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Mindless Overconsumption Is Destroying You and the Planet

By Frances Lo

Do your clothes make you happy? Or, after the excitement of the shopping spree fades, does your new stuff tend to lose its in-store magic by the time it's reached your wardrobe?

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Photo credit: RiverBlue

How Fast Fashion Is Killing Rivers Worldwide

In the opening scene of the new documentary RiverBlue, deep magenta wastewater spills into a river in China as the voice of fashion designer and activist Orsola de Castro can be heard saying "there is a joke in China that you can tell the 'it' color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers."

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Microfibers: The New Plastic Pollution That Threatens Our Waters

A new movie is putting pressure on the clothing industry to address a major emerging threat to aquatic life. Grounded in mounting scientific evidence, the 2-minute animated movie from the Story of Stuff Project calls attention to the issue of microfiber pollution from synthetic clothing.

Along with the movie, a global petition has been launched aimed at major apparel brands, demanding these companies pledge resources to developing solutions and make those pledges public.

Microfibers are tiny plastic threads shed from synthetic fabrics like polyester, rayon and nylon. These fabrics currently make up 60 percent of all clothing worldwide and their use as the dominant textile materials are dramatically on the rise. When washed, plastic microfibers break off and a single jacket can produce up to 250,000 fibers in washing machine effluent. Less than 1 mm in size, they ultimately make their way through wastewater plants and into marine environments where they have been found to enter the food chain. Microfibers make up 85 percent of human made debris on shorelines around the world according to a 2011 study.

"We understand that despite clothing manufactures best intentions, our workout clothes, dress shirts, favorite fleeces and even our underwear are polluting our waterways and, potentially, our bodies," said Stiv Wilson, campaign director of the Story of Stuff Project. "This new movie is going to turn up the volume on this issue, expand public understanding and create a chorus of voices demanding accountability and transparency. Our goal is to unlock and encourage collaboration between the clothing industry, scientists, advocates and policymakers, so that we tackle this problem head on and out in the open."

While some companies have started to suggest interim solutions, such as washing synthetics less or capturing the fibers with filters, the Story of Stuff Project and other advocates believe a larger, systemic solution, such as new fabric formulations, is the only true answer.

"Our society has overcome tremendous challenges in the past," said Michael O'Heaney, executive director of Story of Stuff. "If we can put people on the moon, we can make fabrics and clothing that don't pollute the environment and threaten public health."

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Ashley Biden Shows Ivanka Trump How to Make American Fashion Great Again

President Donald Trump's promise to bring back American manufacturing has a big problem—his daughter Ivanka's fashion empire is mostly manufactured overseas, mainly in Asia.

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Black Friday: 'The Planet Can't Handle It Anymore'

By Kirsten Brodde

Black Friday and Cyber Monday are expected to generate billions of dollars in sales for clothing and other products this year. But this shopping bonanza also generates greater volumes of waste than ever. That is bad news for the environment.

Instead of chasing prey in the jungle like our ancestors did, we chase bargain clothing that seems like a good deal. Just look at the scenes that take place every year in American shopping malls on the fourth Friday of November, when people try to secure a favorable position in the queue outside shops in the early hours of the morning. One could say "Black Friday" deserves its name: Every year dozens of people are crushed, even to death, as has happened in the past.

Black Friday, followed by Cyber Monday, are intended to mark the beginning of the big shopping season, when some people start buying gifts for Christmas. Both days use heavy price discounting and special offers to trigger a sense of urgency and "exceptional opportunity" to consumers, triggering low cost, high volume impulse buying and—as a result—overconsumption of unnecessary goods.

Because it is so cheap, fast fashion is one of the highest selling product categories on Black Friday, with many major fashion brands and retail giants jumping on the bandwagon. While it is hard to resist the allure of the next must-have outfit, consumption research shows that the act of shopping only gives us a short burst of excitement, but no lasting reward. However, the environmental impact lingers and is all too real.

Greenpeace has shown that fashion production uses lots of precious fresh water and pollutes rivers and seas with toxic chemicals, long before it hits the shelves. We are also consuming and trashing clothing at a far higher rate than our planet can handle. Fashion retailers have been speeding up the turnaround of fashion trends since the 1980's, increasing the rate that we use and throw away clothes—the life cycle of consumer goods shortened by 50 percent between 1992 and 2002. A recent report shows that Hong Kongers throw out the equivalent of 1,400 t-shirts a minute. Today's trends are tomorrow's trash.

We are told that clothes can be recycled, but second hand markets are already overloaded with our unwanted clothes. Greenpeace research found that up to date and comprehensive figures on clothes waste are not easily available. However, we do know that in the EU 1.5 to 2 million tons of used clothing is generated annually, with only 10 to 12 percent of the best quality clothes re-sold locally and much of the rest likely to be exported to countries in the Global south. Some countries in East Africa, which currently import used clothing from Europe and the U.S., are considering restrictions to protect their local markets.

Due to rising volumes of cheap, low-quality fast fashion, the second hand clothing system is on the brink of collapse. Technical solutions such as closed-loop recycling—which would make new fibers from old clothes—is nowhere near possible. Although there is currently much interest from fashion brands and designers and a lot of promising research, none of the technologies are commercially viable at this point. This means that, as the situation stands today, every garment we buy will eventually end up as waste, to be burned in incinerators or dumped in a landfill.

