As a result of the mass production and over-consumption of clothing, the fashion industry has an unbelievably large carbon footprint (otherwise defined as the amount of greenhouse gases that emitted both directly and indirectly). In fact, the fashion industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions and remains the second largest industrial polluter, second to the oil industry. Ever year, the global consumption and usage of clothing leads to the release of more than 1.26 billion tons of greenhouse emissions, which is more than the amount generated by international shipping and flights combined. Furthermore, the footwear and apparel industries combined account for an estimated 8.1% of global climate impacts.
As fashion retailers have moved their production factories to developing countries in order to increase profit margins, supply chains have become increasingly convoluted. As a result, fast fashion companies often claim ignorance to accounts of abuse and human rights violations in their own factories as they have no longer have direct oversight over their production factories. In fact, it is common for garment workers in developing countries to experience sweatshop working conditions and unreasonably long hours of work. On top of this, these garment workers are paid on average 4% of the price of an article of clothing they produce. That’s 40 cents on a $10 t-shirt. In Bangladesh, that percentage drops as low as 2 percent, where workers earn as little as 33 cents per hour. In Indonesia and Vietnam, workers make 48 cents and 49 cents an hour, respectively. Yet this doesn't even scratch the surface. Garment workers (whom are predominantly women) commonly experience verbal, physical and sexual violence made even worse during high stress times as a result of the fast fashion industry's impossible time and production demands of their factories.
The fashion industry is a massive consumer and polluter of our limited fresh water supply. Only 2.5% of the Earth’s water is freshwater, and only 0.3% is accessible to humans. And according to a NASA-led study, many of the world’s freshwater sources are being used faster than they are being replenished. The fashion industry is definitely a part of this problem. Two thirds of all fibers used to make our clothing are cotton based, and although cotton is a natural fiber, it is a low-yield crop that wastes a whole lot of water. In fact, it requires 2720 litres of water to make a simple cotton T-shirt. That’s how much we normally drink over a 3 year period.
On top of that, roughly 17% to 20% of industrial water pollution is owed to fabric dyes and treatments resulting in the discharge of toxic chemicals into fresh water streams, the death of aquatic life, the ruining of soils and poisoning of local drinking water. In China, estimates say 90% of local groundwater is polluted, and according to the World Bank, 72 toxic chemicals in the water supply are from textile dyeing. While most, if not all first world countries have laws in place to prevent this sort of environmental contamination, it's a very different story for developing countries where many fast fashion retailers have moved their production to.
As clothing has become more and more inexpensive, the reality for a lot of fast fashion consumers is that throwing away their clothes and buying new is more convenient than paying for repairs. North America alone produces more than 12 million tons of waste in textiles (approximately 68 pounds of waste yearly per household), accounting for 5% of all landfill production. This is especially ridiculous when over 95% of discarded clothing can be recycled or upcycled to make something new. And when garments made of natural fibres (such as cotton) ends up in landfills, it decomposes similarly to food waste and produces methane – a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to approximately 25% of the manmade global warming we experience. On the other hand, synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon are plastic fabrics made from petroleum and don’t biodegrade at all. Furthermore, both natural and synthetic fiber clothing will have been bleached, dyed and printed with chemicals during the production process and once in landfill, these chemicals leach into the soil and groundwater, contributing to the pollution of our already decreasing freshwater supplies. We are literally poisoning the earth with the fast fashion garments we throw away.
"Greenwashing" is a marketing strategy employed by non-sustainable companies to make their products or services seem more environmentally friendly. By greenwashing their products, companies convince their customers that they care about the environment, when in reality, they don't.
Now, some of you may be thinking, "what's the big problem?". Well, when companies like fast fashion retailers greenwash their products, it erodes consumer trust in eco-minded advertising and also dilutes the claims of other companies with real environmentally sustainable practices (like the very brands we carry). Likewise, greenwashing encourages consumers and companies themselves to ignore the big picture when it comes to environmental initiatives, making it a whole lot easier for companies to distract their customers from their poor environmental behaviours.
Buy Now, Donate Later?
For anyone who doesn’t want their old clothing to end up in landfills, clothing donations sound like a win-win solution. But in reality, the path of our old clothes isn’t so straight, and doesn’t always benefit the people we think. In fact, most donations don’t sell. Only 10%-25% of the clothes people donate to thrift stores or charities get sold. Everything else ends up either in a) landfills, b) cut down and sold as rags, c) grown down/reprocessed for use as insulation or car-seat filing, or more likely d) sold abroad.
In 2017, approximately $173 million in worn or used clothing was exported from Canada to countries around the world; a third of that export making its way to Africa. This might not seem like a very big problem, but in developing countries like Kenya (which imported closed to $21 million in secondhand clothing from Canada last year), this practice floods local markets and consequently suppresses local textile industries. Furthermore, these textiles usually end their life in these countries and end up in their landfills. We are essentially exporting our unwanted garbage to developing countries.