Dirty Business Behind the Designer Label

Michelle Chen

Even before it gets worn once, that new T-shirt you bought is already dirtier than you can imagine. It’s soaked through with toxic waste, factory smog and plastic debris—all of which is likely just a few spin cycles away from an incinerator, or maybe a landfill halfway around the world. Our obsession with style rivals our hunger for oil, making fashion the world’s second-most polluting industry after the oil industry.

According to the think tank Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), the majority of fast-fashion products—the hyperactive production and marketing cycle fueled by high-volume, high-speed supply chains, which often bludgeon the environment while driving ultra-cheap retail market—are incinerated or trashed within a year. In the U.S., wasted leather, cloth, rubber and other scraps constitute over eight percent of the total volume of solid waste. Global clothing consumption averages about 22 pounds annually per-person, though the U.S. and Europe each average roughly triple that amount.

While local pollution piles up, a more chronic hazard looms on the horizon. At the current rate of pollution, the apparel sector’s carbon emissions will balloon by 60 percent by 2030, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, amounting to about a quarter of the global carbon budget. The total share of carbon emissions from the sector by 2050 would actually be equivalent to roughly 300 million tons of oil—more than tripling within a generation.

The premature trashing of clothes wastes money as well as resources, costing an estimated $460 billion in product-value-per-year. Around the world, the number of times people wear a garment has dropped by a third over the past 15 years, while clothing production has doubled. Americans in particular “wear out” clothes at roughly four times the global rate—snatching up jeans and boots practically faster than we can break them in. And although spring and fall are the main shopping seasons, brands now compete on “micro seasons,” ranging anywhere from 50 to 100 per year—so a hot collection might rotate from the display window to the landfill within weeks.

The whole clothing supply chain, from the seed to the sales floor, also ravages water and soil resources. A pair of jeans and a T-shirt, which amount to roughly two pounds of cotton, represent an estimated 20,000 liters of water. In addition, conventional cotton crops absorb about 24 percent of global insecticide sales and 11 percent of pesticide sales. Non-biodegradable plastic, synthetic fibers that are shed in the laundry flush into oceans and poison marine ecosystems, contributing roughly a third of global microplastic water pollution, or half-a-million tons of plastics. According to the World Bank, textile processing and dyeing contribute up to an estimated 20 percent of industrial water pollution today, the impacts of which are concentrated major producing countries that are already suffering massive water stress, like China.

In addition to the harm it is causing to the planet, all this waste is also bad for business in the long run. A recent industry analysis by The Boston Consulting Group warned that fashion manufacturing is reaching economically unsustainable limits, as revenues could drop by three percent by 2030 at current levels of production, amounting to yearly losses of roughly $50 billion.

“The fashion industry has been marking its own homework for too long,” says Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, a global campaign founded in the wake of the horrific factory collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013. The veteran designer points out that even the limited “ethical sourcing” programs that brands use to audit their overseas factories are often toothless and unregulated. Although consumer pressure is rising, she observes, fashion remains “a profoundly growth-driven market, rather than a quality-driven market.” And once overproduced goods hit Western retail storefronts, “brands are burning millions and millions and millions worth of product that is unsold.”

Meanwhile, synthetic fiber consumption is soaring worldwide and streaming into poorer markets. Consumers in the Global South are driving an estimated 63 percent of clothing-based plastics consumption. Global clothing sales are set to roughly triple as Asian and African economies start to adopt “Western lifestyle” habits. The migration of consumption that has followed “development” underscores an even more visceral irony in the Global South’s exploitative labor system. The industry is notorious for abusive conditions, including the use of child labor and unsafe and fire-prone facilities across Asia; the economic injustices are underscored by the same regions’ disproportionate vulnerability to both industrial pollution and climate crisis.

However, consumers are slowly waking up to the massive pollution crisis surrounding our wardrobes, and brands are facing pressure to clean up the dirty business behind the designer label. Like consumer-driven mobilizations against sweatshops in the Global South, campaigns for ecologically conscious fashion have spawned green style trends. Community initiatives promote “upcycling” or renewing old clothes, and fostering repair programs, while some brands commit to eliminating toxic chemicals or creating net-zero emissions in garment manufacturing. Fashion today remains a ritual of mass consumption, but rising environmental consciousness among designers and the public have foregrounded the need for sustainable style.

Earlier this year, following a months-long investigation, the Environmental Audit Committee of the British Parliament recommended an unprecedented one-pence tax on clothing purchases, dubbed a “producer responsibility charge.” The fee would support the development of reuse and recycling programs and “take-back” schemes for used garments. Clearly, a pence won’t dramatically change the industry, but the initiative reflects the ethical conundrum coloring the fashion market: Isn’t it worth it to pay a little more for a shirt that harms the planet a little less?


The political momentum to propose the fashion tax may be inspired in part by a bonfire on the U.K.’s High Street last year. The classic British luxury brand Burberry was faced with a waste scandal after it was discovered to have destroyed $40 million worth of unsold stock. Last fall, the company sought to redeem its reputation through a media-genic partnership with “sustainable luxury” brand Elvis and Kresse, seeking to recycle 120 tons of leather scraps over the next five years into renewed products. But Burberry’s atonement hardly redeemed an industry that is fueled by the most wasteful, environmentally destructive production processes. Truly combating the waste that is endemic in clothing production requires a total makeover.

