The Lifecycle of Fast Fashion: Uncovering the Cradle-to-Grave Impacts of the Clothes We Wear

by Odmya
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From the cotton fields to the landfill, the life cycle of our clothing has wide-ranging impacts on the planet. The fashion industry is a top polluter, accounting for 10% of global carbon emissions and generating over 92 million tons of waste per year. [1] To understand the true environmental footprint of garments, we must examine their full lifecycle through cradle-to-grave assessments.

Life cycle assessments (LCAs) are crucial tools for quantifying the resources used and emissions generated at each stage of a product’s existence. An LCA maps out the material and energy flows from raw material extraction, manufacturing, distribution, use, and disposal. By evaluating these cradle-to-grave impacts, brands can identify ways to improve sustainability across their supply chain. For apparel and textiles, some key steps examined include:

  • Raw material production of fibers like cotton, polyester, or wool
  • Spinning, weaving, bleaching, and dying of fabrics
  • Cutting, sewing and finishing of clothing
  • Packaging and transportation between factories
  • Washing, drying, and ironing during the use phase
  • Reuse, recycling, or landfilling at end-of-life

LCAs also consider the interrelated social and economic aspects of production such as labor conditions and waste generation. Each item of clothing embodies a complex system of extraction, farming, manufacturing, and trade. Simpler clothing lifecycle models often miss out on the nuances and trade-offs between different impact categories.

Raw Material Extraction and Production

The environmental impacts of clothing start at the very beginning of the lifecycle – the harvesting and production of raw materials. Common fibers used in clothing include cotton, polyester, wool, and silk. The processes involved in obtaining these materials can be resource and energy-intensive.

Cotton is one of the most widely used natural fibers, representing about 30% of textile production. To grow cotton, substantial amounts of water are required for irrigation as well as pesticides and fertilizers. Cotton’s water footprint has been estimated at 20,000 liters per kilogram of harvested cotton. Its production accounts for around 24% of global insecticide use. Many cotton-growing regions face water scarcity risks or pollution from chemical runoff.

Polyester and other synthetic fibers originate from fossil fuel sources like petroleum. Polyester makes up over 50% of the global fiber market. Extracting the underlying raw materials depletes non-renewable resources and leads to emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants. The production of polyester in 2015 used up around 342 million barrels of oil.

Wool production has lower environmental impacts compared to cotton and polyesters overall. However, issues around land use, methane emissions from sheep, and chemicals used during processing still exist. Almost 25% of wool comes from Australia and New Zealand where wool production has led to widescale land degradation.

Other animal fibers like silk, fur, and leather share similar concerns around land use changes, water consumption, and chemical processing. Some popular vegan alternatives like rayon are made using wood pulp and toxic chemicals.

Reducing the environmental footprints of raw material supply chains involves solutions like organic cotton, lower impact dyes, sustainably raised wool, and innovating new biosynthetic fibers. Considering alternative fibers like hemp, linen, and nettle can also lead to improvements. But with increasing textile demands, fundamentally rethinking our consumption patterns will be key.

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Textile Production

After raw fibers are obtained, they undergo extensive processing to be transformed into fabrics and textiles. These steps include spinning the fibers into yarn, weaving or knitting the yarn into cloth, and finally bleaching, dyeing, and chemically treating the material.

The spinning stage aligns and draws out the raw fibers to produce continuous threads of yarn. Short-staple fibers like cotton undergo the energy-intensive process of carding to disentangle the fibers before spinning. Synthetics like polyester are melted and extruded into filament yarn.

Weaving and knitting convert the yarn into fabrics. Popular techniques include mechanical weaving of interlaced threads as well as computerized knitting machines. The complexity of fabrics affects the resources required during this step. Intricate lace or tapestry fabrics take more time, energy and skill compared to simple woven cloth.

After weaving or knitting, the fabrics go through various finishing processes. Pre-treatment uses harsh chemicals to remove impurities and prepare the fabric to hold dye. Dyeing and printing impart color using toxic solvents and heavy metals. Additional finishing steps may involve calendaring, shrink-resistance, waterproofing, softening or biocide treatment—all using specialty chemical formulations.

The textile industry is the second largest user of water globally due to the intensive rinsing, dyeing and treatment steps. Effluents contain heavy metals like cadmium, lead and mercury that pollute water bodies near factories. Workplace hazards from dyes, bleach, formaldehyde and other chemicals also impact laborers’ health.

With increasing awareness, more brands are using waterless dye technologies like digital printing. Enzymatic pre-treatments and plant-based dyes reduce chemical loads. Optimizing processes to use greywater can lower freshwater usage. But scaling sustainable textile production requires continued innovation and closed-loop manufacturing. The priority should be to design higher-quality fabrics that last longer in our wardrobes.

Clothing Production

Once fabrics are dyed, printed, and finished, they are ready to be made into clothing. This involves steps like pattern making, cutting, sewing, and finishing of garments.

Pattern making creates templates for the fabric pieces that will make up a garment. This step determines how much fabric will be needed and minimizes wasted material. Cutters then use these patterns to cut out the fabric. Automated laser cutting machines or computer-controlled knives are faster and more accurate compared to manual methods.

Sewing is typically done by large teams of operators using industrial sewing machines. Hundreds of pieces are stitched together to assemble a complete garment. Sewing consumes the most energy out of all clothing production steps. In factories, air conditioning, lighting, and electricity for machines contribute to energy usage.

