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Should what we wear matter as much as what we eat?
The U.S. throws away up to 11.3 million tons of textile waste each year—around 2,150 pieces of clothing each second. Yet we only hear about the environmental impact of our plates.
Per the U.S. Bureau Labor and Statistics, we spend a little over an hour each day eating, but unless you live in one of those “special” places or have a work environment free of colleagues and Zoom meetings, you wear clothes for at least half of each day.
Headlines bombard us with the environmental impact of our plates, yet we rarely hear about the impact of our wardrobes.
I, too, am often blissfully unaware of the impacts of my clothes. Do they both serve their function and look slightly presentable? Yes? Wear it. That’s the general extent of thought that I put into my daily clothing.
I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not as mindful as I should be of my wardrobe; I’m more ashamed that a chick flick was the tipping point for me to wise up.
Here, in The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep monologues about the long value chain of what appeared to be only a frumpy, cerulean blue sweater:
She sums up the journey of cerulean as a symbol:
“That blue represents millions of dollars of countless jobs, and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room… from a pile of “stuff.”’
Millions of dollars, countless jobs, and more went into one clearance rack sweater.
But what else is behind the scenes? Across the entire industry?
As New York Fashion Week launches, let’s dive into the not-so-fashionable aspects of the fashion industry: their emissions, pollution, and waste.
The fashion industry is a super user of fossil fuels, relying heavily on petrochemicals for many modern (but they’re vegan!) textiles.
The fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water each year — enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people.
Around 20% of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric dyeing and treatment.
Of the total fiber input used for clothing, only a small fraction is recycled and 87% is incinerated or disposed of in a landfill.
The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. At this pace, the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions will surge more than 50% by 2030.
Textiles are the second-largest product group made from petrochemical plastics behind packaging, making up 15% of all petrochemical products.
If demographic and lifestyle patterns continue as they are now, global consumption of apparel will rise from 62 million metric tons in 2019 to 102 million tons in 2029.
Every year, half a million tons of plastic microfibers are dumped into the ocean, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. The problem? Microfibers cannot be extracted from the water and spread throughout the food chain.
The fashion industry is central for economic development: it’s valued at approximately $2.4 billion globally and employs 75 million people throughout its value chain. It’s the world’s third-largest manufacturing sector after the automobile and technology industries. It’s ripe for innovation and can create meaningful impact if more environmentally conscious.
Many businesses, like Eileen Fisher, Timberland, and Woolmark, are striving to make better products from more sustainable fibers.
But will changing production inputs be enough to offset the impacts of overproduction and consumption? Some argue, no.
Both the industry and consumers need a reckoning; all actors must get involved, from designers to manufacturers, critics, and consumers.
What can we, as consumers, do?
Before buying, ask if the manufacturers used sustainable criteria to make the clothing.
Be creative in combining garments and recycle them after they wear out.
Donate what you no longer use.
Buy only what you need. In some countries, 40% of purchased clothing is never used.
Consider quality over quantity. Levi’s recent spring campaign says it well: “Buy better, wear longer.”
Buy second-hand clothing.
Be a smart laundry manager — wash full loads and use non-abrasive detergents.
Next, I’ll showcase how the industry is working to be more sustainable and how we consumers can use our closets to support the transition to regenerative agriculture.
Until then, let me know in the comments:
Have you ever considered the environmental impacts of what you wear?
Disclaimer: The Regeneration Weekly receives no compensation or kickbacks for brand features - we are simply showcasing great new regenerative products.
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