The apparel industry has a significant impact on the environment. Fashion is a 3 trillion dollar industry, and it is continuously growing. Unfortunately so is the environmental impact. We should all ask us the questions: what do we want to do & what can we do about the harm caused by our industry. To be able to take action, we first need to understand the problem. What makes the industry so polluting and what can be done about it?
Let’s take a look at how the apparel industry is impacting the environment.
In many countries, the wastewater from textile factories is dumped directly into rivers and lakes. The wastewater contains toxic substances that are very harmful to the people living next to these waters, and especially to the aquatic life. These poisonous substances accumulate and spread their way from local rivers to the oceans around the globe. To lower the industry’s water pollution, you can make garments in factories that follow stricter environmental regulations. These depend on what countries the factories are located in.
The fertilizers used for cotton production is also a significant contributor to water pollution. Besides being harmful to the people, animals, and plants living off these water sources, they are detrimental to the cotton farmers and even the end consumer. Avoid the materials using these fertilizers. Choose organic and natural fibers that don’t use chemicals to be produced.
When washing clothes made of synthetic fibers, such as polyester or nylon, tiny microfibres are released into the water, continuing to the world’s oceans. These microfibres are eaten by small fish and extending in the food chain to larger fish, and finally finding their way to our plates (if you eat those). There are now so many microfibres in our oceans that they make up 85 % of all human-made debris on the shorelines around the world. Avoid synthetic materials that can release microfibres, and choose cellulose-based fibers materials that don’t leave a trace of plastic.
Large quantities of water are used to grow for example cotton, as well as in the dyeing and finishing processes of garment making. Water shortage is a problem in many areas of the world, and fresh water is scarce for a lot of people. Even if there is loads of water on this planet, only 3 % is suitable for human consumption. When we divert freshwater from aquatic environments, several animal and plant species are threatened. Animals, plants, and we are part of the same ecosystem, therefore we need to share and take care of our collective resources. When we don’t have enough freshwater, we need to take it from groundwater reserves, which doesn’t regenerate as quickly as we take it out, making it unsustainable and destabilizing the ground. To minimize the water consumption you can choose recycled fibers or fibers with low water consumption. You can also educate your customer on how to handle and wash their garments more sustainably, even if it has a lower impact than at the beginning of the supply chain.
Every year, we throw away large amounts of clothes. Only a small portion is recycled or reused. When the waste ends up in the landfill, it can take a couple of hundred years to decompose if they are made of plastic fibers. What you can do here is to reuse, improve quality, recycle and use biodegradable materials.
In the fashion supply chain, chemicals are used during the fiber production, dyeing, bleaching, processing and treatment of garments. The chemicals are harmful to human health as well as polluting water and degrading the soil. Some of these substances are harmful to the end consumers, and for this reason, you should always wash your new clothes before wearing them. Use organic materials and processes to lower the usage of toxic chemicals.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The fashion industry generates a lot of greenhouse gases due to the energy needed throughout the supply chain. Most energy is used during material production, manufacturing, and transportation. Creating synthetic fibers that are made from oil requires a lot of energy and thus causing a lot of greenhouse gas. Many of these producers are based in countries that are mostly powered by coal, making the environmental impact even worse. Cotton has a lower carbon footprint than polyester, but the fertilizer used to grow cotton release nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas with 300 times more warming power than CO2. What you can do is to improve the quality of your clothes, choose natural or recycled materials, and make sure the energy comes from renewable sources.
The fashion industry has a major impact on soil degradation. We need a thriving soil for our food but also to absorb CO2. The solid degrades when chemicals are used for growing cotton, when forests are cut down for wood-based materials, or when pastures are overgrazed during wool production. Here we need to choose materials that don’t impact the soil in a harmful way.
What To Do?
There is no question the fashion industry has a massive impact on the environment. Even if no clothing brand can be 100 % sustainable, you can consider the environment in your business decisions and continuously aim to improve your impact. Sustainability is so much more than just using organic cotton for a style. You need to take a look at the entire supply chain to see what you can do. Here are some pointers to what you can do.
Educate your customers on how they can take better care of their products and what to do with them when they break. You can also implement repair services or add detailed videos on how to repair broken products on your website.
Many materials or fabrics can be reused in new products even if the original product’s life is over. Reusing fabrics can be made on a larger scale by companies as well as at home.
Reduce waste by changing used materials into new ones. Recycling reduces the consumption of fresh raw materials, energy usage, air pollution, and water pollution.
Health & Safety
The environment also includes our workplaces and factories. We have to make sure everyone in the production chain is working in good conditions for their health and safety. We have to make sure our clothes are not made in factories that collapse or where workers have to work with toxic chemicals and dyes. We simply have to stop demanding such products!
Minimizing waste is an effort to reduce the amount of waste, resources, and energy during manufacturing. A way to reduce waste can be to make products out of leftover fabrics or stop using plastic bags to wrap every single garment delivered.
Organic clothing is made from materials raised in or grown in compliance with organic agricultural standards. The sources of the clothing’s fiber are free from herbicides, pesticides, or genetically modified seeds.
Biodegradable products mean that they can be consumed by microorganisms and returned to compounds found in nature. Clothes that are biodegradable are typically made out of natural fiber, such as pure cotton or pure wool.
All consumption strains the environment. Long-lasting quality products reduce the need to consume.
Read the Apparel Entrepreneurship Guide to textile certifications HERE. Please keep your eyes open for these certifications as a way to guide you to better product development and business.
Apparel Entrepreneurship is an online educational platform providing entrepreneurs and and brands with actionable content, industry know-how, strategies and tools to launch, grow and succeed with their businesses.