We want more clothes, and we want them now. That’s at least what the boom in fast fashion tells us. Brands today produce about twice as many clothes as they did 15 years ago; some even go from the design table to clothing racks in stores in just two weeks! But behind this seeming miracle of hyper-efficiency are uncomfortable truths with major consequences. The fast fashion industry churns out ever more clothes at ever lower prices through exploitative practices, harming both the environment and the people that make them in the process.
The Perfect Storm of Unsustainability
Take the production of a single cotton t-shirt, for example, which is resource intensive and heavily polluting. Although only 2.4% of all cultivated land is devoted to growing cotton, 4.7% of all pesticides and 10% of insecticides are used in the process. These tend to be chemical-heavy products that poison the soil and local water sources, depleting biodiversity and harming animals and humans in the area. Speaking of water, a whole lot goes into cotton clothes - producing a single t-shirt can take up to 7,000 litres!
Growing the cotton is just step one; a lot more has to happen for it to be a t-shirt on a store shelf or online shop. The fibre must be spun into yarn, an energy-intensive process. Further electricity is spent knitting that yarn into fabric, releasing an estimated 394 million tonnes of CO2 every year. Then comes the colour, and the chemical dyes that bring it are the second largest polluter of water. Add to this the stitching, packaging, and shipping of clothes and you’ve got the perfect storm of unsustainability.
Popular alternatives to cotton aren’t much better, unfortunately. Most clothes today, in fact, are made of polyester or similar plastic-based materials. As you’d expect with most petrol-heavy products, these aren’t designed to be eco-friendly. Not only did polyester production in 2015 release triple the CO2 emissions that cotton did, but its harm continues long past its production. Polymer-based clothes release microplastics into the water they’re washed and these microscopic fragments add up to a whopping 500,000 tons - the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles - annually. It’s no surprise, then, that they cause 35% of all water pollution.
The people that produce these garments often suffer a similar fate. Large global brands outsource their production to developing nations where labour is cheaper and labour laws are lax. Working conditions are exploitative, child labour is common, compensation is poor, and safety is neglected. Despite tragedy after tragedy in recent decades where workers have lost their lives - like the Rana Plaza collapse that killed over 1100 Bangladeshi workers - little has improved.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy in all of this is the minimal value that ultimately comes from this exploitation. Though we’re producing and buying more clothes than ever, we’re using each piece of clothing less than ever. The lifespan of each garment is down by about 40% and, once disposed of, about 73% of all clothing is either burned or buried in landfills. Only about 12% are recycled in any manner, and less than 1% find their way into new clothing. 13 million tons of clothing in the US suffer this fate without ever being worn - brands often produce excessive inventories that retailers can’t sell before the next trend has to be stocked, so into the bin they go.
A New Paradigm
Though disappointing to say the least, this status quo doesn’t need to be the fashion industry’s destiny. An increasing number of apparel brands are concerned about their industry’s environmental and human impact and have decided to do something about it. They’re sourcing raw materials grown with minimal water, pesticides and insecticides. Alternative fabrics like hemp, whose ecological footprint is a fraction of cotton’s, are increasingly in vogue. By producing apparel locally, these labels also minimise emissions from transport.
Crucially, these brands approach fashion with a fundamentally different philosophy. They emphasise quality over quantity, creating clothing that lasts. This reduces the need for repeat purchases, minimises the potential for overstocking, and lowers wastage. In pursuit of this goal, many labels embrace a made-to-order model, producing clothing only on-demand, completely eliminating wasteful inventories. Others like B Label go further still, improving not only the life but the afterlife of each article. By designing clothes that biodegrade easily, they create clothes that both the planet and the people that buy them can appreciate.
If you’d like to explore sustainable fashion brands that prepare clothes made-to-order, check out The Terra Tribe, Create by Gauri, B Label, Unborn Studio, Reistor, Sustainability on Street and Xander.