The Environmental And Social Ramifications Of The Fashion Industry – Is Slow Fashion The Solution?

Slow fashion – clothes made ethically and sustainably – have recently grown in popularity due to consumers’ concern in regards to buying more consciously and step away from the fast fashion philosophy.

Repair and rewear (second-hand included) should be your first choices when it comes to earth-friendly shopping habits. However, should you need to buy new items, it is crucial to understand the differences between fast and slow fashion, and therefore under which conditions ‘slow’ is part of the solution.

The Fashion Industry

The textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. It alone produces 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent each year, equal to more than the annual emissions from international flights and maritime shipping (1).

The majority of textile production occurs in China and India, both reliant on fossil fuels like coal, making their production carbon-intensive.

Apart from the greenhouse gas emissions from the production of textiles, most textile production is in China and India means that these materials must then be shipped all around the world to be sold and used. This leads to even more significant greenhouse gas emissions from an already very carbon-intensive industry.

So, how can we fix this?

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What Is Slow Fashion?

Slow fashion aims to minimize the impacts that the fashion industry has on the environment, workers, and consumers. Essentially, it strives for more conscious consumerism and the ethical creation of clothing. It also emphasizes designing more durable goods, ultimately leading to fewer goods needing to be produced and purchased.

The slow fashion movement has been mimicked off of the slow food movement, which aims to limit the food industry’s impact on ecosystems and animals, emphasizing local food.

Similarly, slow fashion allows for clothing to have a lesser impact, and for the consumer to have a more personal connection to the sources of their clothing, rather than being entirely removed from the production of their clothing.

Rather than clothes being thought of as disposable when they break or tear, the slow fashion movement emphasizes fixing these clothes and reusing them.

Slow fashion has gained some movement in recent years, in large part because consumers are becoming increasingly aware of their environmental impacts, as well as the ecological and societal implications of the fashion industry.

Characteristics Of Slow Fashion

Slow fashion brands frequently make their products from durable and high-quality materials. They also tend to release new designs only a few times a year, emphasizing functionality rather than being trendy.

It may sometimes also be made to order to reduce waste and excessive production.

Slow fashion brands also emphasize the importance of a living wage and ethical working conditions for their employees.

Sustainable Fashion

Although sustainable fashion and slow fashion follow similar guidelines, both circling the concept of making the fashion industry have a lesser impact on the environment. The biggest difference is that slow fashion emphasizes the minimization of production and consumption.

They both, however, stress the importance of understanding the long-term impacts of production and minimizing those impacts.

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Ethical Fashion

Ethical fashion, by contrast, emphasizes the morally correct choice. Those morals may be regarding the people creating the clothing (whether that means living wages or good working conditions), animal welfare, or general environmental well-being.

What Is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion, by contrast, acts to make clothing as quickly as possible, frequently with little regard for its impacts on the environment and society.

Fast fashion is known for making extremely cheap clothing quickly, generally by mass production in foreign countries, paying well below fair wages to those working there.

This quickly became very favorable for the consumer, as they could purchase the most recent trends in fashion without having to break the bank. In a consumerism-laden world, this was highly successful.

As this method of clothing production flourished, the mentality of a “throw-away” society grew as well, where consumers are encouraged to purchase goods for cheap which are not durable, with the intent that they will fall apart and be thrown away, leaving the consumer left to buy again.

In 1995, there was 7.6 kg fiber produced per person; by 2018, this figure rose to 13.8 kg fiber per person (4). This is largely due to the fast fashion industry, in which it is incredibly cheap to purchase new clothing, making it more affordable for more people to buy more clothes every year.

75% of energy usage in the life cycle of a given piece of clothing comes from pre-retail stages, meaning that how the clothing is produced is integral to the energy consumption of that piece of clothing (4).

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Clothing Production - Materials

Let’s have a look at the most common fabrics used today. Can leather be labelled as ethical? Is Polyester a pure catastrophe? Let’s answer these questions based on the latest research.

Polyester

For most of the clothing industry’s history, cotton has been the primary material that clothes have been made from. However, in more recent years, this has switched to synthetic fibers such as polyester. Polyester now accounts for most fabrics used to produce clothing and is of ever-growing demand (1).

Synthetic fibers, like polyester, are made from fossil fuels, much like plastic. As such, they tend to have much higher greenhouse gas emissions than their cotton counterparts.

A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that one polyester t-shirt produces roughly 3.8-7.1 kg CO2 eq, depending upon whether it is knit or woven (2). On average, however, a polyester t-shirt generates 5.5 kg CO2 eq. In 2015 alone, polyester production for textile use emitted about 706 billion kg CO2 eq, equal to 1.6 billion barrels of oil, or a two-year supply of oil for the United States (2).

The lifecycle of a polyester piece of clothing looks something like the following.

It begins at an oil or natural gas well, where the virgin material is mined/drilled to create polyester, which is made from PET or polyethylene terephthalate (the same material that plastic soda bottles are made of).

This process can also begin at a recycling facility where plastic bottles are being made into polyester. The polyester is then either knit or woven, depending on the type of fabric being created.

