As consumers buy more and more clothes, the fast fashion industry has flourished, mass-producing trendy clothing using cheap, exploitative labor, and environmentally-harmful processes.

By producing apparel and garments, massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions enter the atmosphere, water sources are depleted, and carcinogenic chemicals, dyes, salts, and heavy metals are dumped into waterways.

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The fashion industry produces 20 percent of global wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping, the UNEP reports. Each step of making clothes carries a significant environmental burden.

1. Textile Dyeing & Water Contamination

Processes like bleaching, softening, or making the garment water-resistant or anti-wrinkle require various chemicals and treatments to be applied to fabric, CNN explains.

But textile dyeing is the biggest offender in the fashion industry and is the second-largest polluter of water globally according to the UNEP.

Dyeing clothes to get vivid colors and finishes that are common in the fast fashion industry require large amounts of water and chemicals, which end up being dumped in nearby rivers and lakes.

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The World Bank has identified 72 toxic chemicals that end up in waterways from textile dyeing. Wastewater disposal is rarely regulated or monitored, meaning fashion brands and factory owners are left unaccountable. Water contamination destroys the local environments of garment-producing nations like Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is the world’s second-biggest garment exporter with apparel reaching thousands of stores across the United States and Europe. But the country’s waterways have been polluted for years by garment operations, textile mills, and dyeing plants.

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A recent article from CNN revealed the impact of water pollution on local residents who live near Bangladesh’s largest garment manufacturing districts. Residents say the waters now have a “pitch black color” and “there are no fish.”

“The kids get sick if they stay here,” one man told CNN, explaining that his two children and grandson are unable to live with him “because of the water.”

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Chemical-laden water kills plants and animals in or near the waterways, destroying ecosystem biodiversity in these areas. The dyeing chemicals also have significant human health impacts and have been linked to forms of cancer, gastrointestinal problems, and skin irritation. The harmful chemicals get into the food system when polluted water is used to irrigate crops and contaminates vegetables and fruit.

Employees in the garment factories are often left unprotected from the harmful dyes.

“People don’t have gloves or sandals, they’re barefoot, they don’t have masks, and they are working with dangerous chemicals or dyes in a congested area. They are like sweat factories,” Ridwanul Haque, chief executive of the Dhaka-based NGO Agroho, told CNN.

Governments and brands have sought to clean up waterways and regulated dye water disposal after pressure from consumers and advocacy groups like Agroho. In recent years, China has enacted environmental policies to crackdown on textile dye pollution. But while some regions saw great improvement in water quality, water pollution still remains a significant problem across the country.

2. Fossil Fuel Fabrics & Microfibers

About 60 percent of all garments contain polyester, a synthetic fabric made with fossil fuels. Emissions of CO2 for polyester in clothing are nearly 3 times higher than those for cotton, Greenpeace reported.

When repeatedly washed, synthetic garments shed microfibers (microplastics) that eventually end up polluting waterways and never biodegrade. A 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics in the ocean came from synthetic fabrics like polyester. Microfibers are easily ingested by marine life, working its way into the human food system and human bodies, and can carry harmful bacteria.

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3. Landfills & Waste

In particular, fast fashion is driving up waste by continuously releasing new trends of poorly-made clothes that easily rip and tear. Just within years of being made, consumers discard their clothes which end up in incinerators or landfills. One garbage truck of clothes is burned or sent to landfills every second, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation reported.

Almost 85 percent of textiles end up in landfills where it could take up to 200 years for materials to decompose. This is not only a huge waste of the resources used in these products but also releases more pollution as clothes are burned or sit in landfills releasing greenhouse emissions.

More Sustainable Practices

Movements towards biodegradable fashion are pushing for environmentally-friendly dyes and alternative fabrics that do not take hundreds of years to decompose.

In 2019, the UN launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion to coordinate international efforts to curb the environmental impacts of the fashion industry.

“There are fantastic ways to get new clothes without buying new,” Carry Somers, founder and global operations director of Fashion Revolution, told WBUR. “We can hire. We can rent. We can swap. Or we can invest in clothes which are made by artisans, which have taken time and skill to produce.”

Comprehensive changes in the fast fashion industry can help end sweatshops and exploitation work practices, heal the health and environments of communities where garments are produced, and also aid the global fight in mitigating climate change.

Source: The Economist/YouTube

Read more about the environmental impact of the fashion industry and some ways to reduce your impact:

Sign this petition to demand that the U.S. pass a law banning all clothing designers, manufacturers, and stores from burning excess, unsold merchandise!

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