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The Environmental and Social Costs of Fast Fashion

Fast Fashion helps people get new clothing on a regular basis, but at every stage of the manufacturing chain, from cotton production to transport of completed goods, is one of the most devastating industries for the earth.

The statistics are startling, but eco-conscious consumers have new alternatives in eco-friendly clothing from manufacturers that care about sustainable crops, sustainable communities and healthy people.

Land Pollution and Water Use

Pesticides in Cotton Fields

Cotton is only grown on 2.5 percent of the world’s agricultural land but uses 16 percent of insecticides globally and 6.8 percent of herbicides.

Water Needed to Grow Crops

In addition, cotton requires high amounts of water to farm. Incredibly, it takes 2,700 liters of water to create one cotton shirt. That’s enough water to sustain one person for two and a half years. Cotton uses an inordinate amount of resources and requires high amounts of sickness-causing chemicals to create.

Water Used During the Manufacturing Process

The process of dying fabric and preparing it to create clothing has an astonishing impact on local water supplies. One-fifth of the water pollution created by industry is produced by textile mills, which also use tens of thousands of chemicals to make their products.

Health of Farmers, Workers and Local Communities

While this may be a shock to many consumers who see cotton as a “natural” and therefore “earth-friendly” crop, non-organic cotton actually contributes to declining health not only for the plants and soil, but the human beings who farm it.

In the less economically developed regions where much cotton is harvested, farmers often get sick because of lack of knowledge and technology to use pesticides properly.

Chemicals in Clothing Manufacturing Plants

Those T-shirts that are sold cheaply on department store shelves have a long history and contain harmful chemicals in their fabric. People who are at greatest risk for health problems due to manufacturing of non-organic clothing are those who cut, trim, sew and assemble the cloth treated with toxic substances.

In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that workers in U.S. clothing plants were exposed to formaldehyde. The more than 11,000 workers studied were found to have a risk of developing myeloid leukemia one-and-a-half times the rate of the wider population. This means that over time, people simply doing their jobs had a higher risk of dying because of the contents of cheap clothing.

Waste Release in Manufacturing Cities

Most fashion and textiles are manufactured and produced in emerging economies such as India and China. The companies that benefit from selling these goods do so at the expense of those local communities who suffer immense environmental damage at the site of production.

This statistic comes with some good news attached. According to Forbes, India and China are poised to become the greatest consumers of sustainable goods by 2030. The magazine revealed last year that 65 percent of shoppers in emerging markets were looking for sustainable clothing, a statistic double that of their counterparts in the developed world.

This offers some hope for countries with depleting supplies of clean water. Fashion, an industry already responsible for high water usage, through growing of cotton crops, also pollutes water through waste. Dyeing of textiles is the second largest polluter of clean water globally, outpaced only by agriculture.

Plastics Release in Oceans

Many people are saddened by those pictures of elegant sea creatures who, once their deceased bodies are opened up, appear to have died from plastic consumption. The amount of waste that goes into the sea is not limited to that from consumer plastics. Products many shoppers don’t think of as containing plastics actually have microbeads of the substance that end up in the water, creating a toxic environment for sea life.

The release doesn’t just happen when clothing is tossed away and breaks down. In fact, according to a recent report by The Guardian, items such as synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfibers each time they are washed. That means even just the simple act of keeping clothes clean releases toxic materials into the waterways.

The problem is only getting worse. According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2017, fashion will add 22 million tonnes of microfibers into the ocean between 2015 and 2050.

A Huge Carbon Footprint

The fashion industry is second only to oil in its negative effects on the environment. Part of that effect comes from the energy needed to manufacture and transport clothing. It takes energy to run plant machinery, to transport by land and sea the cheap items from one country to another and to place those items on the rack. The entire process is devastating for the earth, which has to somehow sustain its viability even in the face of unprecedented air, water and soil pollution.

According to a 2017 report from the New York Post, the fashion industry emits 1.26 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases on an annual basis. To put that into perspective, it is more than the emissions caused by international flights and shipping combined.

Making Changes

Thankfully, there are ways people can make changes to safeguard the earth and to protect the health of human beings around the globe. The switch to sustainable fabrics means clothing is created from eco-friendly crops such as bamboo or organic cotton, and by people who are not subject to serious health effects.