What is the cost of our clothes?

Your polyester clothes might be trendy, but the fashion industry's reliance on plastic is becoming increasingly unsustainable and even dangerous - both for the environment and human health.

Amelia Lake


If there’s one thing we love, it’s clothes. Unfortunately, those clothes we love to buy and wear when they’re new often quickly find their way into the trash. Compared to 2004, the average consumer buys 60% more items of clothing annually, but keeps each item of clothing only half as long. In the U.S. alone, our shopping habits collectively generate an estimated 25 billion pounds of textile waste every year.

Manufacturers are increasingly turning to synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, and spandex as alternatives to natural fibers. Fast-drying and cheap to manufacture, synthetic textiles can imitate the look and feel of other fibers, making them an attractive option for retailers.

For all their uses, however, most popular synthetics are petroleum products, meaning that they are a form of plastic, with all the accompanying environmental consequences. Every year, around 70 million barrels of oil are used to make the polyester fibers that end up in our clothes. And this plastic is becoming impossible to avoid – an estimated 60% of the material in our clothing is now composed of synthetic fabric, a 157% increase from 2000.

Every time a synthetic garment is washed, it sheds thousands of plastic microfibers, which are too small to be caught by most conventional wastewater management systems. These microfibers contaminate waterways and ultimately make their way into our food and our bodies, where they have been linked to metabolic disturbances, neurotoxicity, and elevated cancer risk. And the damage doesn’t stop once you’re done with your clothes – unlike natural fibers, synthetics will not biodegrade, meaning that your exercise shirts, fleece jackets, and swimsuits will still be around long after you’re dead.

Corporate greenwashing campaigns, designed to prey on concerns for the environment, would have you believe otherwise. Fashion labels advertise their products with words like “sustainable” and “green,” which have no legal definitions. Pro-plastic bias runs deep in the industry – the Higgs Index, a ratings system used by some of the world’s largest apparel retailers to measure their environmental footprint, has recently come under fire for giving preferential ratings to synthetic fabrics, often on the basis of research funded by plastic producers, according to critics. But despite the greenwashing, a polyester shirt will ultimately have more than double the carbon footprint of a cotton one.

Attempts to mitigate the damage caused by our clothing waste, well-intentioned though they may be, are ill-equipped to properly deal with this issue. Charities and thrift shops are so overrun with donations that most old and unwanted clothes will end up being shipped to developing nations to be dumped in landfills. And as far as recycling is concerned, current technologies are simply unable to recycle fabrics on a large enough scale to keep up with the supply.

To reduce microplastic shedding, some environmentally conscious shoppers have taken to laundering their synthetic clothes in special washing bags, such as the Guppyfriend, which can trap up to 54% of microfibers released during the wash cycle. While helpful on the margins, the problem with these kinds of solutions is that they place the burden on consumers to accommodate unsustainable business practices on the part of manufacturers, rather than on industry leaders and policymakers to avoid those practices in the first place.

Where goodwill cannot motivate corporations to curb their environmental impact, legislation can. Producer responsibility laws hold manufacturers responsible for recycling their own post-consumer products. Under France’s producer responsibility regulations for textiles, for example, companies are prohibited from destroying unsold textile products, and manufacturers and importers of clothing, linen and footwear are required to set up their own collection and recycling programs. Several European nations, including Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have either passed or are considering similar legislation. While it remains to be seen just how effective these programs will be in reducing textile waste, they set an important precedent to build on in future.

The concept of producer responsibility has been slow to gain a foothold in the U.S. but momentum has built over recent years, with several states passing producer responsibility laws for various kinds of products. Until manufacturers and retailers are properly held accountable for the waste they produce, however, the burden will continue to fall on us consumers – and that means voting with your wallet. Even if you can’t afford a wardrobe of sustainably-sourced pieces, simply deciding not to buy new clothes, or hanging on to your existing clothes a little longer, is the single most impactful and cost-effective way to reduce your textile waste. According to one study, wearing a garment for just nine months longer can lessen its carbon footprint by up to 30%. At the end of the day, the most sustainable clothes are the ones you already own.


Image: Artem Beliaikin via Flickr, CC0 1.0


Amelia Lake


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