As much as 90% of a product’s environmental impact is decided during the design phase, which means that the materials brands choose to work with are critically important. Here are four ways in which poorly selected materials are creating negative outcomes for our planet.
1. DEPLETION OF NON-RENEWABLE RESOURCES
With the rise of fast fashion in the 1990s, our clothes became cheaper and more disposable than ever before, thanks to materials like polyester (first introduced in 1951). Polyester now makes up 52% of clothing produced globally, which is troubling considering that it’s derived from fossil fuels (Source: Textile Exchange, 2020).
In fact, 63% of all textile fibers are derived from petrochemicals extracted by the oil industry (Source: Journal of Cleaner Production, 2018). And that figure is growing. The fashion industry is projected to use 35% more land for fiber and textile production by 2030. That’s an extra 115 million hectares that should be left alone to help preserve biodiversity (Source: Global Fashion Agenda, 2017).
Our forests are being cut down to create space for more cotton farming and cattle grazing (supplying for leather), as well as to create wood-based fabrics and other raw materials—which is unfortunate because forests are vital for biodiversity. They also act as a carbon sponge, holding onto carbon dioxide instead of setting it free into our atmosphere. When we clear forests, we release all that previously contained carbon (Source: Fashion Revolution, 2020).
3. WATER POLLUTION
From a manufacturing standpoint, the fashion industry relies heavily on natural resources, like water, and hazardous chemicals to process raw materials into finished products.
“Freshwater is a highly limited commodity and its supply is diminishing. A full two thirds of the world’s population are projected to face water scarcity by 2025, according to the UN. This is not because water molecules are disappearing; it’s because existing freshwater is getting polluted, rendering it unsafe for human consumption, and the chemicals from our clothing contribute to this water crisis.” (Source: Bédat, 2021).
As much as 20% of industrial water pollution comes from washing, solvents and dyes (Source: Mckinsey, 2020). If the water and chemical waste from making our clothes isn’t treated, it runs off into natural waterways and creates serious health problems for nearby communities and the planet at large (Source: The True Cost, 2015).
Even the microplastics from our clothing are winding up in rivers and oceans, polluting marine ecosystems at alarming rates. Fashion actually accounts for 20 to 35% of all microplastic flow into the ocean (Source: Mckinsey, 2020).
4. UNNECESSARY OVERFLOWING LANDFILLS
The chemical makeup of raw materials determines whether and how a product will biodegrade. Unfortunately, 85% of the clothes and shoes we wear currently end up in landfills, even though 95% of the items could be reused or recycled (Source: Council for Textile Recycling, 2021). Once in the landfill, the items continue to emit greenhouse gasses until they decompose, which, for plastic-based raw materials (e.g., the majority of our clothing) the process can take centuries.