The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 8

Interior of a clothing store, upscale appearing fixtures and lighting with neatly folded and hung clothing.
Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay.

We know that the clothing and fashion industries have major flaws that only some companies are trying to rectify. And we, as consumers, have choices as well – one is to simply buy less. Buy secondhand when possible. Take good care of our clothes. By doing those things, we can save money and the environment.

Before wrapping up this series, I wanted to touch on a few subtopics I hadn’t written about yet. Though some topics are big enough to warrant an entire series of their own, I believe them important enough to mention.

The fashion industry releases 10% of total carbon emissions.1

Chemicals

Worldwide, we use thousands of chemicals in textile production. Those chemicals can stay in clothes, even after washing. We can absorb those chemicals through our skin or inhale them. While these are small, or even trace amounts, the accumulation of toxins over time causes health problems. This is because there are chemicals in most consumer products. “For example, formaldehyde is not only used in fashion; it’s a common wood preservative found in furniture and is sometimes used to manufacture mattresses, meaning we could be exposed to this chemical not only through our shirts but also while we sit at our desks and sleep.”2 There are also chemicals in all plastic items.

Here are some disturbing facts about chemicals in the fashion industry:

Worldwide, the fashion industry uses one-quarter of the chemicals produced.3

The World Bank estimates that the fashion industry is responsible for close to 20% of annual industrial water pollution, due to chemicals.4

While cotton is a natural fabric, it is also known as the world’s dirtiest crop. Cotton production requires around 19 million tons of chemicals annually.5 The pesticides alone are toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organization.6

Rack of t-shirts on clear plastic hangers, in order of hues, from yellow to order to red, then green to blue.
Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash.

Dyes

Most dyes are synthetic, meaning made from chemicals and fossil fuels. Synthetics are popular because they dye vibrantly and retain their color. However, many of these dyes contain harmful chemicals. Azo dyes, the largest category of dyes, are carcinogenic and are restricted in the state of California and the European Union.7 In addition to the textile and leather industries, manufacturers also use Azo dyes in food, candy, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics.

Other synthetic dyes contain heavy metals such as mercury, lead, chromium, copper, and chemicals such as benzene. All get into bodies of water and harm both the environment and human health.8

“There is a joke in China that you can tell the ‘it’ color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers.” -Orsola de Castro, fashion designer and activist9

Stack of 4 pairs of denim blue jeans in different hues, white background.
Photo by Claire Abdo on Unsplash.

Example: Indigo

Indigo is a good example. Almost all of the denim we wear is dyed with synthetic indigo. Synthetic indigo is made of ten chemicals, including petroleum, benzene, cyanide, formaldehyde, etc. All are toxic or harmful to humans. The chemicals are cheaper to buy than paying a farmer to grow crops from which to harvest dyes.10

The Chinese manufacture most synthetic indigo today, and they use a chemical called aniline. It is a likely human carcinogen. “Recent reports indicate that two-thirds of aniline residue winds up in wastewater, lakes, rivers, and other waterways; on workers; and in the air that workers breathe.” The remaining third is embedded in the denim clothing sold in stores.11

Natural Dyes

Natural dyes made from plants, seeds, and fruit don’t pollute water, but many still require the use of chemical mordants (substances that bind the dye to the fabric). They can also use a lot of water. Some companies are developing dyes that use 95% less water, as well as dyes that are recycled by reusing the same water and chemicals over and over again. Another process pulverizes leftover textiles, turning them into pigment powder, and using them as dyes.12

Shelves of colorful women's shoes with sales tags on them.
Photo by Megan Lee on Unsplash.

Shoes

“When we think about sustainable fashion, we tend to overlook footwear, but the reality is that shoes are undoubtedly one of the most environmentally impactful elements of our wardrobes. Around 25 billion pairs of shoes are made each year – close to 70 million every single day.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe13

The footwear part of the fashion industry has major environmental impacts. According to Elizabeth L. Cline, “it’s responsible for 700 million tons of carbon emissions per year, the equivalent of burning more than 765,000 pounds of coal. Many of the components in our shoes, from synthetic rubber to chrome-tanned leather, don’t biodegrade and are difficult or impossible to recycle; some are made of toxic building blocks. Shoes, even cheap ones, can and should be made with more sustainable, non-toxic, and recyclable or biodegradable materials.”14

The footwear industry uses a lot of plastic for coatings, foam soles, laces, and other components. Vegan leather is usually plastic. “Some shoes comprise 65 parts…the more components and the more different materials used, the more difficult a pair of shoes is to dismantle and recycle…As many as 95% of shoes go to landfill at the end of their life.”15

What You Can Do

Buy higher quality shoes and find a cobbler to repair them as needed.16 This is better for the environment and more economical over time. Cobblers can replace soles, remove scuffs, repair buckles, snaps, zippers, and straps, and replace high-heel tips. Some can even darken the color of leather, stretch leather shoes to a slightly bigger size, and also repair and condition leather jackets and handbags.17

As consumers, we can do our part by buying more durable shoes whenever possible, and taking good care of the shoes we already own.

