Are You Really Going to Wear That?

By: Jennifer Kelly-Kennedy

Synthetic plastic fibers – polyester, nylon, and acrylic – make up about 60% of clothing material worldwide, and unfortunately end up in landfills or polluting our rivers and oceans through micro-plastic pollution.[1] “These fibers contribute to ocean plastic pollution in a subtle but pervasive way: The fabrics they make – along with synthetic natural blends – leach into the environment just by being washed. Estimates vary, but it’s possible that a single load of laundry could release hundreds of thousands of fibers from our clothes into the water supply.”[2]

These synthetic fibers are cheap and are widely used in the world of fast fashion. Fast Fashion “refers to cheaply produced and priced garments that copy the latest catwalk styles and get pumped quickly through stores in order to maximise on current trends.”[3] Although an economic slowdown due to Covid-19 brought a decline to the fast fashion industry, the market is “expected to recover and reach $38.21 billion in 2023 at CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of 6.7%,”[4] a growth from $35.8 billion in 2019.[5] “North America was the largest region in the fast fashion market in 2019,”[6] as “American shoppers snap up about five times more clothing now than they did in 1980.”[7] But it is not just an American problem, consumers all around the globe are more likely to purchase this clothing because of it’s affordability. Unfortunately, the price comes at a cost, as the clothes are usually poorly made, resulting in consumers discarding their garments almost as fast as they purchased them. “As a whole, the world’s citizens acquire some 80 billion apparel items annually. And on average [] each piece will be worn seven times before getting tossed.”[8]

Unfortunately, however, fast fashion ending up in our landfills and microplastic pollution in our waterways are not the only problems plaguing the fashion industry. The manufacturing process is a major issue of its own. “[T]he clothing and textile industry is depleting non-renewable resources, emitting huge quantities of greenhouses gases and using massive quantities of energy, chemicals and water.”[9] In fact, it is estimated that by 2050 “the fashion industry will use up 25 per cent of the world’s carbon budget, making it one of the most polluting industries second only to oil.”[10]

Some of the worst fabrics for the environment include: (1) cotton, due to its heavy burden on water-use, as well as cotton farming’s use of pesticides, that eventually make its way into water supplies;[11] (2) synthetic fibers, due to its reliance on petrochemical industries, and the fact that the fibers are not biodegradable;[12] and (3) animal-derived materials, due to the toxic chemicals used during its manufacturing process.[13]

Some of the best fabrics for the environment include: recycled fabrics, thereby re-purposing textiles we already have;[14] and man-made cellulose and bast fibers, which are obtained from plant based material.[15]

Fashion for Good, a platform that advocates for global sustainable fashion, lists “The Five Goods,” that, it’s co-Founder William McDonough says “represent an aspirational framework we can all use to work towards a world in which we do not simply take, make, waste, but rather take, make, renew, restore.”[16] These Five Goods are:

  • Good Materials  –  safe, healthy and designed for reuse and recycling
  • Good Economy  – growing, circular, shared and benefiting everyone
  • Good Energy  – renewable and clean
  • Good Water  – clean and available to all
  • Good Lives  – living and working conditions that are just, safe and dignified

I would be remiss if this post did not highlight the heinous issue of exploited labor in global supply chains. This too is one of fast fashion’s detrimental consequences that needs to be addressed on an international scale. “Slavery is a real and growing problem throughout the world—including in the United States—and exists in many forms, including forced labor, involuntary servitude, debt bondage, human trafficking, and child labor. It is a $150 billion per year industry and is estimated to involve as many as 16 million victims of forced labor who are exploited in the private sector, including in global supply chains.”[17]

How can fast fashion and the industry change? For one thing, consumers need to become more cognizant of what kinds of fabrics they are wearing, where the fabrics and clothing are coming from, and where the fabrics end up when they are done with them. Thankfully, there is a trend amongst consumers to be more ethical and use more sustainable manufacturing practices. “Consumers are becoming more conscious, aware of the detrimental effect that the fashion industry is having on our environment.”[18]

Governments and lawmakers need to do more address this multi-layered issue through more cohesive legislation and international treaties. Currently, the laws are more piece-meal, and a more unified effort could address the fashion industry’s issues faster and with more force. Current laws include: (1) California’s Transparency in Supply Chain Act, which “requires you to disclose your efforts to ensure that your supply chains are free from slavery and human trafficking;”[19] (2) France’s Grenelle II regulation, which requires “any garments sold in France to have a label setting out a detailed ‘carbon footprint’”;[20] and (3) the EU’s REACH regulation, which makes a manufacturer “responsible for assessing and managing the risks posed by chemicals and providing appropriate safety information to their users.”[21]

