Sustainability Column: The Importance of Sustainable Fashion

Ethan Reiser, Sustainability Intern

Individuals who care deeply about the environment and sustainability may often feel frustrated searching for ways to have a positive impact, given that many of the environmental issues we face today are caused by large corporations or governments, which are often outside of our control. However, there are daily efforts individuals can undertake to positively impact the environmental movement. Making environmentally friendly clothing purchases is a daily practice people often overlook.

Not only does the fashion industry create social problems in foreign countries, largely by utilizing low wages, child labor and poor working conditions, the industry also feeds into a myriad of environmental issues as well. The clothing production process pollutes water and air with the chemical dyes that are used for clothing, the pesticides sprayed on the raw materials grown for fabric, the artificial materials used within the clothes themselves and the CO2 released during the global mass-transportation of clothing. One of the fashion industry’s most popular fabric materials, cotton, is a highly pesticide-and water-dependent crop.

However, it is possible for the fashion industry to take action toward becoming more sustainable. This effort could include anything from selecting more sustainable materials to creating a more locally-focused clothing industry in order to reduce transportation emissions. An advancement in technology can also create a more sustainable fashion industry, as the production process itself is environmentally taxing. The process of dyeing, drying and finishing utilizes chemical products that often create a high environmental impact.

While the fashion industry needs to establish more sustainable practices, consumers can play a role in influencing the sustainability issues of the fashion industry. The consumer creates many different environmental impacts through the use and treatment of clothing, such as laundering or purchasing. Laundering has been shown to be one of the most water and energy-consuming aspects of unsustainable fashion, and a study on sustainable fashion done by Springer found that 75 to 80 percent of a t-shirt’s ecological impacts came about through consumer care for the product. Consumers also tend to quickly cycle through clothing items, many of which are rarely used or not worn at all.

These actions are unsustainable, and they are the direct responsibility of the consumer. Treating clothing differently is a direct way that the consumer can become involved in sustainability. If the lifetimes of clothing items could be increased by a mere 33 percent, it could result in a 27 percent carbon savings, alongside 33 percent water, 22 percent waste and 22 percent resource savings. Simply wearing items more than once instead of washing them after each wear can help reduce the water and energy use of those items. Also, recycling or reusing clothing can help to extend the lifetimes of those items, increasing their usage value and decreasing their environmental impacts. Shopping from thrift and second-hand stores is more than just financially responsible—it’s environmentally responsible, too.

However, the most important step is simply using clothes for longer and buying clothes less often. Buying fewer clothes and being conscientious of buying used and buying from environmentally-conscious brands, alongside efforts to extend apparel lifetimes, would decrease the overall impacts that the fashion industry has on the environment, and are an easy steps that any consumer can take in order to become more environmentally-conscious and sustainable.

Contact Ethan Reiser at [email protected].