The True Cost of Retail Therapy: Why Sustainable Fashion Matters

A bit of retail therapy can feel like harmless fun, but the hidden costs of getting a great deal on a new shirt or pair of shoes are significant: greenhouse gas emissions, resource depletion, and the mistreatment of workers and animals. For instance, the average cotton T-shirt requires about 700 gallons of water. A fast-fashion polyester top, made from petroleum, sheds microfibers and may spend decades decomposing in a landfill.

The apparel industry’s footprint is expanding. Since 2000, global fibre production has more than doubled, driven by consumers buying more clothes as fast-fashion brands churn out inexpensive looks. To mitigate the environmental and social issues associated with the apparel industry, both companies and consumers must shift towards sustainability, says Barchi Gillai, associate director of the Value Chain Innovation Initiative (VCII) at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “It’s a responsibility that all of us share,” she says.

Understanding the Environmental Impact

In a new white paper, Gillai and her colleagues examine the production processes behind three essential everyday materials: polyester, cotton, and leather. Coauthored by Hau Lee, VCII’s faculty codirector and professor emeritus of operations, information, and technology; Jessica Landzberg, MBA ’23; and Nina Sabharwal, MBA ’23, the paper explores each material’s unique impacts and details potential solutions.

Polyester: This durable, lightweight material is made from polyethene terephthalate (PET) from fossil fuels. The production of polyester and other synthetic fibres requires large amounts of energy, accounting for about 1.35% of global oil consumption, resulting in significant greenhouse gas emissions. Possible solutions include switching to renewable energy and substituting virgin polyester with alternative materials such as biosynthetic and fibres that utilise carbon dioxide waste.

Cotton: The cotton supply chain starts on a farm rather than a factory, but it has its own environmental impacts. Cotton cultivation often involves pesticides that can cause health issues for farm workers and contaminate freshwater systems, soil, and animal habitats. Additionally, cotton consumes large amounts of water. Solutions include implementing non-chemical methods of pest control, such as crop rotation, and conserving water through drip irrigation.

Leather: Leather production has grown over the past three decades, raising concerns about animal cruelty. Brands can utilise certification programmes to verify the humane treatment of farm animals. However, transforming raw hides into wearable fabrics involves chemical-heavy processes, many of which rely on toxic materials. Up to 45% of the toxicchromium used in tanning is not absorbed by the leather, and when discarded, it can contaminate the environment.Furthermore, as much as 75% of leather entering production does not end up in finished products, with scraps likely sent to landfills or incinerated.

Moving markets

Slowing Down Fast Fashion

The impact of a garment persists even after its sale. Used garments often wind up in landfills or incinerators, wasting valuable and non-renewable resources and releasing greenhouse gases as they decay. The paper offers a range of strategies that clothing brands can adopt to increase the lifespan of garments and improve their reusability and recyclability. You can enjoy high-quality garments with timeless designs for many years. Switching to a single-material composition can make fabrics easier to recycle. Garments made from 100% natural materials are more suitable for composting.

“Slowing down the rate of production doesn’t have to come at the expense of profitability,” Gillai says. Solutions addressing one part of a product’s life cycle may lead to unwanted consequences later. For instance, while producing polyester from recycled PET uses less oil, fabrics made from these materials tend to release more microfibers into the environment. “It’s important to figure out the total environmental impact of any solution we consider implementing,” Gillai notes. The paper recommends manufacturers use life-cycle assessments to choose solutions with the most positive impact throughout a garment’s lifespan.

The Role of Consumers

While some companies have taken steps in the right direction, the apparel industry shows no signs of becoming more sustainable, largely due to the popularity of fast fashion. The production of low-quality garments with frequently changing designs at low cost, perceived as almost disposable by consumers, fuels a surge in garment production and an increase in textile waste.

The paper encourages companies to find new ways to generate revenue without producing more garments. One option is to start garment collection or buyback programs in conjunction with opening secondhand stores where consumers can purchase pre-owned items at a discount. “Slowing down the rate of production doesn’t have to come at the expense of profitability,” Gillai emphasises.

Textile-to-textile recycling is another crucial approach. “Closed-loop, garment-to-garment recycling solutions not only keep textile waste out of landfills but also reduce the resources used to make clothes and the pollution associated with these production processes,” Gillai explains.

The paper concludes with a discussion of the significant role that consumers play. “To achieve meaningful results, it is crucial for consumers to participate in this effort,” Gillai says. “Try to donate items that are still wearable, consider buying secondhand clothes, and think of renting items needed for a special occasion. If we embrace the need for change and our shopping habits reflect this understanding, we can help drive change in this industry.”

By adopting more sustainable practices and making conscious choices, both companies and consumers can contribute to a more sustainable and ethical fashion industry. The time to act is now.


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