by Tyler Nicoll
When you hear the word trendy, most people think fashion. Fortunately for the environment some growing fashion trends are more than simply superficial. Companies and consumers have found opportunities to solve some environmental issues caused by fashion and related industries. Advocates for products like vegan leather and organic and hemp clothing have begun to shift people’s conscience from thinking how do I look to how was this made.
The National Audubon Society is a leading environmental conservation group created as a direct result of one of fashion’s most notable and earliest addressed impacts on the environment. During the 1800s the overwhelming popularity of the feather trade threatened the snowy egret and great egret populations due to their highly valued brilliant white plumage. Most popular in New York and London, women wore hats decorated with feathers, wings, and even entire taxidermied birds.
It was calculated that in a single nine-month period, the London market had consumed feathers from nearly 130,000 egrets. Additionally, in 1886, it was estimated that 50 North American species were slaughtered for their feathers.
Two Boston socialites, Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall, boycotted the trade which directly contributed to the formation of the National Audubon Society and passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, by Congress on March 4, 1913. Both the National Audubon Society and Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) are still active today. Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires that migratory birds are considered during permit applications for any development and mitigation project.
Current day environmental impacts of fashion include the production of leather, polyester, and other synthetic fabrics. Beyond animal welfare concerns, raising cattle for beef and leather is extremely energy and resource intensive as well as being one of the largest contributors to water pollution and environmental degradation in the US. There may be various reasons for consumers to opt for “vegan leather.” In the past, the cheaper synthetic leather material was known as pleather. The rebranding and significant improvements in quality, demonstrate the new vision of an environmentally conscious approach to fashion and conserving our natural resources.
The manufacture of polyester and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process that requires large amounts of crude oil, and releases harmful emissions including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride. Volatile monomers, solvents, and other by-products of polyester production are emitted in the wastewater from polyester manufacturing plants. Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the EPA considers many textile manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators.
Retailers are now creating clothing from sustainable fibers using hemp and organically grown cotton that are farmed without the use of pesticides. In addition, the natural dyeing processes use only natural and biodegradable materials. While cotton is a seemingly better alternative to synthetic fibers, it still has a significant environmental footprint. It accounts for a quarter of all the pesticides used in the United States and according to the USDA, the U.S. is the largest exporter of cotton in the world. However, according to the Commercial Appeal growing U.S. demand for clothes made with organic cotton is largely satisfied by overseas producers, “there are no more than 60 growers of organic cotton in the U.S. — and none in the Mid-South.” Transporting organically grown cotton adds additional environmental stresses from transportation emissions. Furthermore, the low organic farm count in the U.S. means our waterways have yet to experience the full benefits of the increased demand for organic clothing.
Choosing organically made clothes, not only saves the environment from the pollutant bi-products of traditional clothing manufacturing, but also reduces the size and lifespan of our landfills. Organic clothing breaks down more quickly instead of remaining for years piled up with the plastic bags and Styrofoam cups.
The global green movement is slowly having an effect on fashion, but it finds itself directly at odds with competing forces of the agriculture industry’s ability to profit and society’s demands for cheap clothing. We need to raise awareness and encourage responsible consumer choices and we need support and well-funded research for organic cotton farmers so we can increase the supply of homegrown organic and natural fibers.
The next time you are ready to pick out some new clothes, just remember to think “how was this made?”
Souder, William. “How Two Women Ended the Deadly Feather Trade.” Editorial. Smithsonian Mar. 2013. Smithsonian Magazine.
Glenda Learns About Organic Cotton Production. Farm Aid. November 11, 2011.
Claudio, Luz. “Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Environmental Health Perspectives. September 2007.