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What Happens When Fashion Becomes Fast, Disposable and Cheap?

Author: Zhai Yun Tan | Published on: April 10, 2016

When it comes to clothes these days, maybe you should ask: What’s your waste size?

You know you have those clothes sitting in your closet: That shirt you spent less than $10 on because it looked cool for a second, or that skirt you only wore once before it went out of fashion.

Fashion cycles are moving faster than ever. A Quartz article in December revealed how fashion brands like Zara, Gap and Adidas are churning out new styles more frequently, a trend dubbed “fast fashion” by many in the industry. The clothes that are mass-produced also become more affordable, thus attracting consumers to buy more.

“It used to be four seasons in a year; now it may be up to 11 or 15 or more,” says Tasha Lewis, a professor at Cornell University’s Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design.

The top fast fashion retailers grew 9.7 percent per year over the last five years, topping the 6.8 percent of growth of traditional apparel companies, according to financial holding company CIT.

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Cotton Trade: Where Does Your T-Shirt Grow?

Author: Susanna Rustin | Published on: August 9, 2014

Moise Adihou stands by a rough wooden bench beneath a mango tree, surrounded by a small crowd that has gathered to hear his story.

“We were in the field,” he says. “Abraham came to visit after school to tell us he came first in his class. We were happy, so we wanted to celebrate.”

Adihou is a neat, sombre man in his 50s, and what he is describing took place in the village of Gaohungagon in the Zou department of Benin, West Africa. Abraham was 13 and Adihou’s eldest child.

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Fast Fashion Is Creating an Environmental Crisis

Author: Alden Wicker | Published on: September 1, 2016

Visitors who stepped into fashion retailer H&M’s showroom in New York City on April 4, 2016, were confronted by a pile of cast-off clothing reaching to the ceiling. A T.S. Eliot quote stenciled on the wall (“In my end is my beginning”) gave the showroom the air of an art gallery or museum. In the next room, reporters and fashion bloggers sipped wine while studying the half-dozen mannequins wearing bespoke creations pieced together from old jeans, patches of jackets and cut-up blouses.

This cocktail party was to celebrate the launch of H&M’s most recent Conscious Collection. The actress Olivia Wilde, spokeswoman and model for H&M’s forays into sustainable fashion, was there wearing a new dress from the line. But the fast-fashion giant, which has almost 4,000 stores worldwide and earned over $25 billion in sales in 2015, wanted participants to also take notice of its latest initiative: getting customers to recycle their clothes. Or, rather, convincing them to bring in their old clothes (from any brand) and put them in bins in H&M’s stores worldwide. “H&M will recycle them and create new textile fibre, and in return you get vouchers to use at H&M. Everybody wins!” H&M said on its blog.

It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s a gross oversimplification. Only 0.1 percent of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fiber, according to H&M’s development sustainability manager, Henrik Lampa, who was at the cocktail party answering questions from the press. And despite the impressive amount of marketing dollars the company pumped into World Recycle Week to promote the idea of recycling clothes—including the funding of a music video by M.I.A.—what H&M is doing is nothing special. Its salvaged clothing goes through almost the exact same process as garments donated to, say, Goodwill, or really anywhere else.

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The Touch, the Feel, of GE Cotton?

(Beyond Pesticides, October 8, 2014) After headliners like genetically engineered (GE) Roundup-Ready corn and soybeans failed to deliver on claims of decreased pesticide use and environmental sustainability, instead leading to the rise of “superweeds,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved more dangerous, 2,4-D-resistent versions   shortly after. Now after the predictable failure of Roundup-Ready cotton, USDA is set to approve dicamba-tolerant GE cotton, coming soon to a t-shirt near you.   Feeling a bit itchy now?

USDA’s proposal to deregulate and allow into the environment yet another GE variety will inevitably lead to damaging effects on non-GE crops, native plant species, and environmental biodiversity. USDA acknowledges that the purpose of dicamba-tolerant cotton “is to provide growers with an additional in-crop weed management option to manage [glyphosate resistant] broadleaf weed species,” but introducing crops resistant to other chemical technologies like dicamba may provide short-term relief from resistant weeds, but is not a long-term, sustainable solution to burgeoning weed resistance. This current proposal also includes dicamba-tolerant soybean, as well as a stacked tolerance to the herbicide glufosinate.

Contrary to industry proclamations, providing these GE “tools” to farmers only keeps them on a perpetual chemical treadmill that continues to propagate resistant weeds, endanger our environment, health, and agricultural economy.

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Microfiber Madness: Synthetic Fabrics Harm Wildlife, Poison the Food Supply and Expose You to Toxic Chemicals

Author: Reynard Loki | Published on: July 20, 2016

Doing laundry isn’t something most of us enjoy doing. And now the evidence is clear that the world’s aquatic animals don’t enjoy it either. It turns out that clothes made from synthetic fibers shed tiny plastic microfibers in every wash. This fibrous debris goes from your washing machine, through the municipal sewage system and ends up in all sorts of waterways—marine, coastal and freshwater—where the tiny fibers are ingested by fish, crabs and other aquatic wildlife. In turn, many of these animals end up in our food supply—and on our dinner plates. It seems we are slowly, and literally, eating the shirts off our backs.

A host of recent studies have sounded alarm bells. One frightening conclusion is that these microfibers—a subcategory of microplastics—are even more pervasive in the environment than microbeads, tiny plastic beads common in beauty products that were recently banned in the United States.

One of first researchers to lift the veil on this environmental crisis was ecologist Mark Browne. In 2011, Browne, now a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales in Australia, published a paper in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that concluded microfibers from synthetic fabrics like nylon and acrylic make up 85 percent of human-made debris across the world’s shorelines. The vast majority of that synthetic waste is being released from clothing when it’s washed in laundry machines.

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Cotton, Cashmere, Chemicals – What Really Goes Into Making Your Clothes?

Author: Elizabeth Grossman | Published on: June 12, 2015

The US Federal Trade Commission has something to say about what you wear.

While not a fashion arbiter and unable to advise on attire for family gatherings, the FTC oversees what appears on the labels inside your clothes. As the federal agency responsible for enforcing the Textile Products Identification Act and related laws, it makes sure clothing is accurately labeled with its fabric content. But it turns out, apart from these laws (and a few — including some state laws — that restrict certain hazardous substances from being used in children’s clothing), there is no overarching US law that regulates or requires listing of materials outside of fabrics that go into producing our clothing.

Why does this matter? Because manufacturers use hundreds of substances to produce clothing that don’t show up on clothing labels. And many of these are hazardous to the environment and to human health.

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What Actually Happens to Your Donated Clothing?

Author: Dr. Joseph Mercola | Published: January 17, 2017 

Most Americans have closets overflowing with clothing — some of which may rarely if ever be worn. Inexpensive clothing — so-called “fast fashion” — has become so common, it’s not unusual for people to throw away clothes worn only once or twice.

In fact, Americans buy 500 percent more clothing today than we did in the 1980s.1But the low price tag is deceptive. Upon further scrutiny, each item of clothing exacts a significant toll on the environment, and on human health across the globe.

Each year, Americans buy an astounding 22 billion items of clothing, and only 2 percent of these items are made in the U.S. Transportation alone, since each item has been shipped numerous times from country to country by the time it ends up in a retail store, creates an enormous amount of air pollution.

In an apparent reaction to decades of excess, recent years have seen a revival of “minimalism” and more environmentally-conscious fashion.

Bestselling books like Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” have led many to clear out their previously brimming closets. But what actually happens to all of the discarded clothing?

Most of Your Discarded Clothes End Up in Landfills

Most people will drop clothes off at a donation center such as Goodwill, thinking they will get re-sold to someone with limited means who really needs them. In reality, much of the discarded clothing ends up in landfills.

In 2013 alone, a staggering 12.8 million tons of textiles were sent to landfills — that’s more than 7 percent of the total U.S. landfill waste — costing charitable organizations millions of dollars in various fees and transport expenses, to boot.2

But the vast majority are sold to textile recyclers and carpet manufacturers. According to a 2006 report by ABC News,3 upward of 90 percent of clothing donations to charitable organizations end up with textile recyclers.

Only 10 percent are offered for sale to struggling Americans looking for a bargain. As noted by The Huffington Post:4

Knowing how Goodwill works can help you make smarter decisions when deciding if another jeans purchase is really worth it for you, for the donations staff and for the environment.”

It’s also worth noting that those used clothing donation bins you may find scattered throughout your neighborhood typically belong to for-profit textile recycling companies that sometimes falsely disguise themselves as charitable organizations.5

What Happens to Your Clothes Once You Drop Them Off With Goodwill?

According to Huffington Post associate lifestyle editor Suzy Strutner, Goodwill will sort through donations to determine what can be sold and what cannot. If it’s in near-perfect condition, it will remain on the sales floor for four weeks. After that, the item gets sent to a “Buy the Pound” liquidation outlet.

Most other charitable organizations that deal in used clothing operate in in the same way.6

Whatever isn’t sold in these outlet stores gets sent on to Goodwill auctions, where you bid on entire bins without knowing precisely what you’re getting. Whatever still remains at this point is sent to textile recycling organizations such as SMART, a trade association for textile recyclers.

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The Dirty Secret About Your Clothes

Author: Esha Chhabra | Published: December 30, 2016

In the Colours of Nature dye house, Vijayakumar Varathan is busy prepping a vat of indigo. At 51, he looks frail, with a tanned body made mostly of bones, but he runs to and fro, setting up an open fire where he’ll brew cauldrons of natural colorants made from plants.

He’s worked here for 15 years. But until his early 30s, Varathan mixed chemicals in a conventional clothing factory in the same region of southern India. There he developed a disease that caused layers of his skin to peel off. Even today, it is discolored. “It was pretty bad,” he says, in his fragmented English. “But I didn’t have a choice.”

Conventional textile manufacturing is tough on both the people who work in it and their land. Issues arise at almost every stage of the process — the ubiquitous genetically modified seeds that strain farmers’ budgets, the pesticides used in cotton fields, the harsh chemicals used in dyes, the toxic waste that pollutes rivers, and the chemically treated clothing that ends up in landfills. The problems are exacerbated in the low-price, quick-turnaround segment of the market known as “fast fashion,” which encourages cheap production and a throwaway mind-set.

A new crop of small businesses are investing in organic farming, natural dyes and a transparent supply chain that encourages shoppers to think about the effect of their purchases — and they’re selling their products online and in a small but growing number of U.S. stores, from small trendy boutiques to Target.

These include Colorado-based PACT, which makes underwear and loungewear from all-organic cotton; New Jersey-based Boll and Branch, which sells organic-cotton bedsheets, blankets and towels; and two companies based in Los Angeles — Jungmaven, a hemp and organic-cotton T-shirt company, and Industry of All Nations, whose clothes are made with natural dyes and fibers from around the world.

The geographical heartland for most of these sustainable start-ups is India, the second-largest manufacturer of textiles in the world, behind China. Textile manufacturing is a $108 billion-a-year business here, employing more than 35 million people — including Varathan and his fellow workers at Colours of Nature.

The air inside the dye house smells of fermented indigo, oddly similar to the scent of cow dung. Pungent, to say the least. Men squat over indigo vats, dipping in T-shirt after T-shirt — some of them multiple times, to produce a darker, more intense shade. They hand the colored garments to sari-clad women, who throw them onto a clothesline. The T-shirts transform from green to blue as the indigo encounters oxygen. Dozens in varying shades of blue are drying in rows stretched across a sunny field.

KEEP READING ON THE WASHINGTON POST