The only solution is to reduce our levels of consumption. It could be as simple as taking a break from shopping on Black Friday to participate in global "Buy Nothing Day." This symbolic day invites people to stop shopping for a day and reflect on what they really need. Greenpeace supports the message of "Buy Nothing Day" and is calling for "Time out for Fast Fashion."

Illustration featuring models in polyester clothing.

It's time to trash the throwaway-mentality and re-think what we really need in our wardrobes, instead of queueing up for the next cheap outfit. We can wear our clothes for longer, look after them, repair them, restyle and re-invent them, swap them with friends and pass them on. It's time for fashion brands to re-invent themselves and design clothes that we really need and enjoy wearing—designed for better quality, longevity and for re-use.

This is the only way to make fashion fit for the future. Let's call timeout on fast fashion.

Happy Buy Nothing Day!

Dr. Kirsten Brodde is the Detox my Fashion global project lead at Greenpeace Germany.

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Fast Fashion: Cheap Clothes = Huge Environmental Cost

Fast fashion brands may be killing the planet, a Newsweek investigation revealed earlier this month.

Clothes which are processed to get them on the market as quickly as possible—a model favored by H&M, Zara's, and Forever 21—come at a very high environmental cost, with millions of tons of clothes winding up in trash bins, incinerators and landfills.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 84 percent of discarded clothes winds up in an incinerator or landfill.

Popular clothing chains are trying to mask the environmental impacts by launching programs that claim to recycle clothes. But Newsweek found that these programs are not helping at all.

In April, H&M announced it is accepting donations of used clothes from customers and recycle them to create a new fiber, and thus new clothes. However, only 0.1 percent of all clothing received by charities and programs that recycle clothes is actually recycled, H&M's Development Sustainability Manager Henrik Lampa admitted.

H&M's program is also remarkably similar to that used by Goodwill, Newsweek noted.

Fast-fashion outlets are exacerbating the problem because very few secondhand stores or websites selling used clothes, such as thredUP, will accept items purchased from Forever 21 and other stores like it due to its poor quality.

This means more unwanted clothing is adding to the national trash pile. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 84 percent of discarded clothes winds up in an incinerator or landfill.

Fast fashion is the second dirtiest global industry after oil. Since 2011, Greenpeace has been running its Detox campaign to urge global fashion production houses to eliminate hazardous chemicals from clothes.

The problem is further exacerbated by the increased speed of trend turnover. The fast-fashion outlets, due to their quick and voluminous output, are changing trends very quickly to stimulate more sales. However, this means that recent purchases will go out of style sooner than ever before, which means more clothes in the trash bin.

Natural fibers—which include silk, linen, cotton and semi-synthetic fibers (think modal, rayon and Tencel)—have a similar decomposition process to food which yields methane. But it's impossible to compost these clothes.

"They've been bleached, dyed, printed on, scoured in chemical baths," Sustainable Apparel Coalition CEO Jason Kibbey said.

The chemicals are likely to seep into groundwater if placed in a landfill or permeate the air if sent to an incinerator. This is only one of seven reasons to hate fast fashion, EcoWatch reported in November 2015.

Other materials like acrylic, nylon and polyester have a petroleum base, which means it could take many hundreds of years to fully decompose.

The problem is further intensified by Americans' growing consumption of clothing, which has doubled to 14 million tons per year in less than two decades.

How damaging is this consumption to the environment? The EPA believes that if Americans were to recycle all of their unwanted clothing, it would have the same environmental impact as removing 7.5 million cars from American highways.

There are organizations that are attempting to put a dent into this clothing waste.

Housing Works, based in New York, has sponsored a clothing recycling program which has kept approximately 6.4 million pounds of clothing out of landfills since 2011. The organization sells these clothes in several secondhand shops. However, 6.4 million pounds is only 0.3 percent of the 200,000 tons of clothes in New York being thrown out each year.

For those living outside New York, the more obvious choice for recycling old clothes is Goodwill or the Salvation Army. However, only 20 percent of clothes donated to these organizations are resold, according to the Council for Textile Recycling. But Salvation Army maintains that it sells between 45 percent and 75 percent of its donations, while Goodwill says it sells 30 percent, and Housing Works claims to sell 40 percent.

"When it doesn't sell in the store, or online, or outlets, we have to do something with it," Michael Meyer, vice president of donated goods retail and marketing for Goodwill Industries International, told Newsweek.

So the clothes are often bundled up and sent off to companies which recycle textiles.

There just isn't adequate demand for clothes in the U.S. to warrant the amount of clothes that are being produced, Georgetown University economics professor Pietra Rivoli said.

"People feel like they are doing something good, and the problem they run into in a country such as the U.S. is that we don't have people who need [clothes] on the scale at which we are producing," Rivoli said.

One solution to the problem may be closed-loop sourcing which Marie-Claire Daveu told Vogue is the "holy grail for sustainability in fashion."

"Reuse old materials. Make new materials out of old materials. Recapture the fibers," Daveu, who works for worldwide luxury holding company Kering, said.

This technology may not be ready for another 10 years, and may only work on textiles which have never been dyed.

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