Shopping malls, glossy fashion magazines, catalogs and Internet ads bombard us with entertaining opportunities to spend money. Feeding this rampant consumerism is the “fast fashion” trend, in which clothing is designed to be moved as quickly as possible from catwalk to store. Only about 10 years old, fast fashion is leading the way in actual disposable clothing and it is particularly worrisome because it creates demand for and then constantly churns out massive amounts of cheap clothes, ultimately accelerating carbon emissions and global warming.
At $108 for a white organic cotton tank top, Eileen Fisher is a high-end retailer, out of reach for most consumers. The vast majority of us shop at the giant fashion retailers, which have the biggest carbon footprint—and many of them specialize in fast fashion. Swedish giant H&M is the current largest clothing retailer in the world at $20.2 billion in sales (as of January 2015) followed by Zara, another fast fashion specialist.
The fashion industry by design is constantly changing with the seasons, but fast fashion can change weekly, summed up by a sign in H&M, “New stuff is coming in each and every day. So why not do the same.” It’s not uncommon for shoppers to wear an item once or twice before throwing it away for next week’s style, aided by the poor quality of many of the clothes causing them to fall apart after several washes.
Fashion is all about image, so many retailers have recently made efforts to cultivate a greener image. H&M has a sustainability effort called H&M Conscious: a “promise to bring you more fashion choices that are good for people, the planet and your wallet.” But what of its claims of sustainability? There is some question as to whether this is real greening or just greenwashing.
As stated In its 2014 sustainability report H&M’s CEO Karl-Johan Persson said, “In order to remain a successful business, we need to keep growing and at the same time respect the planetary boundaries.” The intense consumerism and rate of production needed to grow these fast fashion retailers does not reflect the fact that energy is increasingly expensive and resources are limited. Globalization and the never-ending search for the lowest labor rates that made those jeans possible has limits as well.
Made from petrochemicals, polyester and nylon are not biodegradable, so they are unsustainable by their very nature. While the manufacturing of both uses great amounts of energy, nylon also emits a large amount of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, during manufacturing. The impact of one pound of nitrous oxide on global warming is almost 300 times that of the same amount of carbon dioxide, the most ubiquitous greenhouse gas.
It’s estimated that it takes about 70 million barrels of oil just to produce the virgin polyester used in fabrics each year. But recycled polyester made from discarded plastic polymer products is now being considered as a greener option, as it takes less than half the energy to produce and helps keep plastic products, like drinking bottles, out of landfills. But there are downsides to recycled polyester. Used plastic bottles must still be cleaned and the labels mechanically removed before made into polyester fabric. The process is mostly done by hand and that means these plastic bottles are shipped to countries with low labor rates, using dirty fossil fuels to send them there.
Much of what is touted as recycled polyester is actually greenwashed products. The U.S. still has a very low rate of plastic recycling, only 6 percent. So clothing manufacturers, eager to tout their “recycled” clothes, can’t get enough old soda bottles. Because the demand is so much higher than the supply, some cynical suppliers are buying unused bottles directly from their manufacturers to make polyester clothing which they can label recycled.
Even when they’re being laundered by you, your polyester clothes are harming our waterways. Ecologist Michael Browne examined sediment along the world’s shorelines and noticed fibers everywhere. The threads he found were tiny, synthetic and ubiquitous near sewage outflows. Eighty-five percent of the microfibers found along the shoreline were human-made material and “matched the types of material, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing.”
Going down the drain from our domestic washing machines Browne estimates that around 1,900 individual fibers can be washed off a single garment and find their way into the oceans and on shores everywhere. These fibers are another pathway for the chemicals in the fabric to get into the environment.