Gas-guzzling SUVs, palace-sized residences, and plastic shopping bags are all well-known contributors to environmental degradation. What may not be apparent to the casual observer is the ecological harm caused by the fashion industry. New methods of production and marketing, which create a demand for a growing volume of ever-changing, “fast fashion” items, have caused the impact of the apparel industry on our planet to grow severe in recent years.
This phenomenon is explored in the 2015 documentary The True Cost, directed by Andrew Morgan. He and his crew jaunt off to many places around the world where clothing is produced, and they investigate the environmental and societal impacts created. Fashion magazines and advertising campaigns have stirred up a desire for a continuous succession of new garments, many of which end up thrown away in landfills, where they decompose slowly. Furthermore, toxic chemicals used in synthetic fibers contaminate waterways and other elements of our natural surroundings. Even natural fibers, like cotton, consume scarce resources, such as water and arable land, that could otherwise be used for fruitful purposes.
Not least among the topics discussed is working conditions within the factories involved, which are in many cases deplorable and not up to the standards that we are accustomed to in the developed world. Sweatshop wages, a lack of viable alternative employment choices, and heavy competition among factory owners for contracts lead to a situation in which workers feel that they have few alternatives but to put up with low-paid jobs that have little room for advancement.
Ordinary people can take steps to adjust their buying habits and counteract these ills. Morgan doesn’t expect consumers to eschew purchasing clothing altogether. Indeed, such a goal would be so unrealistic as to be ridiculous. Instead, people can carefully choose items that are well-constructed and appeal to their sense of style rather than making mindless and frequent purchases of low-quality, cheap merchandise that will end up being discarded after being worn only a few – or indeed zero – times.
Greenpeace has ranked leading clothing brands on their efforts to address water pollution and to eliminate poisonous chemicals from their production processes as part of the Detox Catwalk campaign. Burberry, H&M and Adidas are among the firms named as “Detox Leaders” while Gap, Hermès and Versace seem to be lagging behind as “Detox Losers.” By shopping only for brands that are making active efforts to conserve the environment, customers can use the power of the purse to drive changes in prevalent business practices.
The fashion industry’s effect on our environment is serious and greatly contributes to climate change and global warming. According to many reports, the apparel sector is one of the biggest polluter and greenhouse gas emitter of any industry. This pollution is caused not just in the actual production of physical items but also in transporting them to all corners of the earth. This is a surprisingly high carbon footprint for an industry that most people don’t even think twice about when trying to identify the causes of global warming. Corporations that produce clothing must modify their behavior to counter this problem, but they’ll only do so if we put pressure on them.
There are many benefits to be had from making the apparel industry more sustainable. They include the reduction of atmospheric greenhouse gas levels, enhanced well-being and incomes for poor workers, and a cleaner natural environment. Simply shifting to different energy sources for manufacturing alone, such as cleaner natural gas or even better solar, wind or hydro power could remove some 10% of worldwide CO2 emissions, but only if there is an incentive for companies to do so.
We each have it within our power to create that incentive by shifting our dollars away from harmful actors and towards companies that are actually serious about meeting their ecological responsibilities. The free market cuts both ways: Those same forces that tempt participants to act in shortsighted ways can be turned back against them to compel them to reconsider their pernicious activities.
By BETH KELLY