Waste In The Fashion Industry: Some Stop-and-Think Facts

fabric remnants leftover at an abandoned factory in Cambodia
Hundreds of tons of fabric found at an abandoned factory in Cambodia. Photo by Francois Le Nguyen

Over the last decade, we’ve witnessed the rise of fast fashion, democratizing trend and making it available for anyone and everyone. Affordability and convenience have made it almost irresistible to buy new clothes on a whim, resulting in a massive increase in the production and consumption of clothing. Big interview? Get a new blouse. Fun party to go to? How about a new dress! While it’s convenient for us to buy these garments and satisfying in the moment, have you ever thought about the flip side of these choices, and the fashion industry, from an environmental perspective?  The "cost" is greater than you might think.


Everything you wear has an impact on the environment, from the resources consumed to create it, the water used to dye it, the labor used to manufacture it and the waste it creates when you’re done with it. We’ve spent a long time in the fashion industry, and have come to understand and see first hand how clothing consumes a huge amount of energy and water, and how it uses often toxic dyes that can ultimately contaminate freshwater sources. We’ve watched garments get created only to be worn once and then forgotten, or even worse to pile up on sale racks and ultimately never sell, and all the resources go to waste. 


From an environmental perspective, here are some important facts about the fashion industry that we think everyone should be aware of:


Carbon emissions

  • The fashion industry is a major contributor to the world’s annual carbon emissions, adding anywhere from 4% to a whopping 10% depending on the study.

  • In order to produce polyester, nylon, and other synthetic fibers, two to three times the amount of carbon emissions are produced compared to natural fibers like cotton. 

  • In 2018, it was reported that the fashion industry alone produced about 2.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

How much water is used?

  • The clothing and fashion industry takes second place in the consumption of the world’s total water. This adds up to approximately 93 billion cubic meters of water in a single year. 

  • For example, the typical pair of jeans that you own consumed around 2000 gallons of water to make it, and a cotton shirt takes about 700 gallons of water to produce. This is due to the fact both jeans and these shirts are made out of cotton. 

  • Cotton is a highly water-intensive crop and a natural fiber that is one of the most popular for clothing. Even though it uses only 3 percent of the world’s arable land, it uses plenty of water, pesticides, and insecticides. 

Excessive water pollution

  • Water is used from start to finish, and textile dyes are one of the main water pollutants worldwide. Leftover dyes in the water are dumped into streams, rivers, and other water bodies, contaminating freshwater and harming aquatic life. 

  • About 20 percent of the world’s wastewater comes from fabric dyeing and other fabric treatments.

  • China, one of the world’s mass producers of goods, including clothing and textiles, discharges wastewater amounting to more than 2.5 billion tons every year.

What about waste?

  • Around 15 percent of cloth that is intended for clothing is wasted during the cutting process. This wastage ultimately ends up in landfills. How much waste is it? According to a 2016 study by Reverse Resources, the garment industry creates enough fabric waste annually to cover the entire republic of Estonia, at its most conservative estimate (we’ll save you the google-- that’s 45,227 km2 or 17,462 sq mi).

  • More invisible but potentially even more dangerous waste results from each wash of our clothing. Microfibers (tiny fragments of fabric) shed during consumer care and are released into our oceans, adding up to about half a million tons a year. This is the equivalent of 50 million plastic bottles. 

  • In 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported that approximately 35 percent of microfibers came from synthetic textiles or synthetic fibers like polyester. Microfibers are not biodegradable and therefore will persist in our environment for thousands of years. Because synthetic fibers were just invented in the last 50 or so years, we’re just beginning to understand the ramifications of this.

  • According to the Environment Protection Agency, 15.1 million tons of waste was generated from the textile industry in 2013, and 12.8 million tons of this was discarded. About one garbage truck of clothes is dumped in a landfill each second. 
  • According to the New York Times, almost ⅔ of fabrics currently created are synthetics, which are not only derived from non-renewable fossil fuels but also don’t biodegrade. So if and when our clothing ultimately arrives in a landfill (currently 85% of textile waste in the U.S. goes to landfills or is incinerated), it will not decompose.


What can we do?

Fortunately, some fashion brands are now taking steps to make clothing and fashion more sustainable thanks to increasing awareness of its impact on the environment. As consumers,  we can invest in better quality pieces that will last longer in our wardrobes. Even better-- we can opt for manufacturers who are mindful of the waste and emissions created by the industry and create clothing and accessories that reduce or eliminate waste. When it comes to caring for our clothes, consider using non-abrasive detergents and always wash a full load of clothes whenever possible to reduce water consumption. Hanging clothes to dry is a great way to reduce energy consumption. Always use a Guppyfriend or Cora Ball when washing synthetics to capture microplastics and prevent them from entering our waterways. And when you’re done with your clothing, never toss it in the trash bin-- resell or donate it to keep it in circulation if it’s in good condition, or find a local apparel recycling center for tattered or threadbare clothes (or recycle them yourself into rags!). 


Even the smallest change we make will go towards reducing our environmental impact. It is so important that we all do our bit to move towards sustainable fashion and reduce the impact on the environment. 


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