Recycled Fabric is Available

Some companies are trying to help the textile industry change by recycling textiles and making new cloth from them. Clothing producers can use waste from the scraps from factory floors or the leftovers that brands often burn or shred.18

A company named Evrnu takes old garments and textile production waste with high cotton content and recycles them into new fiber for cloth. Evrnu produces 80% less greenhouse gas emissions and uses 98% less water than virgin cotton. The company eliminates up to one-third of all garment waste, causes zero deforestation, and requires no farming.19

Worn Again Technologies is a company that has developed a chemical process that “converts textiles containing polyester and cotton back into circular materials.” This offsets CO2 emissions and diverts material away from incineration and landfills.20

ECONYL uses nylon from used carpets, old fishing nets, and fabric scraps to recreate nylon items, such as clothing, carpets, and furniture items.21

Other companies, such as Patagonia, are trying to do the right thing by using recycled plastic bottles to make them into fibers for their product lines. But now many companies are mimicking this practice and the less ethical ones are “buying new plastic bottles to make polyester textile fibers that can be called ‘recycled.'”22 As always, be aware of what you are buying.

Store shelves with hanging clothes and folded clothes, mostly fall colors, mannequin on left.
Photo by Burgess Milner on Unsplash.

Demand More From the Corporations

We should all demand that corporations be transparent and honest about their effects on the environment, as well as their sustainability efforts. “Few companies, both outside the fashion world and particularly inside of it, seem particularly eager to share the environmental effects of what they do because usually they are bad.”23

Many companies have a sustainability page on their website. But sometimes these are no more than public relations pages created to sway consumers into thinking the company is doing great things for the environment. “Unfortunately, these pages usually contain little or no specific information about how the company’s products are actually made,” explained Tatiana Schlossberg. They ensure transparency in their supply chain but provide no evidence or explanation of what that means.

“I shouldn’t have to find out which brand of jeans uses the least amount of water; the brands should be more transparent and tell us how much water they use, and then use much less. They are the ones who are making money from our choices, and we should not support those who don’t at least tell us what they’re doing.” -Tatiana Schlossberg, Inconspicuous Consumption24

If you’re not sure about a company’s environmental commitments or have specific questions about how something was made or chemically treated, ask the company via email, contact page, or phone. Elizabeth L. Cline wrote that “a responsible brand will make it easy to get in touch with them and will respond to your queries.”25 Further, they will be clear in their response and you’ll be able to tell if it is a stock response or a true response. If a brand turns out to be unethical, you can decide to shop elsewhere.

Remember the Human Factor

When purchasing new clothes, pause and reflect on the humans who sewed the clothes. Are they being treated well, paid well, and working in a safe environment? These days, with profits at record highs for many industries, companies have zero excuses for not caring about the people who labor for them.

Most brands contract out for production, and contractors often subcontract the work. This is where the sweatshops come in. “When caught, the brands often claim they had no idea their ‘approved’ contractors were subcontracting to sweatshops. Subcontracting is endemic in the apparel industry, creating a fractured supply chain in which workers are easily in jeopardy.”26 The right to subcontract is part of the negotiated contract, so it doesn’t seem likely that companies don’t know about the subcontracting.

David Weil, Dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, wrote that today, fashion executives “dictate everything they want in their supply chain to an incredible degree…they will send back an order when the dyes aren’t right – they monitor that precisely. But somehow it’s unreasonable to make sure that there is adherence to fire emergency escape rules, and you aren’t operating in a building like Rana Plaza.”27 Companies must do better. I’ve included a list of organizations below that support textile industry laborers.

“Ultimately, brands are responsible for their massive exploitation of garment workers—creating massive profits for only a handful of billionaires and environmental harm to the planet. But added together, people still have significant power to hold these companies accountable as consumers and push for legislation as citizens.”28

Our Role

In the end, we are all responsible. But as consumers, we don’t have to tolerate the poor actions of these huge fast fashion companies. Shop less, buy second-hand, and take care of the clothes you have. If we all commit, we can make a huge difference. Ask questions, demand transparency, and don’t purchase items from companies that don’t provide clear answers. There’s so much clothing in the world that we could clothe everyone and then some. We have so many choices when it comes to clothing!

Last, learn all you can! Knowledge about environmental problems is the key. Thank you for reading, please subscribe and share!

