Reimagining the world: the hidden environmental costs of clothing, and how companies are dealing with them

theOn holidays, unsuspecting people all over the world become unlucky victims of gifts of well-meaning clothing, many of which unfortunately belong to a “won’t be caught dead” pile, unaccompanied by a gift receipt. Is it any surprise that UPS sees one in four Americans making a return after the 2021 holiday shopping season, with 41% of those making a return planning to return three or more items? Others might also cite Marie Kondo, intent on clearing up the clutter in their coffers. Most of us have things the disappearance of which would be positive.

Here, we look at the hidden environmental cost of what’s in our vaults, what is being done to address it, and suggest some candidates to add to their stock portfolio.

Each year, approximately 20 items of clothing are manufactured for every person on Earth. Worldwide clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, and the number of clothing purchased per capita grew by nearly 60%. According to Kantar data, the US consumer buys about 65 items of clothing per year, and the UK consumer buys about 50 items per year. However, consumers keep their clothes today for about half as long as they did 15 years ago, and some estimates suggest that lower-priced clothes are treated as essentially disposable, usually thrown away less than ten times after they’ve been worn.

The average consumer throws away 70 pounds of clothing a year. Globally we produce 13 million tons of textile waste each year, 95% of which can be reused or recycled.

An estimated 84% of clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators. According to Roadrunner Smarter Recycling, the amount of clothes Americans throw away each year has doubled in the past 20 years, from 7 million to 14 million tons, and the average total lifespan of an item of clothing in one’s closet is just 5.4 years. . According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018, 17 million tons of textile waste was added to landfills, which is approximately 6% of the year’s total municipal solid waste.

Take Christmas sweaters, once a fad and now…no. How long does it take to decompose? To help determine this, let’s first take a look at some of the non-biodegradable fibers.

  • Nylon, which is derived from crude oil, takes about 30 to 40 years to degrade.
  • Polyester, which is derived from carbon-intensive resources and is non-renewable and non-biodegradable, lasts for 20 to 200 years.
  • While post-holiday spandex pants may provide extra breathing room, spandex is a form of plastic with a questionable time to decompose far beyond New Year’s pledges.

Biodegradable fibers are much gentler.

  • Depending on the mix, wool usually degrades after 1 to 5 years.
  • Silk takes about four years to degrade.
  • Bamboo takes about a year.
  • Hemp fabric takes between 1 to 8 months to degrade.
  • Clothes made of 100% cotton can degrade in 1 to 5 months.

Here’s the problem, this isn’t just about what we’re getting rid of.

Cotton is the most common natural fiber in clothing, accounting for about a third of all fibers found in natural and synthetic textile production. He is also very thirsty. On average, just one t-shirt requires 2.7 kiloliters of water, according to the World Resources Institute, which is roughly 713 gallons For all those readers who are not familiar with the metric system. This is similar to the amount of water the average person drinks over two and a half years. Add to this the grim fact that only about 3% of the world’s arable land is used, cotton cultivation accounts for nearly a quarter of pesticide use and more than 10% of pesticide use. Once cotton is grown, clothing must be produced. Nearly one fifth of industrial water pollution is from the garment industry. Then there’s the carbon footprint, which varies by fabric.

While synthetic fibers require less water than cultivated fibers such as cotton, they emit more greenhouse gases. For example, a polyester shirt has a carbon footprint of about 12.1 pounds versus 9.5 pounds for cotton. In fact, the impact of polyester production in 2015 was estimated to be approximately equivalent to the annual emissions of 185 coal-fired power plants. Then there is the environmental impact of shipping materials and end products to consider.

The most popular garment of all time, blue jeans, is likely the worst culprit, with more than 4.5 billion pairs sold worldwide each year. 20,000 tons of indigo are produced annually to get those beautiful blues, and just 225 pairs of jeans can be made from a single bundle of cotton. Globally, traditional methods for finishing jeans annually combine approximately 92 million gallons of water, 750,000 tons of chemicals, and enough electricity to power the city of Munich, Germany for a year. According to Levi Strauss & CoAnd A typical pair of jeans requires only about 2,500 liters of water to make and expels 32 kg of carbon dioxide.

