Today’s consumer is increasingly aware of the negative impacts of fast fashion, and yet the lure of this industry remains at large. While you may have scored a great deal on that new jacket, it’s important to remember we ultimately pay a much higher price when buying cheap garments. It’s past time sustainable clothing shifts from a burgeoning trend to our preferred way to shop.
Why does investing in sustainable clothing matter?
Sustainable clothing matters on a number of levels, but perhaps most notably is how it protects the earth and its resources. Creating sustainable garments avoids the use of carcinogens, toxins, and other harmful chemicals or pollutants, and supports a dramatic reduction in water consumption and waste production (as compared to the fast fashion industry).
By investing in a sustainable wardrobe, you’re really promoting the use of eco-friendly practices from start to finish, and helping to preserve our planet for future generations to enjoy.
15 sustainable clothing facts for 2021
As shoppers worldwide continue purchasing more clothes, the toll the fashion industry has on our environment continues to grow, as well. On average, consumers bought 60% more clothing items in 2014 than they did in 2000.
Fashion production is now responsible for 10% of all carbon emissions, and accounts for more greenhouse gasses than international flights and maritime shipping combined. If the fashion sector keeps operating at this rate, their share of the carbon budget could reach 26% by 2050.
The fashion industry is the second-largest consumer of the world's water supply. It takes nearly 700 gallons of water to produce a single cotton shirt, and around 2,000 gallons to make a pair of jeans. With regards to the jeans, that’s more than enough water for one person to drink eight glasses per day for ten years. Since cotton is such a highly water-intensive plant, the amount of water required to produce even these basic garments is quite staggering.
The amount of textile waste produced each year by the United States has doubled over the last two decades. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 16.22 million tons of textile waste was generated in 2014 alone. This number becomes even more alarming when you consider that of this tremendous waste, 2.62 million tons were recycled, 3.14 million tons were combusted for energy recovery, and 10.46 million tons were sent directly to the landfill.
In Europe, fashion retailers have gone from offering two collections per year (back in 2000), to now selling five or more lines within that same 12-month period. For instance, H&M releases somewhere between 12 and 16 collections each year, while Zara produces a whopping 24 — that’s two new collections every month!
Unsurprisingly, much of this clothing ends up in the dump; the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second. Within a given year, up to 85% of all textiles will head to the landfill (enough to fill Sydney Harbor annually).
Consumers are a major culprit when it comes to textile waste, since the average person is buying more garments each season, but keeping them for half as long as they did 15 years ago. When looking at consumer habits within the EU, about 35% of donated clothing is made into industrial rags, but in the end, just 15% of consumer-used clothing is recycled (while 75% of pre-use clothing is recycled by manufacturers).
This represents a loss of over $100 billion worth of materials every year, which is compounded by the high cost of textile waste disposal.
To help combat this at SiteSee, we create our Going Places neckerchiefs with the extra fabric left over from production. Zero waste, baby.
Once in landfills, natural fibers can take hundreds of years to break down, and may release methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during their decomposition. Synthetic materials are even worse, as they’re not designed to decompose and can leak toxic substances into groundwater and the surrounding soil. Due to this situation, textile recycling is becoming increasingly important, and is now a key issue within the global apparel industry.
Currently, only 1% of second-hand textiles are made into new clothes; however, this number is expected to accelerate as manufacturers come up with better technologies and solutions to use more and more recycled materials. While textile recycling is focused on recovering materials from waste for reuse, remanufacturing, or reprocessing, upcycling turns waste material from unwanted items into better-quality, higher value products.
Recycling and upcycling are both beneficial practices from an environmental and economic point of view, as they decrease landfill space requirements, cut down on the use of virgin fibers, reduce energy and water consumption, avoid pollution, and lessen the demand for dyes.
Did you know that fashion creates water-pollution problems, too? Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water, since what remains from the dyeing process is frequently dumped into ditches, streams, and rivers around the globe. And not only does textile dyeing use enough water to fill 2 million Olympic-sized pools each year, but the fashion industry is also linked to 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.
