September 12, 2023

Sustainable Fashion in Action

Textiles play such a pivotal part in human society. They are used to express ourselves, decorate our homes, and show our love for one another. But textiles aren’t always positive. According to the EPA, textile production has increased from 1.76 million tons in 1960 to 17.6 million tons in 2018. This massive spike in production has increased textile waste entering landfills, which hit 11.3 million tons in 2018. A majority of this waste is the direct result of a relatively new concept - Fast Fashion. Fast Fashion is a term used to describe clothing and accessories that enter and leave the market quickly and represent current trends of society. The cost of these clothes and accessories are cheap to encourage buyers to purchase them and come back soon for the next style. The major flaw with Fast Fashion is that its success solely depends on trends, and trends almost always die. Many of the clothes thrown out by consumers are only worn a handful of times, and they are not engineered to be durable. This leads consumers to immediately throw out their old clothes in exchange for the newest piece to match the latest trend, massively increasing textile waste in the world.

Like other manufactured products, textiles require large inputs of energy and natural resources to produce. They also have detrimental effects on the environment, and oftentimes these externalities are not included in the price for the material. The European Protection Agency estimates that textile consumption per person in 2020 used 400 m2 of land, 9 m3 of water, and 391 kg of raw materials. It also released 270 kg of carbon per person, which substantially contributes to global climate change. In addition to overall resource use, textile production and waste are a dangerous pollutant. Large amounts of hazardous dyes, finishing products, and microplastics are released into water bodies during the assembly and washing process of textiles. These chemicals and pollutants can lower water quality, devastate marine populations, and pose a threat to human health.

Almost all textile waste created can be traced back to large corporations that produce Fast Fashion to maximize profit in a short amount of time. Companies like Prada, Ralph Lauren, and Under Armour were known by consumers for their innovative and sleek styles for a long time (and still are today), but it wasn’t until recently that the large problems associated with the clothing industry became known to the public. Since then, it has become apparent that consumers want to support a clothing brand that creates eco-friendly and energy conscious textiles. The result of this massive shift in consumer mindset has forced corporations to change their production practices. A large number of companies have now started to create textiles that are made of recycled or plant based materials in order to promote sustainable practices and appeal to the next generation of consumers.

In the Spring of 2020, Nike revealed one of their strangest looking shoes yet. To many, it looked like it was made of garbage, but that ended up being the whole point - that’s what the shoe was literally made of. The Nike Space Hippie contains at least 50% recycled material, and it’s obvious that Nike wants this to be known. Its foam sole contains visible bits of plastics and scraps, and its laces and yarn exterior show imperfections, most likely because recycled textiles of different colors were used to make them. The Space Hippie is inspired by humankind’s journey to settle on Mars, where resources are very scarce and one must work with what they’re given (AKA space ‘junk’). This shoe, along with pieces of clothing like jackets and sweatpants, are a part of Nike’s “Move to Zero” sustainability initiative, which prioritizes landfill diversion, lowering carbon emissions, and engaging in circularity practices.

The company of course isn’t perfect. Nike has been a major textile polluter for a long time and there are now recent concerns that the Move to Zero initiative has ‘greenwashed’ consumers into thinking Nike products are more sustainable than they actually are. According to their website, however, some genuine good has come out of the campaign. The initiative has resulted in a 64% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 97% landfill diversion rate of their products. These numbers are substantial, and the company only plans to emit less and divert more in the future. If done right, sustainable clothing initiatives like Nike’s can be game changing because they allow for transparency between the producer and consumer and promote sustainable business practices that benefit both the planet and the people.

Company led sustainable fashion initiatives are not the only way to combat Fast Fashion. Thrifting involves donating and purchasing used clothes/accessories at a Goodwill or thrift shop. It’s a great way to prevent textile waste from entering landfills, and it makes sense why - it greatly extends the life of clothing. Thrifting has become extremely popular over the years for its sustainable origins and lower cost when compared to shopping for new clothes. It’s also an excellent social activity for people to engage in with their friends or family. Another effective method of lowering textile waste is clothing rental. Renting allows the consumer to wear clothes and return them without throwing them out or paying high prices for expensive fashion. Renting is an especially good option for events like formals or weddings, where nice (but costly) clothes are needed but almost never worn again throughout the year. Some companies online, such as Rent the Runway, allow for consumers to order multiple pairs of clothing and have them delivered to their home. Once delivered, they can wear these clothes as many times as they want for a certain time period before they have to send them back.

Textile waste is a growing problem in the world, and the problem will only get bigger as the global population grows. While that may sound gloomy, there is a silver lining. 2.5 million tons of textiles were recycled out of the 17.6 million tons produced in 2018, and that number is growing at an incredible rate. With that in mind, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to think that textile waste and Fast Fashion will be a thing of the past.