The Effects of Clothing on the Environment

Caroline Canavan, Writer

Recently, in my IB ESS class (Environmental Social Sciences), we had to complete an IA (Internal Assessment). My IA topic question was how personal income influences the amount of money an individual spends on clothing. The outcome was that personal income isn’t as prominent of a factor in how much money people spend on their clothing; it’s the weather in the area that people are living in. I found that the states with a lower income actually spent more money on their clothing a year because those states had a lower average temperature. This is also scientifically accurate because the amount of new clothing you own or purchase affects your individual water footprint. Now you may be thinking, “What is the water footprint?” The water footprint “measures the amount of water used to produce each of the goods and services we use” (waterfootprint.org). The amount of water we consume doesn’t only come from our swimming pools or showers; it comes from where we buy our clothing and how we take care of it.

It’s so easy to see the great prices and cute styles in stores such as Zara, Forever 21, Gap, and Shein, but those stores cause the most damage to the environment. Shein and Zaful are the absolute worst. There is no evidence showing that the brands are taking any meaningful action to reduce their impact on the environment. They receive a very poor score in terms of their effects on the planet because these brands use hazardous chemicals, create large amounts of carbon emissions, and use microplastics in their fabrics that end up in our waterways when we wash our clothing (Goodonyou). Not only are their production practices unsustainable and horrible for the environment, but their working conditions are also inhumane. Using child labor and sweatshops, people working there aren’t recieving an appropriate living wage. UNICEF estimates that 168 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 are engaged in child labor (Study Breaks). They release 500 new styles a day at extremely low prices, making clothing mass produced at an extremely low quality not made to last long. 

This encourages people to be done with their clothing after one season, making more waste and filling landfills. Americans chucked more than 21 billion pounds of clothing and other textiles into landfills in 2015, according to the latest available estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency, which is a steep increase from 12.5 billion pounds in 2000 and 4.6 billion pounds in 1980 (scientificamerican). 

People need to stop advertising these stores on platforms such as Tik Tok and Instagram. If we are unwilling to boycott these brands that use unsustainable sources to produce our clothing, there will never be necessary support to create change. For example, when we promote Zara’s 2021 newly-released spring line, we aren’t just advertising that pretty new sundress that we got from Zara; we are advertising no living-wage payment for workers to support their families, the use of wool, leather, down, and exotic animal hair, and fast fashion traits such as the release of new styles on a regular basis. This isn’t okay! Everyone needs to be informed on the detrimental effects fast fashion companies have on the environment and people around the world. 

It is true that buying from sustainable companies can be expensive. However, if you like to buy clothes often but have a budget, you should turn to secondhand clothing. Apps such as Depop and Poshmark sell secondhand clothing that can be brand new or lightly used at decent prices. There are also other affordable, sustainable brands. Buying things of good quality that will last long and not go out of style is also a good way to reduce your water footprint from clothing. The website, goodonyou.eco, has information on the ratings of many clothing brands. The ratings consider hundreds of sustainability issues to give a fair and comprehensive assessment of a brand’s impact on people, the planet, and animals. They also give links to more sustainable brands such as Happy Earth Apparel and Yes Friends. 

We all need to be more aware of our clothing consumption and where we purchase our clothes from. Looking into this topic and reading articles like this is a great first step towards change.