Washing our clothes, meanwhile, releases half a million tons of microfibers into the ocean every year, which is equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles. Many of these fibers come from polyester, a plastic found in an estimated 60% of today’s garments. Polyester production releases two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton, and it doesn’t break down in the ocean, either.
In 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated 35% of all microplastics — tiny pieces of plastic that never biodegrade — found in the ocean came from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester. Overall, microplastics are thought to compose up to 31% of all plastic pollution in our oceans.
Patagonia began making recycled polyester from plastic soda bottles back in 1993, and was actually the first outdoor clothing brand to transform waste into wearable fleece. Then, in 2017, they decided to re-imagine their t-shirt offerings, and now sell just two fabric options — either 100% organic cotton, or a blend of recycled cotton. In their own words, Patagonia has cited this as ‘a positive step toward a more sustainable system,’ which ‘uses fewer resources, discards less, and better protects people’s health.’
When companies like Patagonia use recycled plastics in their garments, it not only keeps these plastics from hurting our precious bodies of water, but it eliminates the dependence on petroleum for raw materials and reduces greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing. Additionally, it helps to promote new recycling streams for polyester clothing that’s no longer wearable, thus addressing the growing problem of waste management.
In the past, sustainable clothing brands were a bit of a paradox; an industry that thrives on waste, rapid reproduction, and constant innovation simply wasn’t designed for ethical success. However, there are still glimmers of hope. An increasing number of companies are now embracing more eco-friendly methods, and nearly two-thirds (60%) of millennials are taking an interest in their carbon footprint and say they want to continue shopping more sustainably.
A number of clothing brands are moving away from traditional production to instead adopt more sustainable practices. In May of 2018, 12.5% of the global fashion market pledged to make initiatives for change by 2020, like using mono-fibers in lieu of synthetic and mixed-fiber fabrics (which are hard to break down in the recycling process). This list of retailers included international names like Nike, Asos, and Gap, which feels like a solid step in the right direction.
Speaking of global fashion brands, there are several other major players who are capitalizing on this ‘environmental wave’ by setting ambitious goals for sustainability. For example, Adidas has committed to using only recycled plastic in their shoes by 2024, and H&M will only use sustainable materials in its production by 2030. This is encouraging considering experts’ warnings that the fast fashion industry needs to make significant changes if it hopes to lessen its devastating environmental damage.
There are roughly 2,000 different chemicals — including formaldehyde, chlorine, lead, and mercury — currently used in textile processing. Of these chemicals, more than 1,600 are found in the dyeing process, yet only 16 are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In contrast, sustainable clothing manufacturers rely on natural materials that are much safer for our skin and our planet, since they don’t contain these toxic ingredients and pollutants.
One of the greatest forces behind fast fashion (and the overwhelming waste it produces) is our tremendous influence as consumers. To adopt a more sustainable approach to fashion, look for ethical brands to buy from, swap pieces you no longer wear with friends and neighbors, keep a minimalist or capsule closet, and take time to figure out your personal style so you exclusively purchase items you’ll wear again and again.
Whether you implement one or all of these suggestions, remember that each is an admirable effort in healing the earth and supporting brands who are doing the same.
Sustainable Clothing FAQs
Why is sustainable clothing important?
Sustainable clothing is made from eco-friendly fabrics that are softer, stronger and will last you for years. Sustainable clothing guarantees you won't have to continue buying new clothes all the time, which helps reduce the amount of clothing that ends up in the landfill, effectively reducing your carbon footprint.
What does 'sustainable fashion' actually mean?
Sustainable fashion is a broad term that refers to garments that have been made in a way that is mindful of the many environmental issues the fashion industry touches upon. Brands that focus on sustainable fashion try to reduce waste (in every area of the business, such as packaging and fabric use) and use sustainable fabrics.
What clothing brands are sustainable?
Everlane, Outdoor Voices, Nation LTD and of course, SiteSee, are clothing brands that have taken a stand against the waste and toxic habits of fast fashion. Other sustainable clothing brands can be found in this blog post.