. Taking into account the increasing rate of natural disasters the world over, the runway has now become a symbol of global destruction.
A recent report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation presents a harrowing statistic: if the industry continues at its current pace of dangerous waste production, its share of carbon emissions could reach 26% in only 30 years. Such a pace would have a calamitous effect on the planet. What’s worse, it’s not just air pollution that should give us cause for major concern. Much of the fashion industry’s waste is released into the sea, conjuring more images of sea life struggling to survive on beaches everywhere from the continental United States to the Antarctic. With clothing production nearly doubling in the last 20 years, reports suggest that nearly 5% of all landfill space is occupied by textile wastes.
Mass-scale clothing production does the most harm through “chemically-produced” clothes that use micro-fibres which are made of plastic and not only cause cancer but have disastrous effects on water bodies large and small. For example, the production of denim requires tons of water during its multiple washing processes, not to mention the dyeing process that also releases huge amounts of wastewater. Compounding the issue is the concept of fast fashion that produces clothing much faster and in much larger quantities than in the past, where fashion was largely dictated by the four seasons. This wasteful system is driven by marketing factors and budget considerations over more natural, retail instincts since mass-manufactured goods are generally cheaper to buy and, despite being non-degradable, easier to throw away. Another shuddering statistic hammers this point home: more than half the clothing bought is trashed before the tag is removed.
Such waste is shocking, but the real environmental damage happens during the production process. Another frightening example can be found in the manufacturing of polyester which involves petroleum products which are inherently harmful. Beyond that, polyester cannot be dyed naturally, requiring chemical infused dyes to give the fabric its color. These dyes are often disposed of unethically, which pollutes rivers and waterways. But with the global fashion industry valued at three trillion (USD) with an estimated annual consumption of 80 billion pieces of clothing, expecting the production processes to suddenly reverse practices into something more sustainable requires an uncommon amount of faith and an increased amount of education. Something like sustainable fibers reduce fabric waste, and with the fashion industry being the second largest polluting industry in the world, significant steps that focus on the bigger picture need to be taken.
Sustainable fabrics are increasing in popularity, but even beyond their use the concept of recylcing and reusing clothing—which one might consider to be “slow fashion”—needs to be strongly considered. Recycling clothing reduces water consumption and waste, as does renting clothing which can dramatically reduce the cost of top designer trends. Unfortunately, the overall trend of fashion industry continues to shift to fast fashion while its progress towards ethical and sustainable practices remains painfully slow. The economic reality is that sustainable and ethically-produced clothing is more expensive, so there will always be a lucrative market for cheap clothes produced through unethical practices.
But hope exists, as consumers become more educated and aware of incorrect methods of production, especially when it begins to affect their health and well being. Until then, harmful wastewater needs to be managed in a cost-efficient manner that will buy our planet the time it needs to wake up.
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