This is the bad news, but here’s the good news.

Companies are increasingly looking at the environmental impact of their products throughout the entire product life cycle. last summer, Levi Strauss (Levi) WellThread launched its 502 jeans company jointly with Swedish company Re: newcell, a subsidiary of the Boer Group. Levy claims the line is the most sustainable of all, using organic cotton (which has a much lower carbon footprint), and Re: Newcell’s Circulose, which is made in part from old jeans. Conventional denim recycling results in materials that are not suitable for making new jeans because the process greatly weakens the material.

The power of fast fashion H&M Group (HM B: Nasdaq Nordic) It is committed to using only recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030 and has started recycling services in more than 4,200 stores to prevent unwanted clothing from ending up in landfills. In 2019, H&M collected 29,005 tons of textiles for reuse and recycling, equivalent to about 145 million T-shirts. Last year, the company started a pilot program in its Stockholm store to allow customers to transform their used clothing into one of three different clothing items (a jacket, baby blanket or scarf), using a machine called a Looop. The machine takes apart the clothes, and cuts them into fibers that are then used to make the new items. The company stated that the recycling process, which is capable of handling more than one garment at a time, does not use water or chemicals. Sometimes you may need to add “sustainably sourced” raw materials, but H&M keeps this portion as small as possible. The process takes five hours, and shoppers can watch.

fashion fitness juggernaut lululemon (lulu) It aims to have at least 75% sustainable materials in its products by 2025 and takes on life-cycle challenges through the Like New program in which customers can exchange their used clothing for credit. Returned items are “Revived” and resold.

Cotton Incorporated’s Blue Jeans Go Green program brings together cotton denim so it can be recycled back to its original fiber state and used to make something new. Unwanted denim can be delivered at a participating retailer, including Levis’s White House Black Market and Chico’s FAS, or it can be mailed for free through Amazon-owned company. Zappos for Good.

VF Corp (VFC)By 2025, the parent company of brands like The North Face, Timberland, icebreaker and Smartwool will have all the cotton it buys sustainably, half of its polyester will come from recycled materials, and will use 100% renewable energy across its own-owned and operated facilities. All leather is finished in leather tanneries which have been audited by Leather Working Group. Today, its subsidiary The North Face has the Clothes the Loop program that encourages customers to leave unwanted clothes and shoes at retail stores or outlets in exchange for credit for future purchases. Items delivered are sent to the nonprofit Soles4Souls. Its Timberland brand has a similar program and aims to have all of its products create a positive environmental impact by 2030.

Then there are companies like Allbirds, a certified B company, that addresses the footwear issue. According to the company, about 57% of the shoes are made of synthetic materials, which means they come from fossil fuels. By December 2025, the company is looking to source 75% of natural and recycled materials from sustainable sources and reduce the carbon footprint of its raw materials by 25%, as well as reduce the use of raw materials by 25%. When a company can’t find what it needs, it gets creative and creates something like SweetFoam, a single material derived from the world’s first carbon-negative green EVA.

Sourcing is increasingly addressed with an emphasis on sustainability. eco-friendly Honest Company (HNST) A line of baby gear that uses only sustainably sourced, 100% certified organic cotton. GPS The brand Athleta is also a certified B company, nearly 300 million plastic bottles have been reused in its fabrics, and the company claims to have diverted 1.1 million tons of textile waste from landfills. The company’s Old Navy brand will have 100% of its cotton from sustainable sources by 2022 and will convert at least 60% of its polyester into recycled polyester by 2025.

The bottom line is that what we wear can have a physical impact on the environment. The good news is that companies are feeling pressure to address the full impact of their products, which means that over the coming years, consumers can increasingly design themselves with lower environmental costs, and that’s a world worth reimagining.

Disclosure: Allbirds, lululemon, and The Honest Company are components of the Tematica BITA Cleaner Life Indicator.

The opinions and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Nasdaq, Inc.

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