Sustainability in Fashion

The world population keeps growing, and so does our need for clothing.  The “fast fashion” industry churns out more clothes than ever.  And we throw away more clothes than ever.  How can the planet continue to sustain this cycle?

Fast fashion giants, like Zara and H&M, are ignoring the traditional Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter fashion cycles and instead creating 52 “micro-seasons” a year.  New products are coming in every week, strategically designed to make you feel like you are off-trend after only a few days.  Which is a good thing if you buy their clothing because they’re generally made rather cheaply and will fall apart after a few washes.  The general consensus is that fast fashion clothing is made to fall apart as the clothes are so cheap that the only way fast fashion companies can make a profit is by selling tons of their goods.

The average American throws away 65 pounds of textiles every year. [1]  That figure doesn’t even include clothing that is donated to charities.  That’s a lot of clothes going straight into our landfills!

Clothing is made from a wide variety of fibers.  While fibers made into textiles can last for centuries with proper care, natural fibers can also be composted.  Yes, that’s right – composted like you would do with vegetable scraps, where bacteria breaks down the fiber into smaller and smaller pieces.

There are animal fibers, such as wool, cashmere, camel, and alpaca.  Animal fibers can decompose within a year or as long as five years, depending on the blend of the fibers. [2] Plant fibers, such as cotton, linen, hemp, and silk will decompose faster, and will typically biodegrade within a year. [3]

That leaves us with man-made fibers, such as nylon, spandex, rayon, acetate, acrylic, and polyester.  These are chemically produced, petroleum-based, fibers that may never decompose.  The ones that can break down may take 20 to 200 years to do so.  There is no way that man-made fibers can break down faster than humans can add more clothing onto the trash heap!  So, what’s the answer to our ever increasing waste problem?

The two obvious answers are to (1) buy textiles made of natural fibers, and (2) stop buying fast fashion and instead purchase quality textiles that are meant to last.  While the first answer may be relatively easy to implement, the second answer seems to be a more difficult habit to break.

Social media is full with “haul videos,” showing the results of a person’s shopping sprees.  We’ve gotten used to clothing being cheap.  The economy has been hurt for a decade and people have less money to spend, so we justify buying less expensive goods.  However, does a person really save money when whatever you buy only lasts a few weeks?  A person can buy five favorite white t-shirts, or one quality one that will last for years.  While the up-front cost may be more expensive, I propose that it’s cheaper in the long run to invest in quality.

The bottom line is that our landfills will not get any smaller until we change our way of thinking about fashion.  At some point, people will get tired of constantly buying and throwing things away.  I’ve seen it happen with my friends.  How long it takes for each individual is different.  At some point, though, we will all want fashion that lasts, protects the environment, and is sustainable for the planet.


 

[1] Mind Your Waste. (2012, March). Retrieved from Ecosalon: http://ecosalon.com/wp-content/uploads/Mind_Your_Waste.jpeg

[2] Time It Takes For Garbage to Decompose in The Environment. (n.d.). Retrieved from U.S. National Park Service: http://des.nh.gov/organization/divisions/water/wmb/coastal/trash/documents/marine_debris.pdf

[3] Eco-Terms: Biodegradable Versus Compostable. (2011, 12 -22). Retrieved from GreenHome: http://greenblog.greenhome.com/2011/12/22/eco-terms-biodegradable-verus-compostable/

 

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