Who makes our clothes? And how? why does it matter? I didn’t know any of this. I didn’t have such questions until I watched The True Cost: A documentary film about the clothes we wear, the people who make them and the impact the industry is having on our world.
It was shocking to learn that after the oil industry, the fashion industry is the second largest polluter of the environment. Today a big chunk of all the greenhouse gas emissions comes from the textile industry — mainly due to production of synthetic fibers like polyester. Toxic wastewater from textile dying is discharged directly into river streams, destroying 20% of fresh drinking water globally. We are buying more clothing than ever and we are disposing of them faster than ever. Mountains of cheap clothing are piling up in landfills for hundreds of years to come.
I also learned that the people who make our clothes, the majority of them young women, are among the poorest people on earth; facing a daily grind of excessive hours, forced overtime, poverty wages, denial of trade union rights, sexual harassment and dangerous working conditions. In 2013, a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh. 1,136 people were killed. More than 2500 were injured and this was by no means an isolated incident. Valued at more than Three Trillion Dollars, one might ask, why is it that such a profitable industry is unable to support basic human rights of millions of its workers?
As one begins to ask these questions, a whole new world starts to emerge: a world behind the barcodes. It turns out not all companies do business the same way. While some chase the lowest possible production cost regardless of its social and environmental impact, others invest in paying fair wages to workers and in tracing their supply chains so they can best address the human and environmental impacts of their businesses from farm to landfill.
The fashion supply chain is a complex system. The issues associated with it are systematic and complex too. With the word “sustainability” used recklessly and in abundance by marketers, the companies want us to believe that they are doing the right thing. However, the lack of transparency makes it hard to believe that what they say and what they do are in fact the same thing.
Fashion, Fast and Slow
As a consumer and a programmer, realizing how much I didn’t know about things I wear every day, I decided to look at the issues through data. I selected two groups of brands for comparison. In the first group are some of the most popular, non-luxury brands like Gap, H&M, Zara, Victoria’s secret and Nike which are known for their Fast Fashion business model; a model in which the emphasis is on making clothes disposable so we buy more and throw away more. It is designed to make us feel less and less satisfied with what we have so an endless cycle of consumption (and profits) can be achieved.
In contrast, the second group of brands have adapted the Slow Fashion strategy. Slow Fashion at its core is about sustainability; not only environmental but social and economic sustainability as well. Instead of fabricating a “trend”, slow fashion aims at creating pieces that are thoughtfully designed and constructed to delight not just for one season, but for years to come. Slow Fashion celebrates and empowers the many hands behind our clothes rather than exploiting them. The True Cost’s Buying Better guide lists a handful of such brands each working in different ways for a more sustainable and transparent fashion industry.
With this project, my goal was to find out if there are any distinctive differences between these two groups of brands. More specifically, I asked if there are any indicators that can be measured from publicly available data which would set these two groups apart. While one can look at this question from many different angles, looking at the materials used by each brand, seemed like a logical start as fiber sourcing is the first link in the fashion supply chain.
What comes next in this article is all about fibers. I collected the data by accessing the product pages on each brand’s website and detecting the material each garment was made of. The data was collected in summer 2016 and contains detailed material information on about 40,000 pieces of clothing from 30 brands.
Fibers of Choice
The following diagram compares the two groups of brands in terms of their fiber choices. Each of the colourful columns — along with its whiskers — is a box plot summarizing which fibers — and to what extent — are used in the products of either group.
You can see that polyester, nylon and viscose — all of which synthetics— are favoured by fast fashion and used sparingly by slow fashion which clearly prefers natural fibers over synthetics. Cotton is the only natural fiber that is extensively used by both groups. The difference, however, is that 80% of the total cotton sourced by slow fashion brands is organic. The number drops below 1% for the fast fashion group. In other words, more than 99% of cotton used by the mainstream fast fashion brand is genetically modified, chemically grown cotton.
The results are not surprising. These days, 60% of our clothing is being made of plastic fibers such as polyester and nylon which is a huge shift from the time when natural fibers were mostly used to make clothing. This shift coincides in time with the rise of fast fashion in mid 2000.
There are good reasons why synthetics are so popular. They have come a long way since their early days. Nowadays, Polyester can be shaped into filaments as soft as silk. It looks good, it is durable and easy to care for, and it can be tweaked for performance properties, such as water wicking, breathability and stretch, making it popular for athletic wear and athleisure. Add to all this the fact that polyester is cheap, and there, you have a winning formula. And so polyester has become the most common fiber in our closets — at least as long as we have oil to make it from.
The Environmental Impact of Synthetic Fibers
The ever-growing trend towards polyester and other synthetics impacts the world in serious ways.
The chemical building block of polyester is ethylene which is derived by burning large amounts of crude oil. Burning oil releases carbon dioxide to the air, causing global warming. The chemical processes that produce the finished polyester take place at high temperatures making it an energy-intensive operation.
The issues with plastic fibers don’t end at the manufacturing facilities. Every time we wash our synthetic garments, they release tiny plastic bits known as microfibers which eventually end up in oceans corrupting sea life — the very base of our food chain. Plastic pollution is a big problem. and this 2 minutes short movie tells the story beautifully:
And finally after all the washing, when we are done with our synthetic clothes, they end up in landfills. Polyester is not bio-degradable. it simply will not go away. Compared to natural fibers which break down in less than a year, it takes up to 200 years for polyester molecules to decompose under the right conditions. And when they do, the heavy metals and other chemicals used to make them find their way into the soil and the underground water system.
These are essentially the reasons why synthetics and polyester in particular are considered to have — pound by pound — a much higher impact than natural fibers.
What is the Solution?
“Where should I shop? Should I not wear polyester? Should I only wear natural fibers? But ethical clothing is more expensive and I can’t afford them. Am I being green-washed? What is the point of it all?” Storms of questions pass my mind as I learn more about what I wear. It certainly is a complex issue and so there could not be a simple solution. In Michael O’Heaney’s words:
What is good about asking these questions —beyond their expressions of heartfelt desire to do the right thing — is that they offer an opportunity to think about both where the best place to intervene is and who has responsibility for that intervention.
As we have learned to check the ingredients in our food, we can also learn to check the tags of our clothing and choose fabrics that have a lower environmental footprint and less likelihood of labour abuses. This is a great start toward making mindful fashion decisions.
Another important factor to consider when pondering the polluting effects of fashion is the pace at which we consume. A survey of 2,000 women aged over 16, found out that women ditched their fashion pieces after wearing them only seven times and that they spend on average £768 per year on clothes that are barely or never worn. By curating your closet according to cost-per-wear, and investing in pieces that fit and last, we can slow down this out-of-control cycle, save money and dress better too.
Finally, we should know that collectively we have the power to demand transparency and hold companies accountable for their products’ impacts. Yes we can (and we should) avoid synthetics when they are not absolutely necessary, but as Annie Leonard of the Story of Stuff Project rightly says:
when it’s hard to figure out how to fix a problem on your own, or the fix is onerous or expensive, that should serve as a sort of metal detector for flaws in the system; it should encourage us to look further upstream for a solution.
Support the companies who work for the betterment of the system. Be curious. Vote with your money.
About the Author
Maryam is a Computer Scientist and writer who uses data to investigate and tell stories. She is currently interested in investigating green washing and sourcing of ingredients in the beauty and fashion industries. Follow her on Medium as she shares her new findings.