Finally, the industry itself needs to change. Not all consumers have the luxury to afford the fashion brands that tote themselves as “ethical” or “sustainable.” Fast fashion is a growing industry because of its affordability and convenience. However, consumers as whole need to begin demanding truly more ethical and sustainable practices from the fashion industry. “As most people would agree, the words ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ are good objectives for business; even if the motivation of the biggest producers to take positive action might stem more from a commercial response to customer demand than from reasons of pure altruism.”[22]

Image from Forbes

[1] Brian Resnick, More than ever, our clothes are made of plastic. Just washing them can pollute the oceans, Vox (Jan. 11, 2019), https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/9/19/17800654/clothes-plastic-pollution-polyester-washing-machine; see also Jillian Aicher, Plastic Pollution: 2020 Edition, Pace Environmental Law Review (Nov. 20, 2020), https://pelr.blogs.pace.edu/2020/11/20/plastic-pollution-2020-edition/ (explaining that “8 million metric tons of [microplastic pollution finds] its way into the ocean each year.”).

 [2]Brian Resnick, More than ever, our clothes are made of plastic. Just washing them can pollute the oceans, Vox (Jan. 11, 2019), https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/9/19/17800654/clothes-plastic-pollution-polyester-washing-machine (stating that “these tiny fibers – less than 5 millimeters in length, with diameters measured in micrometers (one-thousandth of a millimeter) – can eventually reach the ocean.”).

[3] Fast fashion quick to cause environmental havoc, The University of Queensland Australia, https://sustainability.uq.edu.au/projects/recycling-and-waste-minimisation/fast-fashion-quick-cause-environmental-havoc (last visited Feb. 6, 2021).

[4] Global Fast Fashion Market Report (2020 to 2030) – COVID-19 Growth and Change, Globe NewsWire (Jun. 09, 2020), https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2020/06/09/2045523/0/en/Global-Fast-Fashion-Market-Report-2020-to-2030-COVID-19-Growth-and-Change.html#:~:text=The%20global%20fast%20fashion%20market%20is%20expected%20to%20decline%20from,CAGR)%20of%20%2D12.32%25.&text=The%20market%20is%20then%20expected,2023%20at%20CAGR%20of%206.7%25.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Dana Thomas, The High Price of Fast Fashion, The Wall Street Journal (Aug. 29, 2019), https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-high-price-of-fast-fashion-11567096637.

[8] Id.

[9] The University of Queensland Australia, supra note 3.

[10] Sarah Young, The real cost of your clothes: These are the fabrics with the best and worst environmental impact, Independent (Aug. 19, 2019),https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/fabrics-environment-fast-fashion-eco-friendly-pollution-waste-polyester-cotton-fur-recycle-a8963921.html.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. (explaining that “one billion animals are killed for leather every year while 85 per cent of the worlds leather is tanned with chromium, an extremely toxic substance that often leaves tannery workers with cancer and skin conditions.”).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Fashion For Good, https://fashionforgood.com/about-us/ (last visited Feb. 6, 2021).

[17] Amy L. Groff, Laura K. Veith, Jared A. Kephart, Modern Slavery and Transparency Legislation in the U.S. – States may Follow Suit, K&L Gates (Apr. 2, 2019), https://www.klgates.com/Modern-Slavery-and-Transparency-Legislation-in-the-US–States-May-Follow-Suit-04-02-2019.

[18] Shaelei Parmar, The Fashion Pacts: New Laws and Pacts to Change the Future of Fashion, Luxiders https://luxiders.com/the-fashion-pacts-new-laws-and-pacts-to-change-the-future-of-fashion/ (last visited Feb. 2, 2021).

[19] Tim O’Callaghan, The Law of Ethical Fashion, Druces LLP, https://www.druces.com/the-law-of-ethical-fashion/ (last visited Feb. 2, 2021).

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

2 comments

  1. I have become so hesitant to purchase new clothes because of this fact. Another deflating notion is that the majority of the clothes one donates to companies like GoodWill ultimately are thrown away.

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