The bleak outlook of the fashion industry - is Eco-fashion the answer?

June 05, 2019

Wikipedia defines Eco-fashion as “part of the growing design philosophy and trend of sustainability, the goal of which is to create a system which can be supported indefinitely in terms of human impact on the environment and social responsibility. It can be seen as an alternative trend against fast fashion.” Ethical Fashion Forum defines Eco-fashion as “a broader term used for all clothing, fabrics and accessories that have been manufactured in an environmentally conscious way.”

But first, let’s delve into why the fashion industry, or more specifically, why fast-fashion is so destructive to the environment. Fast-fashion is the current term used by fashion retailers, industry writers and consumers to express the quick movement of designs from catwalk to buyer, capitalizing on rapidly changing fashion trends. The manufacturing of these on-trend pieces is optimized, delivering the end product to consumers quickly and inexpensively.

Historically there has been two major fashion seasons a year: Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter. Since the late 1990’s, we see around 18 micro seasons throughout the year. The term fast fashion has become associated with that of disposable fashion, due to the poor quality of the product. The fabric may tear easily or even fall apart after a few washes. Fast fashion is identified with inferior fabrics, poor workmanship, poor working conditions, and toxic dye and chemical usage during processing. It’s also the major contributor of decaying synthetic or chemically treated fabric in landfills.

You might think that it’s not that bad, but estimates put the fashion industry at $1.2 trillion, with H&M making $20.2 billion in sales in 2015, and Zara being second at $19.7 billion. With 22 billion new clothing items brought into the United States each year, and only two percent of those clothes being made domestically, it is definitely worth a second thought.

In what ways does fast fashion negatively impact humans and our environment? Let’s consider the process.

The Growth of Cotton and the Creation of Polyester

According to the European Commission, conventional cotton has the highest environmental impact per kilogram of fiber. Mainly this is due to the large quantities of pesticides and fertilizers used to grow cotton, which is estimated to be about 25% of the world’s pesticide and herbicide use. It also requires a lot of water. For example, the production of the cotton t-shirt you are wearing used up 7,001 gallons of water.

While the manufacturing of conventional cotton has plateaued, for reasons such as limited available acreage to plant crops, there has been a rise in the manufacturing of polyester. According to Tecnon Orbichem, 30.9 million tonnes (or 31.4 million tons) of fiber was produced in 2007. (By 2025, that number is predicted to reach 90.5 million tonnes with China forecasted to produce 85% of it. )

Polyester is synthetically made by a chemical reaction involving coal, petroleum, air and water. A vacuum and very high temperatures are needed in order for this reaction to occur. Ethylene, which is derived from petroleum, is the main ingredient. According to, dimethyl terephthalate is first reacted with ethylene glycol in the presence of a catalyst (such as antimony) at a temperature of 302-410˚F. The result is combined with terephthalic acid and raised to a temperature of 472˚F. In the drying phase, the long molten ribbons are cooled until they become brittle. Then they are cut into tiny chips, which are melted at 500-518˚F, forming a syrup-like solution. This sticky solution is forced through very small holes, producing fibers. At the spinning state, other chemicals may be added.

Around 70 million barrels of oil are used each year in the production of the polyester fiber that is used in fabrics.

The Chemicals in our Clothes

Many chemicals are added to our clothing during manufacturing, even to organic clothing. The purpose of these chemicals is to make fabric soft, wrinkle free, stain resistant and waterproof. Common chemicals used includes: Nonylphenol ethoxylates - cleaning and rinsing agents - which even at low levels are hazardous to our health and have been detected in the water where garments are made or washed; Perfluorinated chemicals (PFC’s) - water and stainproof agents - which can affect an organism’s growth, development and reproduction. These persistent chemicals remain in the environment for long periods of time and accumulate in the bloodstream of animals. 

In countries that don’t have strict environmental laws, these additional chemicals may be added to your clothing: Formaldehyde - a known respiratory and skin irritant, as well as, carcinogen - to create permanent press and other wrinkle-resistant fabrics; Phthalates - known hormone disrupters - to soften PVC, making shoes more flexible and durable; Brominated flame retardants - endocrine disrupters - commonly used to make flame-resistant sleepwear for children.

