PERILS OF APPAREL:
THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF WHAT YOU WEAR
Presented at the Art World Expo, Science World, Vancouver, 11 May 2018
Also presented as an afternoon Salon by the Suzuki Elders, Vancouver, 5 Apr 2018
The title of this presentation is Perils of Apparel: the environmental impacts of what you wear. As you probably are aware, the apparel industry has come in for quite a bit of adverse publicity lately, largely because of its environmental impacts. There have been lots of images of warehouses overflowing with donated clothing and mountainous dumps loaded with waste textiles. The goal of this presentation is to clearly and simply show how consumers like you can easily make clothing purchase decisions that have fewer adverse environmental impacts on our planet once you have an understanding of what is creating the problems.
We tackle this goal by focusing on two questions:
• The first question is: What are the environmental impacts of the apparel industry today?
• The second question is: What can we do to reduce these environmental impacts?
We sincerely hope that by the end of this presentation you will have a good overview of the environmental challenges that the apparel industry creates AND that you will have a clear understanding of what you can do to help resolve these challenges with your clothing purchase decisions.
Please remember one key point: As consumers we can be very powerful because companies usually stop producing products quite quickly when there is little market demand for them!
Before we start examining the first question about the environmental impacts of the apparel industry, there are a few questions for all of you to answer for yourselves:
Let’s start by looking at an item of clothing that you are wearing right now. Take a minute to think about the reason you decided to purchase it. Please try to answer these questions
honestly and without judgment.
1. How many of you would say that design was a significant factor in your decision?
In other words, you chose this item because you liked the way it looked on you.
2. How many of you would say that cost was a significant factor in your decision?
This factor involves thinking about your budget and what you thought you could afford,
or were willing to pay for the item.
3. How many of you would say that environmental impact was a significant factor in your
decision? This factor takes into account the material and production process used in constructing the garment.
OVERVIEW OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF THE APPAREL INDUSTRY
Of course, it would be very surprising if everyone answered that environmental impact was a significant factor because, until this past decade, there has not been much attention paid to this matter. And even now, most people would not give much weight to this factor, especially if the design and cost were both acceptable.
As just noted, until quite recently, the environmental impact of a garment has not been a major factor in decisions about clothing purchases for most people, including the two of us. You might ask, “But does it really matter whether or not we consider environmental impact in our purchasing decisions?” To answer this question we need to look more closely at pollution in the apparel industry and that brings us to the first question: What are the environmental impacts of the apparel industry today?
Many people do not realize that the apparel industry is the second most polluting industry on earth exceeded only by the oil industry. You might ask how it is possible for the apparel industry can be so polluting. There is a very simple answer: in the past few decades there has been a huge growth in the demand for clothing globally, and the explosion of clothing produced to meet this demand has resulted in a very dramatic increase in environmental pollution.
This brings us to a discussion of the topic of fast fashion because the arrival of fast fashion
radically changed the apparel industry, a multi-trillion dollar industry these days. So what
exactly is fast fashion? It is a phenomenon that sees high fashion designs copied and produced very cheaply and quickly and sold at low prices. The low prices trigger mass consumption – It makes people feel rich to be able to buy so much new clothing so cheaply! However, this business model has two very serious hidden costs – the costs of much greater environmental pollution and the costs of poor working conditions for the workers who produce the clothing so quickly and inexpensively.
The apparel Industry has traditionally worked on a linear model often termed a “Take-Make-Waste model.” In a Take-Make-Waste Linear Model raw materials are taken to produce textiles that are used to make garments that then go to waste at the end of their often very short lives with adverse impacts for the environment.
There is environmental pollution occurring at every stage in the life cycle of every garment, including large amounts of waste clothing either going to landfill or being burned because many textiles are not recycled at present. Today there is much attention being given to circular models for the fashion industry because they would reduce or eliminate the huge amount of waste resulting from linear models. To explain what is possible with circular economy models let me give you the example of Vigga, a Danish company that produces high-quality baby clothing from organic materials.
Because the price of these baby clothes is high and the sizes of the babies change so quickly, the company makes its clothes available on a monthly subscription basis with new clothes in the correct sizes arriving and outgrown clothes being sent back to the company for professional laundering and shipment to new customers.
As you can see, this business model has an inbuilt incentive to create garments that never end up in waste. This business model is in dramatic contrast to a linear fast fashion business model that encourages consumers to dispose of clothes quickly and buy new ones driven by the incentive of seductively low prices.
