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The fashion issue: What do we do with all these clothes?

Getty Images The fashion issue: What do we do with all these clothes?  fast fashion
The climate change problem envelops all industries—and all industries, including fashion, must effect change to mitigate it.

The fashion industry doesn't seem to be doing much to reduce the negative effects it has on the environment and society, according to a recent study by the Business of Fashion magazine.

For its first Sustainability Index—released on March 22 to track "fashion's progress towards urgent environmental and social transformation," as the report's cover says—Business of Fashion magazine graded 15 fashion companies on transparency, emissions, water and chemicals, materials, workers' rights and waste.

None of the companies scored more than 50 points on the 100-point scale. The two worst-performing companies had scores of 14 and 9, according to, a publication of Science X.

"The global economy has 10 years to avoid catastrophic climate change and an urgent duty to improve the welfare of the workers who make it tick," quotes from the report, which was put together by a panel of sustainability experts from around the world.

"Time is running out and simply stating an ambition to change is no longer good enough."

Fashion, like most industries, needs to look at its supply chain as well as what happens to its products at the end of their lives.

Worldwide, more than 17 million tons of textiles—clothing, carpet, upholstery, etc.—was produced in 2018, compared with about 2 million tons 50 years ago, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Of that, 11.3 million tons—7.7% of all municipal waste—was dumped in landfills.

For a deeper look at the fashion industry's problems, on both the front and back ends, as well as some possible changes it could make, we compiled these articles.

A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion's future

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2017 released a report, A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion's future, that called for the fashion industry to collaborate with other industries and create a circular economy to reduce the toxic pollution and the waste it creates.

"Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. An estimated USD 500 billion value is lost every year due to clothing that's barely worn and rarely recycled. If nothing changes, by 2050 the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world's carbon budget," says the news release that accompanied the report's debut.

These facts show how unsustainable the fashion industry is

Designers are making more clothes and people are buying more clothes, according to the World Economic Forum, so the fashion industry continues to have a bigger impact on the environment, and not in a good way:

  • People bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000.
  • Of all textiles, 85% end up in landfills each year.
  • Fashion production makes up 10% of humanity's carbon emissions, dries up water sources, and pollutes rivers and streams.
  • Washing some clothes, particularly polyesters, sends releases 500,000 tons of microfibers each year into the ocean.
  • Growing the cotton for one shirt requires the use about 700 gallons of water.

 What do we do with all these clothes?  textile factory

Fast fashion: A threat to the environment and basic human rights

In her college publication, The Duquesne Duke, Sarah DuJordan explained why "fast fashion" exacerbates the industry's damage to the planet: the low quality of the products and the constant influx of new, trendy clothing.

"Due to the amount of toxic chemicals, dyes and synthetic fabrics being used, these articles of clothing are impossible to break down. A majority of these old materials will sit in landfills for ages, releasing unwanted toxins into the air we breathe.

"Also, the harmful effects that fast fashion factories have on their workers and the area where it is mass produced can't be ignored," she notes.

She suggests that her fellow students shop at small businesses and chains such as Target that are concerned about sustainability.

"Supporting small businesses is something the U.S. needs now more than ever. This allows you to know exactly who and where your items are coming from," she writes.

With tradition and new tech, these Japanese designers are crafting more sustainably made clothing

In Japan, the term "mottainai"—loosely translated to "what a waste"—originates from a Buddhist belief that every object should be used throughout its life cycle.

"Mottainai and handmade culture is everywhere in Japan," Kaoru Imajo, director of Japan Fashion Week Organization, says in an email to CNN. This concept has extended to fashion, where brands are upcycling used clothing into one of a kind designs. Other textiles are being recycled into clothing.

"We have been fixing old carpets, clothes and fabric so we can use (them) as long as we could," he said. "Now, boro textiles are traded very expensively and known as a 'Japanese vintage fabric,'" Imajo says.

How to reduce the environmental impact of your party wardrobe

Even formalwear and cocktail dresses—often constructed of synthetics such as lycra, which are made from oil-based products—can be made in a more sustainable manner, veteran fashion designer and textile revivalist Ritu Kumar says in Vogue India. "As a basic rule of thumb, the minute that you stop using synthetics in any form, you will instantly be able to improve your environmental footprint on the earth."

The story explains how organic silk, vegetarian leather tanning techniques and recycling can lessen the negative effects of new clothing purchases.

 What do we do with all these clothes?  clothing store

29 sustainable fabrics for the most eco-friendly fashion

Obviously, fabric choices directly affect how raw materials are produced and processed, as well as how the finished clothing can be handled at the end of its life.

Sunstainable Jungle's list of sustainable fabrics, with links to provide more information, includes organic cotton; organic bamboo; lyocell, which is made from the pulp of eucalyptus trees; scoby leather; woocoa, an alternative wool made from hemp, coconut fibers and mushroom enzymes; wool; vegetable tanned leather; and more.

Time to measure up: 5 ways the fashion industry can be made more sustainable

Not everyone has the desire—or the space—to own all the clothes they want to wear. One way for consumers to make their wardrobes more sustainable is to rent their clothing.

"Such business models have the potential to drive up the quality of products to ensure longevity, make shopping easy while providing a channel for take-back, reuse or recycling. These models won't be relevant for all market segments or satisfy all consumer preferences, but can certainly be part of the solution," writes Antonia Gawel of the World Economic Forum.

Passion for fashion finds a green future

In Australia, textiles and glass are recycled into building materials.

University of New South Wales Professor Veena Sahajwalla and her team at the Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) figured out how to transform used and unwanted clothes into building materials, writes Jimmy Thomson in The Australian Financial Review.

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