Making Clothes for a Better World

Written by Alexandra Nitoiu
Illustrated by Prima Zhao
If you’ve ever looked through your parents’ or grandparents’ closets, you may have been surprised by what you found—crazy patterns, cool vintage pieces, or clothes that were totally not your style. There’s no doubt that the fashion industry has changed immensely over the last couple of decades, moving at a breakneck pace to keep up with all the seasonal trends. But even though fashion is more affordable and accessible than ever before, those improvements come at a significant cost to the environment.

To give you an idea of how much the fast fashion industry has grown, global clothing production has roughly doubled since 2000, and consumers bought 60% more clothes in 2014 than in 2000 while only keeping them for half as long. This wouldn’t be a problem if clothing was made, reused, and disposed of sustainably, but unfortunately, this isn’t usually the case. Most used clothes end up in the trash, and one garbage truck’s worth of clothing is burned or dumped into landfills every second! Even washing clothes can be extremely damaging to the environment, as a large portion of microplastics—microscopic pieces of plastic that never degrade in nature—in the oceans come from washing synthetic clothes.

Most of these synthetic textiles are made with polyester, and if you take a minute to read the clothing labels in your closet, you’ll notice that polyester appears on many of them. Manufacturing polyester releases 2-3 times more carbon emissions than cotton, but you’d be wrong to assume that this means cotton and other natural fibres are more environmentally-friendly. Producing one cotton shirt uses 2,650 litres of water, and producing one pair of jeans—also with cotton—uses 7,570 litres of water. To put this into perspective, the daily recommended water intake for one person is only 3 litres! The process of producing cotton clothing is so water-intensive because growing cotton plants requires a lot of water; some lakes, like the Aral sea in Uzbekistan, have even dried up because of cotton-farming!

Overall, the fashion industry is the world’s second-largest consumer of water while also being responsible for 20% of all global industrial water pollution. The industry also emits more carbon emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined! So clearly, current practices by the fashion industry and by consumers are unsustainable, but how can companies introduce better environmental practices while also keeping up with consumer demand?

Many different companies and researchers have come up with alternatives to current clothing materials, such as Mylo leather and microsilk. Mylo is similar to leather, except that it’s made from mycelium, which is a part of fungi. It’s biodegradable and can be made in days, making its production much more environmentally-friendly than leather’s. Microsilk is made by bioengineering yeast to produce silk proteins through fermentation, which are then spun into silk threads. Both Mylo leather and microsilk have been used by big-name brands such as Stella McCartney. Another example is Tencel, which is a type of fibre made from the pulp of sustainably-harvested trees and cotton scraps; these fibres are biodegradable and are already used by brands such as Levi’s and Patagonia.

Much of the water pollution created by the fashion industry occurs when waste from the dyeing process is released into water sources in the environment. To try to minimize this waste, the company DyeCoo has developed a new dyeing process that uses carbon dioxide instead of water, and this process has been used on an industrial scale by brands such as Nike and Adidas! Another company named Tejidos Royo has developed a dyeing technique called Dry Indigo, which aims to solve the problem of excessive water usage in denim production. Their method uses 65% less electricity, 89% fewer chemicals, and 100% less water than traditional slasher dyeing!

But the focus on natural materials doesn’t mean that plastic products can’t be sustainably produced via recycling. For example, Adidas is using more than 50% recycled polyester in its products for the first time in 2020! It’s actually harder to recycle clothing than you might expect, since different types of fibres need to be recycled separately, and it’s extremely difficult and time-consuming to separate fibres in mixed fabrics. To tackle this problem, a group of researchers in Hong Kong have figured out that they can feed mixed cotton-polyester material to fungi, which then convert the cotton fibres into glucose, leaving the polyester to be reused.

So where does this leave us as consumers? Should we forgo all fast fashion in favour of longer-lasting and sustainable clothing, or should we wait for new recycling techniques to be developed to clean up the mess we made? Luckily, some big-name brands such as H&M have become more sustainable and many others are moving to join them, but it’s our job as consumers to make our opinions heard by not buying from companies that—at the very least—refuse to be transparent about their practices.


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