Once sewn, finishing processes add buttons, zippers, or embellishments and remove loose threads. Careful quality control checks are conducted. Items are pressed and prepared for shipment to retailers. Some factories apply chemical finishes like wrinkle-free coatings at this stage as well.

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Clothing production remains a labor-intensive process. Factories rely heavily on skilled sewers and patternmakers. Pressure to reduce costs has led many brands to outsource labor overseas. Developing countries like Bangladesh, China, Vietnam now produce the majority of apparel for U.S. and European retailers.

While outsourcing increases profits, it has also exposed labor rights issues in the global supply chain. Garment workers making the equivalent of $100-200 per month frequently face poor conditions, wage theft, and safety violations. Improving transparency and accountability around working conditions in clothing factories needs to be an ethical priority.

Distribution and Retail

Once clothing is manufactured, it enters the retail side of the supply chain. Products are packaged, transported to distribution centers, and stocked in stores to be sold to consumers. These distribution and retail steps also contribute to the lifecycle impacts of our clothing.

Items are packaged at the factory to protect them during shipment. Polybags, hangers, tags and labels help products arrive pristine but generate packaging waste. Transport to distribution centers now happens via container ships, rail and trucks. Shipping clothing worldwide emits greenhouse gases, especially when using air freight.

Warehouses sort garments and allocate inventory to different retail locations. Additional trucking, delivery emissions and electricity for storage occurs. Retail stores have their own environmental footprints through operations, decor, and electricity use. Lighting, air conditioning and music adds to energy consumption.

Fast fashion has compressed distribution timelines to refresh stock constantly. This has led to sub-optimal logistics, wasted product, and unnecessary emissions. Almost 40% of clothing shipped to stores goes unsold. Returned items often get incinerated since resale is unprofitable.

Optimizing logistics networks, warehouses, and inventory planning could reduce waste in the retail chain. Investing in energy efficient new stores and powering operations through renewable energy helps lower emissions. But reducing impacts ultimately requires shifting how we produce, market and purchase clothing in the first place.

Consumer Use

The consumer use phase represents one of the most resource intensive portions of apparel’s lifecycle. Caring for our clothes requires significant water, energy, detergents, and labor.

Frequent laundering and drying accounts for over 60% of the climate impact of a garment during its lifetime. Washing machines use hot water and electricity, while dryers require natural gas or electricity to tumble dry clothing. Synthetic fabrics like polyester shed more microfibers into wastewater with each wash cycle.

Drying clothes in the sun avoids dryer energy consumption, but increases fabric degradation from UV exposure. Ironing and steaming help maintain crisp garments but also use additional electricity. Stain removal sprays and detergents leave chemical residues after washing.

The rise of fast fashion has enabled increased clothing consumption. Lower prices and constant new styles accelerate disposal and replacement. The average consumer purchased 60% more items of clothing in 2014 than in 2000 but kept each garment for only half as long.

Transitioning to slower consumption based on higher quality, longer lasting apparel could significantly reduce environmental impacts. Designing clothes for durability, care, and repair will keep them out of the waste cycle. Making laundry habits more eco-friendly with cold washes, line drying and less frequent washing also helps.

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End-of-Life

The end-of-life stage encompasses how we dispose of clothing after use. Only a small portion of garments are recycled or reused, while most ends up in landfills or incinerators. Managing the waste and impacts at this final step is an important consideration.

Reuse involves donating, reselling, or repairing clothing to extend its lifetime. Digital resale platforms have made it easier to give pre-worn fashion a second life. Non-profit organizations collect clothing donations for redistribution domestically and globally.

Recycling takes old clothing and shoes and processes them into new materials like insulation, carpet padding or cleaning rags. The nature of blended fabrics limits how much can be recycled into new textiles. Less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new apparel currently.

Downcycling breaks down fabrics into lower value materials like insulation or stuffing. Chemical recycling combines old clothing with additional polyester to make crude oil or syngas. But these processes still create waste and emissions.

Incinerating unused clothing generates electricity but releases toxic emissions, ash, and CO2. Landfilling clothing takes up scarce space and leads to the release of methane as materials decompose. Dyes, coatings and microplastics can also leach out from landfills.

Transitioning to a circular fashion economy requires dramatically increasing reuse and recapture. Brands need better design for recyclability, investments in takeback programs, and innovations in recycling technology. Policy measures like extended producer responsibility can also drive change through the supply chain.

Improving Sustainability

While the environmental impacts of clothing are substantial, there are ways we can improve sustainability across the lifecycle. Opportunities exist through consumer education, closed-loop manufacturing, and policy interventions.

Educating consumers on the cradle-to-grave impacts of fashion allows them to make more informed purchases. Understanding how fibers are grown, apparel is produced, and waste is managed leads to smarter decisions guided by ethics. Marketing that emphasizes quality over constant novelty also shifts mindsets.

Manufacturing process improvements like greener chemistry, renewable energy, water recycling and waste reduction make production cleaner. Investing in reuse programs, take-back logistics, and recycling technology closes the loop on textile waste. Digitalization improves supply chain traceability and inventory management.

Regulations, taxes, and standards steer companies toward measurable sustainability targets. Extended producer responsibility laws could make brands accountable for clothing recovery. Chemical and water usage limits reduce environmental pollution in production. Labor protections and fair trade certification improve worker welfare.

A combination of individual action, corporate commitments, and policy reform is required for systematic change. Developing principles of circularity and social responsibility across the apparel industry helps preserve our shared global resources and the wellbeing of textile workers for generations to come.

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