Climate Corner: The environmental costs of cheap fashion

Nov 6, 2021

Randi Pokladnik

A few years ago, I attended a Climate Reality Training Conference in Minneapolis. One of the speakers was involved in sustainable fashion. She told us what prompted her to leave the world of high fashion and create her own line of clothing. During a trip to China, her former employer dumped millions of mis-dyed buttons and thousands of yards of fabric into a river in China. Rather than find another use for the imperfect cloth and buttons, they chose to waste them and pollute the environment.

The supply chain of a garment, from cradle to grave, damages the environment. Most damages are in the form of toxic emissions and pollution. The industry workers and the environment pay the price so we can have cheap clothes that must be shipped thousands of miles across the ocean.

We wear blue jeans almost every day totally unaware of the environmental issues surrounding the production of a pair of jeans. More than five billion pairs are made annually. It takes an average of 1,800 gallons of water, 110 kilowatt-hours of energy, and 5 ounces of chemicals to produce one pair of jeans.

Dana Thomas’s book “Fashionopolis” states that jeans, the most popular clothing item in history, are also the most destructive of the fashion items we consume. Guangdong Province, China, claims to be the “jeans capital of the world.” Each year 200,000 garment workers in Xintang’s 3,000 factories and workshops produce 300 million pairs of jeans, about 800,000 pairs a day. The documentary, “The River Blue: Can Fashion Save the Planet,” details the environmental damage from the production of jeans.

In an effort to avoid the “break-in” period for new jeans, the industry came up with distressed jeans. Popular in the late 1980s, these jeans must be artificially treated to achieve that look of being old and worn. Workers use millions of gallons of water and energy to wash the jeans with pumice stone. Often the heavily contaminated wash water is dumped untreated into rivers.

In Guangdong, the local water treatment plant closed years ago, leaving factories to dump dye waste directly into the East River. The river quickly turned opaque; aquatic life could no longer survive. Greenpeace has reported that the riverbed contains high levels of lead, copper, and cadmium, and the river had a pH level of 11.95. Workers exposed to the water and dust reported skin rashes, infertility and lung infections.

The recently released report “A New Textiles Economy” states that between 1.22 billion and 2.93 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere annually by the textile industry. If you include the emissions released to launder those garments the total contribution from clothing accounts for 6.7 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

We live in a time of “fast fashion” where high fashion designs are mass produced in a way that uses incredible amounts of energy and resources as well as large quantities of toxic dyes. Clothing barely lasts beyond a few months before it is deemed “out of fashion” or looks like an old rag from a few washings. Millions of pieces of fast fashion garments end up in landfills every year. In New York City alone more than 400 million pounds of clothes are wasted each year and the EPA reports that 5.8 percent of annual municipal solid wastes is from textiles. It can take up to 200 years for a piece of fabric to break down.

Every type of garment, be it wool, fur, or polyester, has a carbon footprint, but synthetic fibers are much worse than others. If you sew like I do, you probably have noticed that the amount of fleece fabrics available in fabric stores has skyrocketed. In some cases, half the store is stocked with various fleece fabrics.

An article in “The Revelator” states that the amount of polyester in our garments has doubled since 2000. It takes 342 million barrels of oil annually to supply synthetic fibers, which means fibers like fleece have a high carbon footprint. Consider that once discarded, fabrics like polyester, nylon, and acrylics add to the plastic fibers contaminating waterways in our environment.

Cotton-based fabric also comes at a high cost to the environment. Cotton, once referred to as “the fabric of your life,” primarily originates from genetically modified cotton plants. The genetically modified seeds are engineered to be resistant to herbicides such as Roundup, which allows the fields to be sprayed without killing the cotton plants. The use of pesticides and man-made fertilizers also adds to the carbon footprint of conventionally grown cotton. According to the World Health Organization, the world’s cotton crop requires 200,000 tons of pesticides and 8 million tons of fertilizers each year.

The Soil Association’s 2019 report, “Thirsty for Fashion,” details how a switch to organic cotton can help reduce the externalities of the fabric. Organic cotton costs more but workers have much safer working conditions, the crop uses much less water, uses little if any industrial chemicals and improves soils. The higher price tag for organic cotton is well worth it.

Another alternative fiber gaining traction in the world is hemp. The 2018 Farm Bill legalized the cultivation of hemp which, up to that point, had been declared an illegal drug like other cannabis plants. Unlike its cousin marijuana, hemp has no significant amount of THC. Hemp has a long and colorful history in the USA, and farmers were once required to grow it. Our first American flags and Levi jeans were made from hemp, and our navy used ropes crafted from American grown hemp.

However, in the early 1900s, industrialists like DuPont and Hearst lobbied against the crop because they saw the threat it posed to some of their industries. Hemp can produce four times as much paper as trees. PR campaigns quickly started to associate the benign crop with “mad pot smokers.”

Hemp can be grown without pesticides and fertilizers, it grows faster and absorbs more carbon dioxide than other crops, it is biodegradable, UV resistant, and breathes, unlike synthetic materials.

There are other ways to cut the carbon budget from your clothes. Madeline Hill, an author who writes about sustainability, said in her “Good On You” column, “we need to follow these practices when it comes to fashion: reduce, reuse, rewear, repair, and resell.” There are many companies like Patagonia that will take “trade-ins” on old clothing from their stores and repair clothing for a small fee.

In 2015, I attended a conference sponsored by the Patagonia Company. The company gets high marks for its contributions to environmental grassroots groups and its sustainable business practices. During the conference, Yvon Chouinard, founder of the company, spoke to us. As he sat in an over-stuffed chair wearing an old flannel shirt he asked, “Why do kids need so many T shirts and twenty pairs of jeans?” It was a good question and one to consider as the ridiculous madness of Christmas shopping approaches. Instead of buying cheap stuff made in China and transported across the ocean using fossil fuels, why not refrain from consuming or at least purchase something that will last longer than the next wash cycle? Let your fashion choices reflect your desire for a livable planet.


Randi Pokladnik, Ph.D., of Uhrichsville, is a retired research chemist who volunteers with Mid Ohio Valley Climate Action. She has a doctorate degree in Environmental Studies and is certified in Hazardous Materials Regulations.