Ready-to-Wear and Re-Wear — Meet Sustainable Fashion

(Bloomberg) -- The fashion industry consumes a lot of resources and creates a lot of mess to keep you looking stylish. There’s the crude oil that has to be extracted to make synthetic fabrics, the water and pesticides that are used to grow cotton. Then there’s the garbage that piles up when people grow tired of the last trend and toss out their clothes, as they do with increasing speed. At the same time, consumers are becoming ever more conscious of the environmental impact of their purchases. As a result, some apparel makers are committing to making fashion more sustainable. Is green the new black?

1. What is sustainable fashion?

It’s a movement aimed at making the fashion industry more environmentally responsible by changing the ways clothes are designed, made, transported, used and discarded. The idea is to move away from so-called fast fashion, the rapid production of clothes -- often inexpensive ones -- in response to constantly changing trends, leading to the quick obsolescence of products and a disposable attitude toward them on the part of consumers. Another facet of the movement aims to make the industry more socially responsible, notably by clamping down on poor working conditions and the use of child labor in developing countries.

2. How does clothes’ production harm the environment?

Polyester and cotton make up 85 percent of all clothing material, and both are rough on the planet. The extraction of crude oil, the basis of polyester, can produce toxic leaks and spills and generate polluted wastewater. Polyester requires chemical rather than natural dyes, and these can contaminate groundwater sources. It’s estimated that 17 percent of industrial water pollution comes from the dying and treatment of textiles. Cotton is an especially water-intensive crop. Some 2,700 liters (713 gallons) of water -- enough to sustain a person for three years -- are required to grow the cotton in a single T-shirt. Cotton accounts for 16 percent of global insecticide use -- the biggest share of any crop; those chemicals can be toxic for animals and humans. With clothing output roughly doubling in the past 15 years, carbon emissions from textile production have been calculated as exceeding those of all maritime shipping and international flights combined.

3. What role do fashion consumers play?

People are buying more clothes and keeping them for shorter periods. The average number of times a garment is worn in Europe before it is retired has dropped by a third in 15 years -- from 200 in 2000 to 160 in 2015. When they’re washed, polyester and nylon expel minuscule particles that contaminate sewage. These tiny fibers have been found to make up an important part of the microplastic polluting the world’s oceans.

4. What happens to discarded clothes?

It’s been estimated that every second, a garbage truck of textiles is dumped in a landfill or burned. What’s more, most polyester is not biodegradable. Less than 1 percent of textiles produced for clothing is recycled into new apparel.

5. What’s the industry doing to be more green?

Some brands are using more organic cotton, which is grown without pesticides, but it makes up just 1 percent of the global crop and uses as much water as regular cotton. Mostly the industry is making promises. Companies representing about 12 percent of the market have committed to the aims of an industry group, the Global Fashion Agenda, that’s called for such measures as using water more efficiently, developing more sustainable fibers and inventing novel recycling systems. ASOS, Nike and Gap are among those that signed up. A number of brands have set their own targets, with Adidas committing to using only recycled plastic in its shoes by 2024 and Hennes & Mauritz AB aiming to use only recycled or other “sustainably sourced” materials in its production lines by 2030. The sincerity of such pledges has been called into question by revelations that companies that have made them, including Burberry and H&M, have burned millions of dollars worth of unsold clothes. Companies incinerate unsold stock to avoid the cost and effort of recycling or discounting it, as well as to keep the merchandise rare and therefore protect its premium.

6. What role are governments playing?

Lawmakers in Britain launched an inquiry in June into the carbon impact, resource use and water footprint of the fashion industry. Both fashion producers and consumers will be affected by targets set by the European Parliament for at least 55 percent of municipal waste to be recycled by 2025 and no more than 10 percent to go to landfills by 2035. Meanwhile, U.S. customs rules inadvertently encourage brands to burn unsold goods imported to the U.S. by offering refunds on the items’ duties if they are destroyed. Across the globe, there is very little regulation requiring companies to be transparent about the chemicals used to dye and treat fabrics, making it difficult to evaluate the true environmental impact of the industry.

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