One of the benefits of polyester is that it can be made from recycled materials like plastic bottles since both polyester and, frequently, single-use plastics are made of the same virgin materials: crude oil and natural gas. As recycled usually does, this dramatically reduces the environmental impact of these materials, most notably for greenhouse gas emissions.

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Cotton

Different from polyester and other synthetic materials, cotton is a naturally occurring plant. This does undoubtedly change the environmental impacts that the production of cotton has. While synthetic materials tend to have more remarkable carbon footprints, cotton production frequently has greater water and land use demands.

Depending on how the cotton is grown, it may also have implications for types of environmental pollution other than with greenhouse gases due to the use of fertilizers and pesticides in the growing process.

However, the most energy-consuming stage of producing a cotton t-shirt comes from the production of the fabric.

The same study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the production of one cotton t-shirt releases approximately 4.3 kg of CO2 eq, equal to roughly 10 miles driven in a car (2).

Organic cotton, however, poses some hope for more sustainably grown cotton. Organic cotton production can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over half (10). Not only can it reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it can also reduce the other environmental impacts of the growing process.

Organic agriculture uses no pesticides, along with sometimes being more conscientious about the environment as a whole, leading to lesser use of things like synthetic fertilizers.

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Leather

Unlike both cotton and polyester, the majority of greenhouse gas emissions (between 55 and 92% of emissions) from the production of leather comes from raising the animals, which will eventually create the leather.

Leather comes primarily from cattle. Raising cattle is one of the worst sectors of industrial agriculture when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, there are inherent issues with leather due to the greenhouse gas emissions of raising cattle. To learn more about this, check out this article.

To produce one pair of leather shoes, the carbon emissions from the leather in the shoes amount to roughly 10 kg CO2 eq (2), or 23.8 miles driven in a passenger car.

Ultimately leather is not the most sustainable option, particularly from an environmental standpoint.

Linen

While not as widely used as cotton and synthetic fabrics, linen has the lowest carbon footprint of many commonly used materials (8, 9), making it one of the most sustainable textiles. Linen is made from the flax plant, which requires no irrigation, pesticides, or herbicides (11).

While making it very easy to grow flax with very minimal effort, it also significantly reduces the greenhouse gas emissions, and environmental impacts, from the production of the flax plant.

The primary source of greenhouse gases in the lifetime of a linen garment comes from the production of the garment. This, however, depends on the type of energy being used to power the facilities which produce this linen.

When powered by renewable energy sources, the production of linen can be extremely carbon non-intensive (10), making it a good option for material for use in the slow and sustainable fashion industry.

Linen also has a very light, natural feel to it. As a result, there are many draws to linen both from a comfort and environmental standpoint.

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Dried Flax

Which Material Is Best?

While every material has its own drawbacks, the most sustainable options rest between cotton and linen. Both cotton and linen have the potential to be quite eco-friendly as they are naturally occurring materials. It all depends on how they are grown.

Organic cotton has promise. By growing cotton organically, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced drastically. However, linen can be grown with such ease, as there are truly very few inputs one must add to the system in order for it to grow.

It ultimately depends on how the plant in each case has been grown, but as a whole, linen tends to be a more sustainable material.

Shipping

Similar to the shipping of all products, the fashion industry requires its products to be shipped all around the world. This is especially true for fast fashion due to the fact that fast fashion is in part able to do what it does by outsourcing production to foreign countries with lower wage requirements.

However, the dichotomy here is that the countries that are consuming the goods produced by the fast fashion industry are frequently not the same countries that they are made in. As a result, garments must be shipped long distances from their origin of production to where they will be sold and used.

Slow fashion, by contrast, attempts to minimize the distances which any given garment must travel through its production process. So, slow fashion emphasizes the use of a more local supply chain.

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Production - Working Conditions

While fast fashion has kept the price of clothing in first-world countries, like the United States, relatively low, it has had irreparable damage to the factory workers in foreign countries who are making the garments.

In the past decade, the harsh working conditions, including some child labor and virtually non-livable wages that are far too frequent in the fashion industry, have been publicized.

Garment workers are disproportionately women, and sexual harassment runs rampant within too many garment factories, contributing to unsafe and unfair conditions (12).

Clothing factories have taken far too many lives while simultaneously providing terrible working conditions. Slow fashion works to have better ethical standards for the working conditions and wages paid to garment workers.

This is essential to make a sustainable and ethical fashion industry a reality.

Clothes Washing and Micro-plastics

Clothes washing is the second biggest contributor of greenhouse gases in the lifecycle of a given garment, only behind the actual production of the garment (8). This significance makes it a very critical area to be aware of to limit the environmental impact of your clothing.

Today, about 60% of garments are made from synthetic fabrics like polyester (6). While they are handy in many situations, these synthetic fabrics are made out of what is essentially plastic. Like all plastics, as they very slowly break down, it results in the creation of Microplastics.

Note: Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic (less than 5mm long) (7).