Dyes are chemicals, too. In general dyes are not known to cause acute effects in humans (though some are considered toxic). However, when released into nature, dyes can harm ecosystems as they accumulate. It is estimated that 10-50% of the dyes used in clothing manufacturing are lost as, and end up as, effluent — liquid waste that flows into waterways — due to the inefficiency of the dyeing process. Textile plant waste water is classified as the most polluting of all industrial sectors. Some waterways even end up tainted with the season’s most popular colors.

The dyeing process uses other chemicals as well. Before fabrics are dyed, they are bleached with hydrogen peroxide or chlorine containing compounds. Brightening agents are added if the fabric will be sold white. Chemical aids such as surfactants, acids, alkalis, electrolytes, leveling agents and softening agents are used to get a uniform color. More chemical compounds such as permanent-press treatments, waterproofing, and stain prevention are used to “finish” the fabric. As far as water is concerned, each time a fabric is passed through a solution, water must be used in an an equivalent amount to the weight of the fabric. 

The Environmental Footprint of Home Care

Often overlooked, washing, drying and ironing accounts for 47% of the environmental damage of one pair of jeans. You can almost half the ecological impact by reducing how often you wash your jeans, and hang to dry.

Another polluting factor is the micro-plastics released when washing polyester. Marine animals are specifically at risk due to ingestion or respiration of these micro-plastic fibers, as well as, through chemical exposure. Humans eat fish and marine animals, and therefore we too are at risk of the toxic effects of micro-plastics.

Plymouth University did an analysis of synthetic materials being washed in domestic washing machines. They found an average load of six kilograms could release an estimated 137,951 fibers from polyester-cotton blend fabric, 496,030 fibers from polyester and 728,789 fibers from acrylic.

The Disposal of Garments

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 84% of unwanted clothes in the US in 2012 ended up in a landfill or incinerator. Many consignment stores reject clothing from fast-fashion retailers, and if you donate to charities like the Salvation Army, nearly half of the charitable donations go to textile recyclers. These unwanted items are recycled into things like insulation, which will end up in a landfill eventually. The polyester fibers can be recycled through two different processes: mechanical and chemical. The mechanical process results in a poorer quality material, which in time becomes unusable. Chemical recycling breaks down the plastic’s polymers into its molecular parts to make a new plastic, but this method is hardly ever used due to its high cost. Incredibly, only 0.1% of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fiber, says H&M’s Development Sustainability Manager, Henrik Lampa. And according to the EPA,15.1 million tons of textile waste was generated in 2013, of which 12.8 million tons were discarded.

Natural fibers like cotton, tencel and silk behave like food waste in a landfill, producing methane gas as they biodegrade. Composting isn’t an option because even natural fibers may go through processes such as deying or adding flame retardants before being sold as clothing. And manmade polyester can take hundreds of years to biodegrade.

The Contracts and Working Conditions

After the runway shows, retailers subcontract the manufacturing of trendy items to the lowest bidder. Manufacturers are expected to produce the items quickly or forfeit their contracts. This encourages production managers and workers in overseas factories to work long hours, in not always safe conditions. Despite repeated visits by inspectors, manufacturers often bypass costly quality control practices and health and safety standards. Additionally, there are countries that exploit children in the growing of cotton and production of textiles. The Bureau of International Relation Affairs has compiled a related list of such countries. 

What is the Future?

Is Eco-Fashion, or slow fashion, the answer to the fast-fashion industry? It could play a major role, although not a complete one. We definitely need to slow down our consumption of fashion, whether Eco or not, but also to find more closed-loop systems where zero waste is the goal. Being able to compost our clothing, or having access to efficient recycling systems would make some difference. But is the future so bleak? With fast-fashion companies like H&M starting their recycling initiative, and Levi’s “less water jeans,” companies are reacting to, and improving upon, the environmental impact of the industry. Eco-conscious companies are also popping up everywhere – which helps create awareness and a positive movement. There may even be innovative solutions like clothing and accessories made out of fungi and cow manure. 

We as consumers can help initiate that change by buying Eco-conscious, vintage or secondhand clothing, or by repairing what we already own. We can all make a difference by collectively making changes. We can also support organizations that are at the forefront of environmental initiatives in the fashion industry.














14- Elizabeth L. Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion




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