 

Support the work of these organizations:

Asia Floor Wage Alliance

The Awaj Foundation

Clean Clothes Campaign

Fair Wear Foundation

Fashion Revolution

The Garment Worker Center

The International Labour Organization

Labour Behind the Label

No Sweat

The Or Foundation

Remake

The Solidaridad Network

Workers Rights Consortium

“It’s important that we amplify what garment workers are demanding and support the people who make our clothes by spreading their message and holding brands and the people in charge to account.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe29

 

Additional Resources:

Guide to my Clothing and Fashion Industry Series.

bluesign: This organization sets standards for chemical usage in textiles.

Fair Wear Foundation: a non-profit organization whose mission “is to see a world where the garment industry supports workers in realizing their rights to safe, dignified, properly paid employment.”

Article, “10 More Sustainable Sandals Like Birkenstocks You’ll Love,” by Isobella Wolfe, goodonyou.eco, August 24, 2023. I’ve been wearing Birkenstocks for 20 years because they support my feet and back and are just about endlessly repairable. However, Birkenstocks aren’t very environmentally friendly. Article, “How to Recycle Your Used Hiking Shoes,” by Jeff Podmayer, thetrek.co, January 18, 2021.

Footnotes:

  1. Book, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and The Future of Clothes, by Dana Thomas, Penguin Press, New York, 2019.
  2. Book, The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good, by Elizabeth L. Cline, Plume, New York, 2019.
  3. Book, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and The Future of Clothes, by Dana Thomas, Penguin Press, New York, 2019.
  4. Book, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and The Future of Clothes, by Dana Thomas, Penguin Press, New York, 2019.
  5. Book, The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good, by Elizabeth L. Cline, Plume, New York, 2019.
  6. Report, “The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton,” Environmental Justice Foundation in collaboration with Pesticide Action Network UK, London, UK, 2007.
  7. Book, Sustainable Wardrobe: Practical advice and projects for eco-friendly fashion, by Sophie Benson, White Lion Publishing, London, 2023.
  8. Book, Sustainable Wardrobe: Practical advice and projects for eco-friendly fashion, by Sophie Benson, White Lion Publishing, London, 2023.
  9. Article, “How Fast Fashion Is Killing Rivers Worldwide,” by Kathleen Webber, ecowatch.com, March 22, 2017.
  10. Book, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and The Future of Clothes, by Dana Thomas, Penguin Press, New York, 2019.
  11. Book, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and The Future of Clothes, by Dana Thomas, Penguin Press, New York, 2019.
  12. Book, Sustainable Wardrobe: Practical advice and projects for eco-friendly fashion, by Sophie Benson, White Lion Publishing, London, 2023.
  13. Book, Sustainable Wardrobe: Practical advice and projects for eco-friendly fashion, by Sophie Benson, White Lion Publishing, London, 2023.
  14. Book, The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good, by Elizabeth L. Cline, Plume, New York, 2019.
  15. Book, Sustainable Wardrobe: Practical advice and projects for eco-friendly fashion, by Sophie Benson, White Lion Publishing, London, 2023.
  16. I have worn Birkenstock for about 20 years, and regularly have them resoled and sometimes re-corked at a local cobbler shop. However, after discovering that the company uses shearling in some of its shoes, I became concerned about animal treatment. I only did a little research before discovering that generally, Birkenstock is not well-ranked concerning sustainability. That being said, I continue to wear and repair the ones I already own.
  17. Book, The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good, by Elizabeth L. Cline, Plume, New York, 2019.
  18. Book, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and The Future of Clothes, by Dana Thomas, Penguin Press, New York, 2019.
  19. Video, “Evrnu World Changing Fiber Technology,” Evrnu, February 27, 2020.
  20. Page, Home page, Worn Again Technologies, accessed January 28, 2024.
  21. Website, ECONYL, accessed January 28, 2024.
  22. Book, Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have, by Tatiana Schlossberg, Grand Central Publishing, New York, 2019.
  23. Book, Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have, by Tatiana Schlossberg, Grand Central Publishing, New York, 2019.
  24. Book, Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have, by Tatiana Schlossberg, Grand Central Publishing, New York, 2019.
  25. Book, The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good, by Elizabeth L. Cline, Plume, New York, 2019.
  26. Book, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and The Future of Clothes, by Dana Thomas, Penguin Press, New York, 2019.
  27. Book, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and The Future of Clothes, by Dana Thomas, Penguin Press, New York, 2019.
  28. Article, “What is Ultra Fast Fashion? Investigating Why It’s Ultra Bad,” by JD Shadel, Good On You, February 25, 2022.
  29. Book, Sustainable Wardrobe: Practical advice and projects for eco-friendly fashion, by Sophie Benson, White Lion Publishing, London, 2023.

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