How many times have you bought a discount dress you ended up wearing only once or twice? No matter how much we try to resist the shopping frenzy, everyone is bound to give in once in a while and buy something they don’t really need. Impulse shopping is an addiction that’s often ignored, and while its consequences may not be immediately visible, they have a large impact on our planet.
Research suggests that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, which is higher than the impact made by flying and shipping combined. The process of manufacturing and delivering clothes has many phases, all of which contribute to the high numbers.
However, the journey doesn’t end when a product is delivered to a customer. The ways consumers wash their clothes and dispose of unwanted items also contribute to the fashion industry’s carbon footprint.
The Impact of Denim
Conventional way of manufacturing clothes requires excessive use of energy and water. According to the UN, it takes a kilogram of cotton to make a single pair of jeans. Since cotton is predominantly grown in dry areas, a kilogram of cotton uses up about 10,000 liters of water.
In addition to using up large amounts of water, producing jeans increases water pollution. Fabric dyes used in the making of denim contaminate aquatic ecosystems and drinking water. Additionally, synthetic materials that form elastane—the stretchy material found in many types of tight jeans—tamper with the recycling process and further pollute the environment.
The production of denim can be made more eco-friendly by using materials with properties similar to the ones of cotton. These materials minimize the use of water and harmful techniques, such as pre-washing and bleaching. Some manufacturers have been working on ways to recycle denim fibers and consequently reduce the amount of dyeing and finishing. Others have turned to producing biodegradable jeans, which are made without the use of nylon threads and rivets, and which can be put in the compost bin when the consumer no longer needs them.
The most common fabric used in garment production is polyester, a synthetic polymer that makes up 65% of all the clothes people wear, according to research. Polyester is light, long-lasting, and inexpensive, which makes it convenient for mass use.
However, clothes made from polyester have an overwhelming effect on the environment. A polyester-made shirt releases twice as much carbon emissions compared to the cotton one. Also, polyester takes hundreds of years to decompose and it often ends up in landfill.
Many fashion labels are finding creative ways to reduce the environmental impact of clothes. In addition to making biodegradable clothes and discovering new, eco-conscious ways of dyeing, some fashion brands started making textile using waste from fruit and wood. But it’s not just the use of materials that makes a difference; it’s also the way we shop.
Online Shopping – Friend or Foe?
While some research suggests that online shopping reduces the carbon footprint of clothes because it eliminates traveling to the shops, others point out that easy access to products makes people buy more than they need. And after over-buying, consumers tend to return large amounts of the newly-bought clothes. The returned pieces increase the number of carbon emissions caused by the transport of goods.
An easy way to solve this problem would be to buy only what you need and plan to keep, but it seems that even the things we keep we don’t wear. One public survey showed that US consumers never wear one fifth of the clothing pieces they purchased.
So, why do we buy items we hardly ever wear? The problem may be rooted in psychology. People with low self-confidence may buy in large amounts to achieve a sense of belonging, according to researchers. Another explanation may be that impulse shopping provides a sense of reward that can be hard to resist.
The internet increases the chances of impulse shopping as products are available all the time. Buying clothes in vintage shops and secondhand stores may help keep this type of impulsive behavior under control. Plus, you help reduce the carbon footprint of fashion by giving used clothes another life.
Cut Down on Washing
It may be hard to believe, but the number of times you wash your clothes contributes to the environmental impact they leave. Washing clothes less frequently helps prevent excessive water use and it reduces the number of microfibers that get shed during the washing process. This means less plastics will reach the water system.
What to Do with Unwanted Clothes?
The way you dispose of clothes you no longer plan to wear also impacts the environment. If you simply throw them away, they’ll end up in a landfill. One eco-friendly option is to give your clothes away to friends or charity if they are still in good condition. If not, you can recycle them.
Recycling clothes is still a relatively new concept and it’s not possible for all types of fabrics, but you can recycle cotton and polyester. While some manufacturers have switched to using recycled fabrics, the places where you can take your clothes for recycling are still sparse.
The fast-paced world of fashion encourages consumers to constantly buy new items to stay on top of the latest trends, resulting in large environmental impact. To break this cycle, manufacturers, major labels, and consumers all need to become more invested in reducing the carbon footprint of the fashion industry. By re-examining their shopping habits, individuals can make small changes that create a big difference in the way we treat our planet’s resources. What will the future of sustainable fashion look like? It’s up to all of us.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons