Environmental impact of fast fashion and material alternatives

eco-friendly clothing materials: wool & silk

Disclaimer: The pieces featured in the photo above are made of 100% biodegradable materials: wool & silk. The wool cardigan was provided by Minelal, and the cami provided by Frances Austen, for photo styling. This opinion piece is in no way affiliated with either of these brands, but I specifically chose to partner with them because of their use of eco-conscious material selection for these pieces.

It’s been a while since the last post, and there’s a good reason why. After reading the November 2017 issue of Fast Company, which sheds light specifically on tech + culture, one article in particular piqued my interest. Stella McCartney’s take on fashion and advancements in material technology were fascinating, specifically the environmental impact of fast fashion.

Did you know that polyester, one of the softest, cheapest, and most-used fabrics in fast fashion, is an environmental pollutant that can take up to 200 years to degrade? Even washing this fabric sheds synthetic microfibers into the ocean!

Now with this info in mind, here’s more food for thought: the fashion industry produces over 150 billion pieces of clothing each year, with 80 billion pieces being consumed by humans annually. Fast fashion has taught us that it’s ok to not invest in clothing; to constantly consume new pieces by paying less out of our wallets, but in the long run, pay for this consumption through the environmental impacts of throwing away materials that are not only environmentally harmful to produce, but also harmful when discarded.

The table below really highlights the advantages and disadvantages of natural vs synthetic materials:

Source credit – 40+ Style: Properties of Polyester and Other Fabrics

With all of this said, there are some positive initiatives – even in the fast fashion space – that are doing good by advancing material technology through recycling and being more mindful of the environmental impacts of a clothing item’s full life cycle.

Here are some cool collections and initiatives run by companies for a more positive environmental impact:
In 2016, Patagonia created a collection of coats, vests, and pants – the Patagonia Re\\\collection – made from 100% reused wool, down, and polyester, was created. Patagonia even went as far as reclaiming 50-80% of the buttons and zipper parts used in these pieces. It is believed that this collection comes as close to 100% recycled materials as possible, save for having to use new thread (since recycled thread would break if reclaimed and resewn).

Today, Madewell partners with Blue Jeans Go Green to recycle denim to be used as home insulation. By donating old pairs of jeans (any brand, doesn’t have to be Madewell) to any accepting store, not only will you help the environment by having these recycled into insulation for homes, but you’ll also receive 20% off a new pair from Madewell. To date, Madewell’s partnership has helped to provide insulation for 190+ homes. If you don’t live near a Madewell store, you can also donate directly to Blue Jeans Go Green.

Similar to Madewell, H&M – arguably one of the biggest offenders in the fast fashion space – is running a similar initiative collecting used clothing in exchange for a 15% off discount. The donated clothing is either sold to secondhand stores, reused by reclaiming textiles, or recycled into textile fibers for things like insulation. The H&M Conscious Collection pieces contain a portion of recycled materials and still manage to be at an attainable price point. H&M has a goal to even go as far as sourcing only sustainable cotton by 2020 (more info here and here).

If you’re looking to completely forgo the fast fashion space and jump right into environmentally friendly pieces (at a slightly higher price point): Frances Austen, a new-to-the-scene women-owned company, is focused on bringing 100% cashmere and silk products to the forefront of everlasting wardrobe staples. Touting articulately designed, feminine, closet staple pieces in their collection, Frances Austen is committed to “game-changing clothing that is 100% sexy on you, as well as the environment”.

Lastly, Indigenous Organic and Fair Trade Fashion has a strong focus on alpaca wool products as well as pieces that are naturally dyed. Alpaca wool is superior to sheep wool because of the fact that it does not contain lanolin, a naturally-produced oil by sheep that requires water and chemically-intensive processes to remove. The wool is completely biodegradable – at a much faster pace than the 200 years to degrade polyester – making it an Earth-friendly material.

Hope this post helps to shed some light on the environmental impact of fast fashion and the ongoing initiatives that can help us reduce the carbon footprint of the clothing industry.

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  1. I love this post so much! It’s well-researched and such an important topic that even a lot of people interested in sustainable and ethical fashion don’t necessarily think about. I’ve been trying to wear more natural fibers as well! I’m really interested in trying alpaca as an alternative to other cold weather fibers since I’ve heard baby alpaca rivals cashmere in softness.

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Cat!! You are one of my fave sustainable fashion bloggers, so I’m super excited for your feedback. I had no idea baby alpaca is supposed to be so soft… will have to check this one out. Any pieces in particular that you’re eyeing right now?

  2. This is such a great blog post Katrina! A lot of people don’t realize that the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry (next to oil). I loved how you pointed out that it takes 200 years for polyester to degrade. Cheap materials produce a lot of environmental waste (both in production and after we toss items out of our closets). Thanks for sharing some brands who are trying to improve their recycle practices!

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to read, Emma! Cheap materials are such a fascinating topic. Not many people take into account the true “cost” of materials outside of the dollar amount to make the fabrics. I’m honestly thrilled to see that H&M is contributing to the research-side of fabric recycling and decomposition. As such a big contributor to the fast fashion market, it’s nice to see R&D spent on a side of the market that has a net negative impact on sales but a long term, positive impact on the environment and shifting how people thing about fabrics going forward.

  3. This is definitely a post that encourages me to think about my fashion choices! Thanks for that textile chart too – I’m going to come back and refer to it often!

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