The fashion industry may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the world’s biggest carbon emitters, but according to the United Nations Environment Programme, the fashion industry accounts for up to 10% of global carbon emissions—more than maritime shipping and international flights combined (Putting, 2018). Fast fashion has made clothing affordable for many people, but it’s time to rethink the environmental impacts of the fashion industry.
Clothing production requires 93 billion cubic meters of water annually and generates 20% of the world’s wastewater. Producing one kilogram of cotton for a pair of jeans consumes 7,500-10,000 liters of water (Cho, 2021). The production of wastewater from the fashion industry greatly harms the environment, especially in developing countries where textile production occurs. The dyes used to make colorful clothes contain carcinogenic chemicals and salts, and they often contaminate drinking sources in developing countries that do not have strict laws on dumping wastewater into rivers and streams (Regan, 2020).
On top of its harmful impact on the global water supply, the fashion industry significantly contributes to plastic pollution. Most clothing is made of synthetic fibers like polyester, rayon, nylon, and acrylic—which shed tiny plastics called microfibers when washed. Scientists have found microfibers in diverse places ranging from the ocean floor to snow in the Arctic. Although wastewater treatment systems filter out most microfibers, a lot of these still make their way into rivers and oceans. Microfibers not only harm small aquatic organisms that eat them, but they have also made their way up the food chain to human consumption. Researchers have found plastic microfibers in the fish and shellfish that humans consume, but more research is needed to investigate the exact impact of microfibers on human health. Once in the environment, microfibers are extremely difficult to clean up because they do not biodegrade (What, 2020).
How can innovators address these environmental issues? In 2016, Theanne Schiros, assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and principal investigator at Columbia University’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, led a group of students in creating a biodegradable yarn made from algae. Kelp, its main ingredient, is a fast-growing plant that absorbs carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Along with biomedical engineer Helen Lu, Schiros launched AlgiKnit, a startup dedicated to creating new materials. AlgiKnit is dedicated to reducing the carbon footprint of textiles by using a functional and renewable yarn (Cho, 2021). Companies like AlgiKnit can overtake fast fashion if they can create durable and biodegradable textiles at a low cost. Although still in their infancy, innovative textile companies offer hope for creating more sustainable clothing.
Another brand reimagining the environmental impact of fashion is Polartec, an outdoor brand at the forefront of sustainable material innovation. Polartec started using recycled plastic in their materials in 1993, and they have been dedicated to sustainability since then. In 2019, Polartec created a line that reduces the number of microfibers shed while washing. Their Power Air technology puts the heat-holding fuzzy fibers inside a tighter knit, which prevents the fuzzy fibers from shedding microfibers. Since a lot of microfibers pollute the water supply through laundry machines, Polartec’s innovative technology offers a potential solution to the pollution of microfibers in water supplies (Winridge, 2021).
Although the fashion industry currently has a devastating impact on the environment, fashion designers and retailers are pioneering new initiatives towards building a more sustainable industry. From garment recycling programs to clothing rentals, people are finding new ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the fashion industry. It’s time to rethink the fast fashion trend and establish a new trend—sustainable clothing.
Cho, Renee. “Why Fashion Needs to Be More Sustainable.” State of the Planet, Columbia Climate School, 10 June 2021, news.climate.columbia.edu/2021/06/10/why-fashion-needs-to-be-more-sustainable/.
“Putting the Brakes on Fast Fashion.” UNEP, 12 Nov. 2018, www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/putting-brakes-fast-fashion.
Regan, Helen. “Asian Rivers Are Turning Black. And Our Colorful Closets Are to Blame .” CNN, 28 Sept. 2020, www.cnn.com/style/article/dyeing-pollution-fashion-intl-hnk-dst-sept/index.html.
“What You Should Know About Microfiber Pollution.” EPA, www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2020-07/documents/article_2_microfibers.pdf.
Windridge, Melanie. “Sustainable Fabrics Reducing The Impact Of Microplastics On The Planet.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 27 Jan. 2021, www.forbes.com/sites/melaniewindridge/2021/01/27/sustainable-fabrics-reducing-the-impact-of-microplastics-on-the-planet/?sh=3e2be0c14e74.