Due to their minuscule size, they can very quickly end up in our ecosystems and water sources and can be very hard to detect without the proper equipment. As a result, our marine ecosystems are increasingly becoming polluted with Microplastics, a large portion of which come from the machine washing of synthetic fabrics (6).

This study found that when polyester clothes are washed on a normal cotton fabric cycle, they release significantly more Microplastics (38.60 mg microplastic/kg polyester) than when they are washed on a delicate cycle (32.51 mg microplastic/kg polyester) (6).

The same study also found that subsequent washing cycles will continue to produce roughly the same amount of Microplastics; it does not decrease. This means that every time a synthetic garment is washed it releases significant amounts of Microplastics into the wastewater, which will eventually end up in our aquatic ecosystems and harm them.

To truly take environmental impacts into account, slow fashion brands should emphasize the use of sustainably grown cotton and other natural fabrics to limit the industry’s reliance on fossil fuel-based fabrics.

The washing of clothing can also damage clothing, making them not last as long as they may be able to otherwise. Washing your clothing less and using cold water may help lengthen the life of a garment while also saving energy.

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End Of Life Outcome

Almost 60% of all clothing produced is disposed of within one year of production (3). With those kinds of statistics, there is certainly a lot of room for improvement. Of that 60%, all clothing items end up either in a landfill or incinerated.

This amount of clothing being thrown away is equal to the amount of one garbage truck full of clothes going to the landfill every second (1). Let that sink in. Every second, we, as a society, are wasting an entire garbage truck full of clothing. There must be a better way.

Because slow fashion strives for durable clothing, the end of its life should be far away from when you purchase it.

Recycling

Estimates show that less than 1% of the materials used to produce clothing are recycled within the clothing industry, although around 13% are recycled for use in other sectors (1).

Slow fashion brands reject and work toward much higher goals. Slow fashion brands emphasize taking their products back and repairing or reusing them when they have been worn out.

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Landfill

Any company whose first solution to textile waste is to throw it in the landfill is more than likely not to uphold slow fashion ideals.

Landfills are problematic for our environment by producing a lot of methane, and polluting nearby water sources. These environmental impacts are disproportionally felt by minority groups, as landfills are more commonly built near communities with high proportions of minority groups.

Therefore, not only does landfilling go against the environmental ideals set forth by the slow fashion industry, but it goes against the social responsibility pillars.

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Circular Economy

One key aspect to look for when assessing a brand’s sustainability is whether they offer any sort of repair or return system. Companies that do this may use returned, old clothing to make new clothing.

This thinking, where the company is responsible for making the clothes but what happens to their products when they are no longer usable, is integral to slow fashion. The waste from production is harmful to the environment and those living near where the waste is being dumped.

In this sense, ensuring that old products will be either repaired or reused stresses the two main facets of slow fashion: social responsibility and environmental impact.

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Final Thoughts

The fashion industry indeed has many issues ranging from human treatment issues to pollution.

Slow fashion certainly works against the most significant problems in the fast fashion industry, and much of the fashion industry more broadly as well.

Slow fashion reminds us to consume less and reuse and fix what we have, rather than treating all goods as disposable.

It also reminds us to fully consider the social impacts of the goods and clothing that we consume, always trying to ensure that companies treat their employees fairly and are mindful of what happens to their products when they appear to reach the end of their lives.

Avoid fast fashion whenever possible, support slow fashion, limit your consumption of synthetic materials and do your best to ensure that your natural fibers (like cotton or linen) are being grown sustainably.

Ultimately, however, it is always better to buy second-hand clothing.

Thrifting and other means of acquiring second-hand clothing remain the most sustainable, as no new resources must go into the making of that product (and you’re significantly reducing your shopping budget!)

It is crucial to keep these ideas in mind not only when purchasing clothing but in all aspects of your life.

Consume consciously, always understanding the environmental impacts of your consumption and the treatment of those producing the goods you use every day.

Resources
  1. https://www-nature-com.colorado.idm.oclc.org/articles/s41558-017-0058-9.pdf
  2. https://matteroftrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/SustainableApparelMaterials.pdf
  3. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability/our-insights/style-thats-sustainable-a-new-fast-fashion-formula#
  4. https://www-sciencedirect-com.colorado.idm.oclc.org/science/article/pii/S0959652621006107?via%3Dihub
  5. https://www-sciencedirect-com.colorado.idm.oclc.org/science/article/pii/S004896972102372X
  6. https://www-sciencedirect-com.colorado.idm.oclc.org/science/article/pii/S0269749119341065
  7. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html
  8. https://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/ungc-production/attachments/cop_2017/370971/original/01_Ganni_clothing_carbon_footprint_2016.pdf?1490792645
  9. https://www.co2everything.com/co2e-of/linen
  10. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276193965_Carbon_Footprint_of_Textile_and_Clothing_Products
  11. https://www.marketplace.org/2021/07/01/grow-your-own-jeans-british-plan-reshape-textile-industry/
  12. https://aleteia.org/2019/09/24/a-guide-to-clothing-brands-and-the-way-their-garment-workers-are-treated/3/
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