Cleaning up fast fashion would necessitate a radical re-imagining of what we wear, who makes it and what it represents. Today, rankings of fashion brands according to the environmental impact of their supply chains show that the vast majority fail to incorporate eco-friendly production methods, including controlling chemical and energy use.

Some designers, like Stella McCartney, have branded themselves as sustainable fashion pioneers, with upcycled product lines featuring organic cotton and water-bottle-cum-handbags. But such eco-focused brands occupy just a tiny percentage of the market.

According to Francois Souchet, head of EMF’s Make Fashion Circular program, “Just slowing down isn’t enough...we need to change the way the industry operates quite fundamentally.”

To help reverse destructive cycle, Souchet says, the fashion sector should adopt a fully “circular” industrial infrastructure, which relies on renewable energy and recyclable fiber. The circular-economy concept advocates “designing out” waste—deliberately constructing styles for durability, using recycled materials or organic fibers, without requiring hazardous pigments and other chemicals. For brands and consumers, Souchet says, “the incentive is on using what’s been produced more, on producing better, and on ensuring that once it can’t be used anymore, it can actually be turned into [something] new.”

Reuse and resale

Still, because of the endemic waste that plagues the current manufacturing supply chain, some limit on new production of clothes is essential. To that end, creating an infrastructure for reuse and resale is key. The secondary market for clothes is huge, but ill-equipped to process much of the Global North’s waste stream without creating more waste elsewhere. Currently, about 60 percent of the clothes salvaged by U.S. charities for reuse are exported to markets in the Global South, many of them in Africa. The overseas used-clothes trade, like the rest of the fashion supply chain, exploits the poorer markets of the Global South by externalizing the industry’s endemic economic abuses onto the most vulnerable communities. The mass dumping of secondhand clothes is hardly a sustainable form of “reuse,” critics say, because it hampers higher-quality regional manufacturing in countries like Kenya and Uganda, by distorting the potential market for locally made fashion.

Patsy Perry, a lecturer in fashion marketing at the University of Manchester, says that measures like the U.K. Parliament’s proposed tax mark a symbolic first step toward accountability across the supply chain for brands and retailers, by “leveling the playing field and making it non-optional. Otherwise, we will always have the situation where some companies behave well and try to do better, while others do not bother.” Nonetheless, given that fast fashion dominates the current consumer culture, she adds, tax incentives should be complemented by a societal effort to shift consumer culture to “normalize sustainable behavior,” perhaps through public campaigns to promote ecologically safer forms of disposal, or extending secondhand and repair economies. The U.K. Parliament’s study on the proposed fashion tax notes that, “Extending the life of clothing by an extra nine months could reduce carbon, waste and water footprints by around 20 to 30 percent each.”

Implementing stronger environmental and labor regulations, such as sharply restricting the use of plastics in manufacturing, can drive producers to switch to more ethical sourcing practices. But a true fashion makeover will have to interweave consumer culture with public policies to reduce overall consumption. Although there is no comprehensive national legislation aimed specifically at combating fashion waste, some cities and states have targeted various forms of plastic waste, particularly microbeads from personal care products and single-use plastic bags. But piecemeal bans and taxes would still barely dent the overall waste burden clogging global waterways.

Other efforts have emerged in the social, rather than policy-making arena, generated instead by grassroots environmental campaigns collaborating with brands and consumers. On the community level, Fashion Revolution has collaborated with designers on workshops on sustainable production and transparency, and partnered with Greenpeace on a “Haulternative challenge” to encourage eco-friendly initiatives to resell, redesign, repair, or swap apparel. Some communities have offered workshops on repair and reuse to mend or renew, rather than trash, old items. And as part of a broader waste-reduction agenda, the #MakeFashionCircular campaign has partnered with New York City’s Sanitation Department and megabrands like Zara and H&M to launch a digitally mapped network of local drop-off sites, from churches to boutiques, to divert clothes from landfills.

Still, although brand campaigns and DIY culture can promote the concept of sustainable fashion, the best way to reduce waste is to reduce production in the first place. According to an analysis of the supply chain by economists Simon Mair and Jacquetta Lee, “take-back” schemes to upcycle old items will not necessarily curb the overall volume of the fashion market, “largely because they do not discourage people from reducing the amount of clothes they buy. That is, they do not challenge the core fashion business model based on high volume sales through which consumers are encouraged to buy more and more.”

At the same time, recycling alone would not address fast fashion’s social problems, particularly labor abuses in Global South factories. A sustainable supply chain should also support decent jobs. Ideally, a revamped manufacturing system would foster opportunities for workers in exporting countries to produce environmentally conscious apparel, while earning living wages under healthy conditions. Labor and environmental advocates, Mair and Lee argue, should champion “shifting the focus of production from profits to a wider set of social and environmental values.”

Fashion does have perhaps one edge on other industries: It is, by definition, constantly changing. But instead of just switching fabrics or adjusting hemlines, designers and consumers can start redesigning our economy to redefine the classic adage of style: Less is more.

Truthout, May 19, 2019