It is quite interesting to look at the history of the fashion industry to see the roots of fast
fashion. Key milestones are set out below:
• Before the transformation initiated by the Industrial Revolution with the rise of
machines to make cloth in the late 1700s and early 1800s, all clothing was produced by
• Couture houses and local dressmakers then took over responsibility for making clothing
until after WW2 when mass-produced clothing came onto the scene.
• Demand for clothes increased dramatically in the 1960s and at this time some of the top
fast fashion brands such as Zara, H&M, Primark and TopShop got their start in Europe
with low costs largely based on local sweatshop labour.
• In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a small movement that started with the
founders of Patagonia and Esprit to introduce what was termed ‘eco-fashion or
sustainable fashion,’ but this development has not had a really significant impact on the
mainstream fashion industry to date.
• The first use of the term ‘fast fashion’ came in a New York Times article about the
opening of the first Zara store in New York City in 1990. It described the 15-day
turnaround time from designer idea to product availability on store racks.
• Today fast fashion can be found all around the globe and the environmental impacts
arising from fast fashion can also be found all around the globe.
ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS IN EACH PHASE IN THE LIFE OF A GARMENT
As mentioned before, there are adverse environmental impacts associated with each phase
in the life of a garment as outlined briefly now.
The first phase begins with the raw materials:
All garments start their life with raw materials. The raw materials can be either natural
fibers such as cotton, flax, hemp silk and wool, or they can be man-made fibers such as
polyester and other synthetic textiles. Growing the crops that produce natural fibers,
especially cotton, involves the use of large amounts of insecticides, weedicides, and
fertilizer, along with large amounts of water for irrigation – all of which put a strain on the
environment. In the case of man-made fibers, many are based on petroleum, which as we
know, has adverse environmental impacts.
The second phase is the production of the garments:
The energy requirements for producing fabrics are high, especially for synthetic fibers such
as polyester, nylon and spandex. There are many chemicals used at various phases of the
production, including the dye process. These chemicals are harmful to the factory workers
and are, in many cases, being dumped into rivers and other waterways with adverse impacts on the environment.
Phase 3 is distribution:
Once a garment has been produced it has to be distributed, and that involves vast amountsof fossil fuels for transportation by air, sea, rail and truck. Since the production is much less expensive in developing countries, these garments are often travelling long distances to where they will be sold.
Phase 4 is use:
After purchase, all garments need to be cared for. Washing as well as drying, ironing and dry cleaning have environmental impacts. Of particular concern is the release of fibers from synthetic fabrics during machine-washing, especially since these fibers are not effectively filtered out in our sewage treatment plants. Even hand washing releases some fibers. These ‘microfibers’ then end up in our oceans where they find their way into marine plants and animals, as well as into the soil in which our crops are grown, and inevitably, are now being found in the food that we eat. Studies are being done to determine the impacts on humanhealth and we do expect that there could be negative impacts here as well. The actual lifespan of a garment is also of concern, since cheaply made clothes do not last very long,which leads us to the final phase.
The fifth and final phase is disposal:
There has recently been considerable attention paid to the disposal of unwanted clothing in
landfills or through incineration. Because of the rise of fast fashion, we are producing and
consuming clothing at such a rapid rate that too much waste is ending up in our landfills.
Whereas developing countries used to take our used clothing for resale, they are now
refusing to do so. Furthermore, poor quality clothing cannot be donated to good causes,
and a very small percentage of textiles are suitable for actual recycling. The EPA in the
United States has estimated that only about 15% of the 13 million tons of textile waste
produced each year are recycled – that is only about 2 million tons of that total of 13
million. Apparently, the average American trashes 65 pounds of textile every year.
In many respects fast fashion is rather like fast food. As we all know, fast food is cheap and convenient, and also very tasty. But it is not terribly good for our health in the longer term, especially if we consume a lot of it! It could then be said that fast fashion is not terribly good for our planet’s health in the longer term. Is this outcome really what clothing consumers should want?
STRATEGIES TO REDUCE THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF GARMENTS
So now that we have had a brief overview of the environmental impacts of the fashion
industry, let’s take a look at the second question: What can we do to reduce these
In assessing the role that we as individuals can play in reducing the pollution currently
created by the apparel industry, we need to look in a bit more detail at our own decision making process. These decisions often involve making tradeoffs between different options.
