To kick us off let's look at linen, cotton, wool and leather biodegradation timeframes:
- 100% Linen: Takes up to 5 weeks
- 100% Cotton: Takes between 5 months to 1 year
- Wool: Takes up to 5 years
- Leather: Takes up to 50 years
These are some heavyweight champions when it comes to textiles; the naturally occurring textiles that don't take too much time to biodegrade in landfills. It makes sense when you think about it - why wouldn't the earth invite these fibres back into its life cycle?
Now let's look at the fibres used in the majority of our clothing (I am referring to the clothing we regularly buy from leading fast fashion brands):
- Polyester: 20 (at best) to 200 years
- Spandex: 20 (at best) to 200 years
- Nylon: 20 (at best) to 200 years
Psst. That means your favourite Lululemon shirt will take roughly 200 years to biodegrade.
I think it's safe to say these fibres are fairly non-biodegradable. By the time they breakdown and biodegrade, we would have broken down and decomposed, ourselves. It wasn't long ago that synthetic fabrics were introduced into the fashion industry. Most of our grandparents grew up wearing wool, linen, leather and silk. The 1940's brought the shift away from these naturally produced textiles to the man-made fabrics we see today. After the discovery that these fabrics could be created at a fraction of the cost (using plastic and oil), there was no turning back. Thus, bringing on the fast fashion industry we have today.
Unfortunately, the reality is, when looking for cheap clothing these are the fabrics that are often used. Go-to brands like H&M, Zara, Lululemon, Aritzia, Nike and Vans all produce clothing in masses using these non-biodegradable materials. This is a huge problem; this is when we begin to outlive our planet.
For these leading brands, using polyester fabric is a "no-brainer". It takes significantly less time and money to produce clothing from synthetic fibres than it does from natural fibres. These companies aren't in the environmental business - they're retailers with one goal in mind: to sell you the next style at the lowest cost possible. The cost of production is low, the price tag is low, and you get to update your wardrobe every month. That said, discarding these clothes is a huge problem.
Have you ever wondered what happens to the billions of garments that go unsold each year? What companies do with the clothing that didn't end up in consumers' closets? It would take much more than a blog post to dissect the ways companies discard their unused fabrics and unsold merchandise, but I will provide two examples of the methods they use:
A recent article released by Global News shows employees from a Toronto mall cutting up and destroying stock that did not sell. To avoid customers finding the discarded clothing and then trying to return it for money, companies were taking scissors to clothes and shoes, ensuring they were in no state to be returned or traceable back to the brand. This was discovered by a local resident who found piles of brand new clothing in trash bags outside of a shopping centre. When she took a closer look she saw they had been intentionally destroyed with original tags still on. Confused and concerned, she did some research and found out that this is a common practice use by retail stores worldwide. To see more on this story click here.
Another common practice high end luxury retailers take part in, is burning their merchandise. To ensure their unsold products don't end up with unauthorized sellers or black markets, companies like Nike, Burberry and Victoria Secret have been caught burning and destroying their stock. According to The Goods by Vox, "in 2017 Burberry brought in $3.6 billion in revenue — and destroyed $36.8 million worth of its own merchandise."
Not only is the number of garments and accessories produced worldwide unsustainable, it's now being discovered that retailers are choosing to destroy unused inventory in hopes to preserve their name. Between the detrimental manufacturing process of man-made fibres, the timeframe to biodegrade synthetic textiles and the discarding methods of large companies... well, it all seems extremely daunting. There are, however, practices we can all implement when making our next clothing purchase:
- Consider the quality of the material. Is it cheap in price thus cheap in quality?
- Purchase clothes without a "style expiration date", consider investing in timeless, quality pieces.
- Determine if it's a want, need, or "in-the-moment" purchase.
- Consider consigning, thrifting or upcycling.
- When discarding: never throw them away. Yes, synthetic fabrics are extremely hard to recycle (e.g. extracting the dyes and separating the various fibres). However, the clothes can be separated at these facilities and sent to local residents or charities, nations in need or sold second-hand.
Numbers can be a great way to show just how serious our impact on the planet is. Before you go, I want to leave you with a few facts regarding the fashion industry's environmental impact:
- The average American throws away 70 lbs of clothing every year.
- The fashion industry remains the second largest industrial polluter, second only to oil.
- It's estimated that humans are using natural resources 1.7 times faster than ecosystems can regenerate. In other words, consuming 1.7 Earths.
- More than 150 billion garments are produced annually. That's enough to provide 20 new garments a year to every person on earth.
As always, I encourage everyone to conduct their own research and discover for themselves the impact we have on the planet. As consumers, we steer the direction of the fashion industry. We can choose to neglect what is happening behind the scenes (in our own backyard or over seas) but at the end of the day we are all living on the same planet. Let's take care of it as much as it takes care of us.