"Eco-fashion" is a term that describes the making and wearing of clothing that takes the environment into account. It is concerned with the health of the planet, including natural resources and the people and animals that inhabit it. Eco fashion also takes in consideration the working conditions of the people in the fashion industry, a particularly timely concern given the recent tragedy in Bangladesh where more than four hundred people died in the collapse of a sub-standard factory building. Eco-fashion, quite simply is better for the planet and for society.
The process of producing garments causes environmental problems. Researchers agree that the textile industry is one of the greatest contributors to environmental pollutants. Dyes, dispersants, acids, bases, salts, detergents, humectants, oxidants, sulfates and carcinogenic ingredients are among the substances used; because of the high quantities of water used in textile processing, these substances become part of wastewaters. Textile dyeing and finishing account for approximately one-fifth of the world's untreated industrial wastewater (Rodie, 2012, p. 24). There are approximately seventy-two different toxic chemicals that reach the water supply from textile dyeing ("Water Pollution," 2012). Disposal into receiving waters causes environmental damage because of significant impacts on aquatic organisms and the breakdown of the substances into particles that may be too small to filter (Taran, Bagheri, & Baktiyari, 2012, p. 1413). In addition to killing fish and other aquatic life, industrial waste reduces the availability of clean water for drinking and other human and animal needs.
To get an understanding of the magnitude of the problem, one can look at the mind-boggling statistics on water usage within the textile industry. Approximately sixty million metric tons of textiles are dyed each year, using one hundred liters of water per kilogram of material. That means approximately six trillion liters of water, which is approximately equivalent to the capacity of 2.36 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. To put the number in personal terms, it is roughly equivalent to 219 days' supply of drinking water for every person on the planet (Rodie, 2012, p. 22). As pointed out by the Institute for Sustainable Communication, the needs of textile producers compete with the water requirements of the half billion people living in drought-prone regions of the globe. It is estimated that by 2025, these peoples will comprise nearly one-third of the world's population. If global water consumption continues doubling every twenty years, the pollution resulting from textile production will pose an even greater threat. It is clear that changes are needed in the textile industry; failure to act will be disastrous for the environment.
Synthetic fibers are largely responsible for environmental damage, partly because of sheer volume of material. Polyester, for example, comprises more than half of all textiles dyed. It is projected that by 2015, thirty-nine metric tons of polyester will be dyed annually. It is not only synthetic fibers that causes environmental problems, however, as cotton textiles comprise a significant percentage of fabric used (Rodie, p. 22). Cotton production accounts for nearly three percent of annual global water usage. According to the Institute for Sustainable Communication, a single cotton tee shirt requires 2,700 liters of water and a third of a pound of chemicals to produce.
Eco fashion also takes into consideration how animal products have been traditionally used in the manufacture of wearing apparel, from coats to shoes to accessories such as belts and bags. Proponents of eco fashion are seeking more humane alternatives. Designer Stella McCartney is becoming well-known for her ethical fashion, rejecting the use of fur and leather in her high-priced designs. Whereas the eco-fashion movement was once led by activists, it is increasingly led by designers and all tiers of distribution. According to Sass Brown, acting assistant dean of the Fashion Institute of Technology's School of Art and Design, eco-fashion is now marketed to consumers at all price points and to appeal to a variety of style sensibilities (El Nassar, 2013).
Changes are coming about in the textile industry with new technologies designed to reduce the amount of water needed to process fabrics. Chemical manufacturers are developing technologies that reduce the amount of salt and other substances needed in the dyeing process. Textile manufacturers have made improvements in the fibers they use to improve dye uptake rates, meaning that less superfluous dye and chemicals are washed away in the finishing process (Rodie, p. 22). C. Designers have started producing eco-friendly garments and accessories. Zara, the world's largest fashion retailer, has committed to zero discharge of all hazardous chemicals by 2020. Levi Strauss, the world's largest manufacturer of denim actively seeking non-hazardous alternatives to the chemicals used in processing. It is a huge paradigm shift for Levi's, which was previously focused on managing rather than eliminating hazardous chemicals ("Detox Fashion," 2013, p. 15)
Timberland, a Stratham, New Hampshire-based manufacturer of sportswear and shoes, introduced its Earthkeepers collection in 2009. The brand now comprises three-fourths of all Timberland footwear. Working with vendors and manufacturers, Timberland managed to reduce water usage. As well, it pushed for the use of recycled plastic bottles in linings, laces, uppers and faux shearing. Recycled rubber is used for the rubber soles. The company uses both organic cotton and a cotton-like fabric made from recycled plastic bottles (El Nassar, 2013).
In order for eco-fashion to be successful, it depends not only on designers and manufacturers, but on consumer demand. Lynette Pone McIntyre, senior market editor at Lucky magazine, notes that today's consumers really care where about the origin of the clothing, the same way they care about the origin of their food. They are seeking healthier choices for themselves, and they are concerned about their "carbon footprint," meaning the resources they consume as well as the resources needed for production of the things they buy (El Nasser, 2013). The fashion industry hopes to cash in on consumers' growing environmental awareness by labeling their clothes "green," even when the production processes and materials used have not changed much (Phelan, 2012). According to Rachel Miller, instructor of sustainable design in the Department of Fashion Design at Pratt Institute, sustainable design is a term that is used freely -- perhaps too freely -- encompassing preservation of the environment, ethics and fair wages, the use of organic materials in design, and even recycling. Because definitions vary widely and consumers make their own interpretations and choices, "feel-good" marketing terms do not necessarily tell the whole story. For example, a company using organic cotton could still be manipulating labor laws. The company's products, then, are not wholly environmentally friendly (Phelan, 2012). Fabrics made with soy or corn sound eco-friendly, but soy and corn fabrics actually consume much energy and many natural resources in production, which does not laways make them the best choice (Somers, 2013). Rachel Miller also points out that even the most environmentally-friendly products still have an impact on the planet. Eco-friendly goods are still transported by trucks and planes, which use fossil fuels. Garments labeled "100% organic" still use polyester thread. It is impossible to buy clothing that is completely earth-friendly. That is why Timo Rissanen, Assistant Professor of Fashion Design and Sustainability at the Parsons School of Design says that not buying clothing is best for the environment (Phelan, 2012). If consumers would buy less newly manufacturer clothing, eventually manufacturers would respond to the decreased demand. Rissanen says that buying second-hand clothing is an alternative for people who like to shop, as is buying sustainably-designed clothing when possible. Every bit helps.
The website "Greener Ideal" offers tips for consumers on "greening their closets." Writer Dixie Somers offers five suggestions for consumers that are easy to implement. She suggests consumers plan their wardrobes carefully, with an eye toward long-term commitment to clothes rather than spontaneous purchases that may soon be out of style and which will thus be thrown…