More often than not, we purchase clothing for specific events. For example, you have been invited to a wedding or a graduation ceremony in four weeks and need something dressy for the occasion. You have several options sitting in your closet, but all seem to look either too dated or too tight, or both! You could consider altering one of them yourself, if that would be possible without ruining it, or perhaps you could borrow something suitable from a friend if you were not too worried that it might get damaged. Perhaps you could purchase something that would work well for the occasion at a thrift store, but maybe you would be wiser in the long run to buy something new in a classic style that is eco-friendly, even if it costs more money, and especially if you know you will use it again for future occasions.
So, what do you do?
Or let’s say that you have been invited to go on a hiking trip next weekend and want to bring a lightweight jacket in case of rain. There are attractive leisurewear options these days – some of which meet all of the criteria for sustainability. You find a sustainable option in one of these stores, but the price is beyond your budget, especially for a jacket you might not need very often. You consider visiting second-hand stores, but you don’t have much time to fit in visits to a number of stores. You then think about finding the jacket that you want at a lower price online, but size and the delivery time may be a problem.
Again, what do you do?
There are a number of factors that can come into play if we want to make our purchasing
decisions as ethical and sustainable as possible, all while being happy with the way we look!
If we wish to make clothing choices that have little or no impact on the planet and, of
course, still manage to look presentable and be comfortable in our clothes, it seems that we need to accept that clothing purchasing decisions present dilemmas that involve a series of tradeoffs among options.
More and more information is coming out about the negative impacts of the apparel
industry on the earth. And now, because of the rise of fast fashion, we have more options
than ever. We need to commit to continually becoming more informed about our clothing
options and their impacts on the planet, as well as on the people who produce them.
Three questions you could ask yourself could be:
Question No. 1: Do I actually need new clothing for this occasion?
• Both renting and borrowing have become more widespread since the rise of the
Sharing Economy in which ownership is regarded as less and less important.
• Acquisition of second-hand clothing has become increasingly popular as evidenced
by the numbers of new consignment shops and thrift shops. These options reduce
waste and reduce demands for environmentally costly new clothing manufacture.
Question No. 2: Can I buy second hand and, if I have to buy new, can I find garments that have as little negative impact on the planet as possible?
• For example, choosing options that are locally produced, or clothing made from
organic or recycled fibers.
Question No. 3: Can I look after this garment so that it has as little adverse environmental
impact on the planet as possible?
• There are a number of ways in which the care of a garment can be reduced and its
lifespan extended. For example: washing it less, air-drying it, eliminating or reducing
pressing and dry cleaning, as well as repairing and altering it over time.
• Care of garments includes the end-of-life stage as well, with the main objective
being to reduce landfill and burning options, to swap used items with others, to
recycle clothes responsibly, and to re-purpose old clothes (like making cleaning rags
So, when we were trying to come up with one very simple and yet hopefully really
memorable way of thinking about what has to happen to reduce the perils of apparel, we
landed upon three simple words:
LESS * IS * MORE
• Less use of synthetic fibers in making new clothes means a more sustainable planet.
• Less use of toxic chemicals and energy in clothing production means a more sustainable
• Less washing of clothes means a more sustainable planet, with fewer fibers shed from
clothes in our water and soil.
• Less clothing to landfills and burning means a more sustainable planet.
• And finally, less new clothing means a more sustainable planet, especially if the new
clothing purchased is sustainably produced.
With this in mind, we will add few words now about the evidence that progress is being
made on the perils associated with today’s apparel industry.
EVIDENCE OF POSITIVE CHANGE IN THE APPAREL INDUSTRY
We would like to give you three examples of changes to the apparel industry that are good
for the planet.
The first change is the increase in the number of sustainable clothing producers and we see many wonderful examples her at the Art World Expo this evening – a shout out to all of you who are making important inroads in reducing textile pollution by giving consumers great options for dressing in a sustainable manner! In line with the increasing availability of sustainable clothing a post online directs consumers to the 50 most inspirational blogs on sustainable fashion.
The second change is the death of fashion trends and the rise of a different trend – that of
personal style that works well for the individual. This change is very significant in terms of
clothing purchases. For so many years fashion trends have dominated purchasing. The new approach involves a recognition that people should be able to decide for themselves what works for them personally rather than slavishly following fashion trends. In a recently released Greenpeace report entitled Timeout for Fast Fashion the authors argue that we actually may have reached peak fashion because consumers have become exhausted by all of the cheap clothing.
