The Surprising Environmental Impact of Clothing

Last year I read a couple of eye-opening articles about how clothing impacts the environment. The impact of the manufacturing of clothing, our use of clothes, and how we discard unwanted items is pretty shocking! We’re causing significant harm to the environment with items as seemingly innocuous as t-shirts.

We’re causing harm to the environment with items as seemingly innocuous as t-shirts! Check out these details on the impact of clothes on the environment.

What do I mean by this? Each step of the clothing life cycle takes a swing at the environment.

Production

Synthetic fibers, like polyester, nylon, and acrylic, are made from petroleum. When they are manufactured, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride are released into the air and harmful by-products are emitted in wastewater. Natural fibers, especially cotton, also have a significant environmental footprint. Cotton accounts for a quarter of all the pesticides used in the United States.

Use

The fashion industry promotes rapid obsolescence of clothing.

  • Each season designers create new fashions that are “must-haves.” Through advertising, they convince susceptible consumers to purchase these items (regardless of whether the consumers truly need them or not).
  • Even if consumers resist the pressure to purchase new fashions each season, their existing clothes won’t last. This is because manufacturers typically don’t use high-quality materials and workmanship. They want clothes to wear out so consumers have no choice but to spend money on new ones.

Disposal

Many consumers sell their used clothing or donate it to thrift stores in order to benefit others and avoid adding it to landfills. While this is a good idea, experts say that there are nowhere near enough individuals in the U.S. to absorb castoff clothing, even if it were given away for free. In fact, charity thrift stores are only able to sell about 20% of the clothing items donated to them. Some of the remaining clothes end up in the trash and the rest are generally baled for export to developing countries, although certain high-end or vintage items may be exported to nations such as Japan where there is a market for them.

In reality, most clothing isn’t sold or donated. According to the EPA, 84% of clothing ends up in the trash! Americans toss out a whopping 80 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year.

  • Synthetic fibers, which are made from petroleum, are essentially a type of plastic. They take hundreds of years to biodegrade.
  • Fabrics like cotton, though natural, can’t be composted but have to be added to landfills or incinerated. This is because they have been so highly processed during manufacturing (bleached, dyed, scoured in chemicals, etc.).

As you can see, the situation is pretty bleak. However, unless we are going to run around naked or start creating our own textiles and sewing all of our own clothes, then we need to purchase and eventually dispose of clothing items. Thankfully, there are a number of things we can do to reduce the negative impact that clothes have on the environment. We’ll take a look at these next week. Check out my sources for additional information about the environmental impact of clothes: Environmental Health Perspectives and Newsweek.

Did you have any idea of the impact that clothes have on the environment? What sort of things do you do to extend the life of your clothes and reduce your need for new items?

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Comments

  1. Shannon, I think it’s fantastic that you’re talking about this, and I look forward to reading more from you about what we can do to reduce the negative impact. It’s sobering to think about how many clothes are thrown away, but I think it’s really good to talk about what we donate to thrift stores. I don’t like throwing away clothes, but when I was younger I reassured myself that I could donate things so that I wouldn’t have to do the dirty work of throwing them away…but when I grew older, I discovered how much extra work I was making for thrift stores or homeless shelters if I was just giving them junk that I didn’t want!

    • Hi AnneMarie,
      It is really sobering to think about. If we’re unable (or unwilling) to use a piece of clothing, it’s quite possible that others will be, too. Perhaps if we think about this more, it will help us make really good purchases–things that will last and that we’ll want to wear for a long time!

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