Cheap, expendable clothes have a big environmental price tag. The fashion industry is changing, but can they go green quickly enough? Photo: istock.

Eco-friendly fashion could have huge environmental impact

Fast fashion is associated with environmental issues, but the industry is changing and collaborations with scientists could innovate what we wear.

UBC Science
Oct 25 · 5 min read

By Alejandra Echeverri, Ph.D. in Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia.

As a teenager, I was fashion obsessed. I spent hours watching fashion TV, went to runway shows and knew the names of top models and fashion designers. I carefully chose my outfits for different events. As I explored my style, my outfits were inspired by rock music, animals, and local crafts. The environmental impact of my outfits or of fast fashion weren’t even on my mind — most people still don’t consider it.

Fast fashion is fashion that moves quickly from the runway to the consumer — and then to a landfill. Some stores change their entire inventory as often as every two weeks. The amount of resources used to make these kinds of cheap clothes is staggering.

To produce textiles cotton needs to be sourced or synthetic fibres created. Then the fabric must be dyed and printed. The dying, washing, ironing, cutting, and sewing of clothes is a labour and resource-intensive process. The constant production of the fast fashion industry is not only harmful to the environment, it is also harmful to the people who work in it. Indeed, many people work under inhumane conditions.

Forever 21 is a chain that popularized fast fashion. It recently filed for bankruptcy. Photo: istock.

Some of the most damaging environmental impacts associated with fast fashion industry include the amount of litter that ends up in landfills, water pollution and negative impacts on human health. According to The Source at Washington University, approximately 85 percent of the clothing Americans consumed is sent to landfills as solid waste. That is nearly 3.8 billion pounds (80 pounds per American) of thrown out clothes every year.

In countries like India or Bangladesh, where most textiles are created, water pollution is a major issue. Pure water is needed to dye clothes certain colours. Synthetic fibres like polyester are particularly difficult to dye. Sometimes this dirty, dye-filled water is left untreated and ends up in rivers and lakes, causing water pollution. Producing clothes can also have a negative impact on the health of those making them. The blue dust created when making your favourite blue jeans, especially when workers use sandblasting to make jeans look worn, is an irritant to the lungs. It can cause silicosis, a deadly lung disease that has already been associated with the deaths of garment workers.

A group of workers at one of Cambodia’s garment factories. The working conditions at the factory are inspected regularly by the ILO Better Factories Cambodia Project. © ILO. Photo: ILO Asia-Pacific

But it’s not all bad news, the fashion industry is beginning to change its practices. Consumers are putting pressure on brands to be more transparent with their supply chains, from sourcing their materials ethically, to providing better working conditions. This matters because fashion is one of the most important industries in the global economy — Global Fashion Industry Statistics estimates the industry’s market value is $406 billion USD.

Some of the ways fashion companies are tackling production issues are by rethinking ways to create clothes locally. A British collection saw the designer partner with UK supermarkets and foodbanks to create a ‘cycle of exchange’: Foodbank users can exchange unwanted clothes for food that supermarkets donate. The designer, Bethany Williams, then created her collection using donated garments and Tesco-branded organic prints.

Textile waste in Bangladesh. Photo: istock.

Even large brands, like fast-fashion staples like H&M, are beginning to take their environmental impact seriously. H&M recently committed to using recycled and sustainably sourced materials by 2030 and plans to adopt a “climate positive” value chain by 2040. Meanwhile, fashion chain Zara has pledged that by 2025 all of the cotton, linen, and polyester used to create garments will be either organic, sustainable, or recycled.

Some brands, like footwear newcomer Allbirds, are rethinking the materials we use to make clothes. Allbirds developed SweetFoam, a material derived from sugarcane which was named one of Time Magazine’s 50 Best Inventions in 2018. Allbirds is taking its findings and sharing them with other brands to create a global sustainable production cycle.

Every year the consulting firm McKinsey & Company creates a state of the fashion industry report. This year, sustainability appeared as a major concern in the fashion industry. Sustainability is no longer something that the industry needs to think about tangentially, now it also makes sense for business.

Chemists could create dyes that colour textiles and don’t pollute the water. Photo: istock.

It is common practice for researchers, especially those studying environmental issues like myself, to blame and shame corporations for neglecting the environment over and over again. Sure, these industries play a major role in the climate crisis we have created for ourselves, but complaining about it won’t solve anything. Scientists should partner with fashion designers and marketing experts to rebuild the fashion industry in a sustainable way from the inside out. For example, scientists could figure out or create materials that degrade easily to inform future textile design. Chemists could create dyes that colour textiles, but that do not pollute our water sources like they do now. Designers can work with chemists to integrate sustainable dyes in their designs.

Designers — whether they be fashion designers or graphic designers — are among the most creative minds in our society. Let’s work together to create sustainable designs and green practices.

Together we can make a better fashion industry that works for consumers and for the planet.

Alejandra Echeverri recently completed her Ph.D. in Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. Her work explores the social and ecological dimensions of tropical bird conservation.

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Focus: Stories from the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia

Thanks to Koby Michaels

UBC Science

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Stories from the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia | Edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, assistant editor Koby Michaels | science.ubc.ca

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Focus: Stories from the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia

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