Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Beast within The Beauty: Environmental Impacts of The Fashion Industry

By Claire (Kailai) XiongPublished April 7, 2017

During the past few weeks, reports of the 2017 Paris Fashion Week were everywhere on social media. Behind these high fashion models on the runway, however, people hardly realize the tragic impact on the environment caused by the fashion industry.

"The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world … second only to oil," according to an environmental award recipient.[1]The fashion industry is built upon a complicated and long supply chain which includes many pollution sources. Cotton, the major raw material in the fashion industry, is one of the most water intensive crops. According to a report by WWF, it takes about 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton needed to make a single T-shirt.[2]Because of the large amount of water required, the land that grows cotton eventually get exhausted in many areas. Cotton production also requires a wide use of pesticides and fertilizer. Without careful management, these toxic chemicals will harm the soil for years. Dyes are other threats to the environment. Every year, a half trillion gallons of fresh water are used for dyeing textiles.[3]Unfortunately, most of the wastewater is discharged to nearby rivers without being treated. When the toxic water arrives the sea, it may cause a series of ecological problems such as the massive die-offs of marine species.
    Besides the direct pollution problem, the long-distance transportation of products increases the emission of carbon dioxide. If you take a look of the label on a random shirt, there is a large chance that you will find it is "Made in China" or "Made in Vietnam." Due to increasing  globalization, 30% of the factories for the fashion industry are located in developing countries in Asia, which means a shirt sold in the U.S. probably has already travelled about 5,500 miles. Most of the products are transported by ships and research shows that a single ship can produce as much pollutants as 50 million cars in just one year.[4]
    The boom of fast fashion aggravates the existing negative impact of the fashion industry. Many brands like H&M, Zara and The Gap have established big clothing chains to make massive quantities of products.[5]With cheaper prices and fast changeover of styles, fast fashion has attracted many consumers. As factories for these companies produce more and transport their products all over the world, more pollutants are discharged to rivers and more carbon dioxide is released to the atmosphere.
Many designers and brands have become aware of the environmental impact of their products and have started to make changes. For example, famous English designer Stella McCartney is an influential environmentalist and she only uses sustainable and recycled material for her collections.[6]Outdoor brand Patagonia also advocates using recycled polyester rather than cotton.[7]The problem, however, is that these environment-friendly fashion companies market towards wealthier individuals and are not available to every consumer. Fast fashion still dominates a larger proportion of the market and is the major source of the pollution caused by the fashion industry.
    Another possible solution is applying tax and subsidy policy to the fashion industry to encourage the use of cleaner technology. This may be a practical suggestion if with subsidy the fashion companies are able to balance their costs of updating technology to reduce pollution. However, even though the whole fashion industry is ready for changes, existing advanced technologies still face many obstacles. For instance, organic cotton solves the problem of chemical pesticides but still consumes a lot of water. Therefore, besides using cost-benefit analysis to influence fashion companies, policy-makers should also help research institutions develop better technologies for the fashion industry. Cornell's Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design (FSAD) actually sets up a good model for educational institutions that are related to the fashion industry. It is noticeable that FSAD department takes environmental sustainability study as a part of its degree requirement.