Clothes found at the average mall are trendy and cheap, but at what cost? Although we may think we are saving by buying inexpensive clothing, the price of making inexpensive clothing is high.
The problem starts at production. Cotton is water and pesticide intensive: excessive water use can put drought prone regions at greater risk, and pesticides have been known to cause cancer and birth defects and pollute the environments with toxic substances.
Dyeing and finishing materials also has serious social and environmental effects. Second to agriculture, the textile industry is the largest polluter of fresh water worldwide. Many of the chemicals used to finish textiles are hormone disrupting and carcinogenic, and workers as young as eight are exposed on the job to these substances without protective equipment.
Not only does cheap fashion come at a steep environmental cost, but a great human cost as well. Brands including ZARA, H&M and Nike all use unfair labour practices. Slave and child labour are common in the textile industry, working over 14 hour days and in some instances being denied breaks. Two out of six textile workers are children.
Physical and sexual abuse are also problems in textile factories. One worker said, “They kick our chairs. They don’t touch us, so they don’t leave a mark that could be used as evidence with the police.” Workers in Britain demanded better labour laws over a century ago, but workers in nations like Bangladesh, China and many more continue to work in similar conditions.
After production, a garment will be shipped from its country of make to the store shelves, where consumers can purchase the product. Regardless of the material, garments shed tiny fibres into water when washed. Shedded fibres aren’t a problem on their own, but if the garment washed is made of synthetic materials that do not biodegrade, such as polyester, they contribute to micro-plastic pollution in water systems since.
Micro-plastics in water systems can be consumed by microorganisms, and can lead to bio-accumulation that ends with the top predator — which is often humans. One researcher reported to the Independent that “Microplastics were suggested to exert their harmful effects by providing a medium to facilitate the transport of other toxic compounds such as heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants to the body of organisms. Upon ingestion, these chemicals may be released and cause toxicity.”
Another impact during consumer use is water consumption, the average washing machine uses between 20 and 40 litres of water per cycle, and that water needs to be heated, using additional energy. It is important to take into account the impact of washing garments: larger loads, less often is most sustainable.
End of Life
If an item is unwearable it can be thrown away or composted depending on the material. When thrown away, synthetic garments will persist in the environment from anywhere between 20-200 years. Donation and recycling are options as well for garments as well, however, recycling and donating may not be as good as once thought, as this CBC Marketplace explains.
Overall, the clothing industry is extremely unsustainable, but it wasn’t always. For centuries, if not millennia, humanity created clothing from natural material and dyes, wore clothing until it could no longer be repaired, and the garments would decompose once discarded. It is not unreasonable to suggest that humanity could return to a cyclical garment industry — coming from and returning to the Earth — but we must do our part. Vote with your dollar, support brands that respect the environment and shop secondhand.