The Environmental Perils of Fashion

As ‘fast fashion’ increasingly consumes us, we need to think seriously about its impacts; the average American discards 70lbs of clothing a year and between 1999 and 2009 textile waste volumes rose by forty percent [1]. In spite of age-old wisdom telling us that quality is better than quantity, it’s hard not to be tempted by the fashion bargains of today. One week you’re watching Kate Moss wear Burberry on the catwalk and the next week you’re wearing the high street version yourself, made possible by quick and cheap manufacturing processes. What’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’ of fashion changes so quickly that we tend to ignore the vast trail of ‘undesirable’ clothes left behind, not thinking about the other options like the reusing, repairing or recycling of old clothes.


As the Kon Mari method gains in popularity, insisting that we ask ourselves the question of whether or not a possession ‘sparks joy’ in us before we are allowed to keep it, an important follow up question comes to mind – what happens to those items not kept?


It would be useful if we all knew where our possessions go once we have thrown them out. For clothing, sadly, the answer lies in landfills. 85 percent of post consumer textile waste ends up in landfills, occupying five percent of total landfill space [2]. Anaerobic conditions in landfills cause clothes to break down and release harmful green house gases like methane, while toxic chemicals and dyes from the clothing can leach out of landfills and seep into underground waterways thereby posing a risk to human health.


Now what if we go back and re-examine the aforementioned three alternative options to throwing out our old clothes. Reusing, recycling and repairing old clothes are certainly better ways of dealing with post consumer textile waste.


Fortunately, there are notable companies forging the way to a better future. For example, Patagonia has long been a leader in corporate social responsibility. Its famous 2011 Don’t Buy This Jacket ad campaign juxtaposed the crazy consumerism of Black Friday and acknowledged the huge environmental costs of making their R2 jackets. The ad concluded that ‘there is much to be done and plenty for us all to do. Don’t buy what you don’t need. Think twice before you buy anything.’

Over the years Patagonia has continued to stick with its sustainability goals and one particular area of focus has been repair. If it’s broke, fix it. On their website Patagonia provides detailed DIY guides of how to repair and care for their products. Their clear and easy to follow guides tell you exactly how to access the inside of their down jackets, how to install a zipper or how to patch their products.

If that wasn’t good enough Patagonia also has ‘Worn Wear’ mobile repair shops, which travel across the globe and offer free repairs for their clothes, including ski wear. The idea being that we should keep our clothes going for as long as possible!


So, although we know Patagonia is doing good, what about H & M? Often the most vilified of the high street brands and certainly without the same long-standing sustainability credentials as Patagonia, many question if H&M and ‘fast fashion’ could ever be sustainable, yet H&M is definitely taking steps in the right direction. In 2013 they launched their garment collecting initiative, which seems to be gaining increasing traction. They have done various promos for it and recently offered a 5-pound voucher for every bag of clothes donated. The initiative enables customers to bring in bags of clothes they no longer want, regardless of what brand or condition they are in, and these clothes then go onto be recycled (turned into textile fibres), reused (turned into other products like cleaning clothes), and reworn (sold as second hand clothes).