The third change is the gradual emergence of a movement against fast fashion based on
growing awareness of the magnitude of the problems that it is creating. This awareness is a result of powerful documentary films. For example, True Cost is a film that charts decreasing clothing costs and rising human and environmental costs and poses the question “Who really pays the price for our clothing?” Another powerful example is RiverBlue, a film that follows Vancouver-based International River Conservationist Mark Angelo as he uncovers the dark side of the global fashion industry and its dire consequences for some of the world’s most beautiful rivers. There has also been considerable TV and newspaper reporting on textile pollution and a huge array of blog posts on the subject that have set off some alarm bells about the apparel industry. The upshot of this media attention is increasing social pressure to change the way that we clothe ourselves.
Much remains to be done. High profile fashion designers like Stella McCartney and others
are speaking out on the subject of the need for change in the industry. She and other
industry leaders and researchers worked together a fascinating report entitled A new
textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future. This report identifies four challenging
priorities for redesigning the apparel industry:
• Priority No. 1 – To phase out substances of concern, e.g., dyes and additives as well
as microfiber release.
• Priority No. 2 – To move clothing away from it current disposable commodity statue.
• Priority No. 3 – To radically improve textile recycling so that much higher amounts of
recycling are achieved.
• Priority No. 4 – To better use resources such as water and energy and to move to
renewable inputs that would end reliance on fossil fuels as a raw material.
These are not easy problems to solve but, as we saw with the example of the Danish
company making baby clothes, business opportunities can emerge when entrepreneurs are
prepared to think outside the box.
In this presentation we have tried to give you an overview of the pollution issues associated with the apparel industry including the environmental impacts of garments at each stage of their life cycle. Then we have tried to provide some practical advice on making environmentally sensitive decisions about clothing purchases and a few comments about current trends that appear to be slowly moving consumers away from fast fashion.
A short story that picks up some of the key issues discussed will be used to conclude this
presentation. This is the story of a European ethical jeans producer in Europe called MUD
Jeans. The company’s General Manager was asked to make a presentation on his garment
lines to distributors along with a number of other garment producers. Since the General
Manager was the last on the program it was suggested to him that he should provide
champagne to the audience. He agreed. The day came and he made his presentation, and at the end – as he had agreed – he announced that there would be champagne for all. He
turned, as if to go and get the champagne. Then he stopped. After pausing briefly, he turned back to the audience and announced that there would be no champagne. The audience looked on expectantly waiting for an explanation. The General Manager quietly told the audience that he had taken all of the money that he would have spent on champagne and invested the money in education for one year for 28 children in a developing country.
He went on to explain his decision a bit further. He spoke about the trade-off that he had to make between two options. His first option was to give the audience what he termed as ‘transitory pleasure’ for a few enjoyable minutes of drinking champagne. His second option was to give the audience a longer-term good feeling knowing that their ‘sacrifice’ of a glass of champagne meant that a group of children in a developing country was receiving a year of school education. After thinking about both options as an ethical jeans producer he chose the second option because he felt that the audience would prefer a longer lasting good feeling.
In some respects we could argue that this is the dilemma that we face every time that we
make a choice about what clothing to buy. On the one hand, we can choose The Glass of
Champagne Option that gives us the immediate satisfaction of something new to wear at a
low cost but with adverse impacts on the environment as well as the people who make the
clothes in many cases. On the other hand, we can choose The Educate 28 Children in a
Developing Country for One Year Option that costs more but gives us the potentially longer lasting satisfaction of knowing that this choice has less harmful impacts on the planet and those who make the clothes.
The choice is ours.
We always have the option of making choices that can make a positive difference to the
world. Nelson Mandela expressed this idea eloquently when he said, “We can change the
world and make it a better place. It is in our hands to make a difference.“ HIs life illustrated this viewpoint on a grand scale, but in our lives we all have a chance to make a difference on a small scale and the cumulative effect of a lot of small-scale changes will result in the larger-scale changes that will go a long way toward eliminating the perils of apparel.
Download a pdf of the perils of apparel pamphlet by clicking below:
[Prepared by Patricia Plackett of the Education and Community Engagement Working Group]