We Buy A Staggering Amount Of Clothing, And Most Of It Ends Up In Landfills

Fashion is one of the world's most polluting industries. But there are solutions out there, and many more in development.
Digital Vision via Getty Images

This article is part of HuffPost’s “Reclaim” campaign, an ongoing project spotlighting the world’s waste crisis and how we can begin to solve it.

“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful,” Mae West, the Hollywood actress and style icon, once famously quipped.

At a casual glance, you might think her quote would accurately describe the fashion industry. The availability of an endless supply of cheap clothing has unleashed a whirlwind of color and beauty, giving people the chance to express themselves ― even on a tight budget ― and stamp their identity on the world.

But the dark truth about the fashion business is that too much of a good thing is creating environmental destruction and human misery on an unprecedented scale.

Let’s be clear: There is nothing beautiful in seeing a river polluted by toxic dyes or a garment worker surviving on a pittance while toiling in dangerous sweatshop conditions.

The merry-go-round of new apparel ranges the industry spews out at a dizzying rate is fueling an addiction to clothes and a perceived need to constantly be at the cutting edge of fashion. As a result, people around the world collectively consume more than 80 billion items of clothing each year, and those items are increasingly seen as disposable.

We need to slow things down and become more aware of the negative impacts of our actions. That does not mean taking the fun out of buying clothes. It just means becoming less impulsive in our shopping habits and thinking twice before paying $4.99 for another cheap top to add to our already cluttered closets.

In order to help in this process, The Huffington Post is today launching the second stage of our “Reclaim” campaign, which aims to examine and fight the world’s waste crisis. For the past two months we have focused on food waste, creating more than 180 articles and more than 20 videos. We will now be putting our attention on fashion.

The facts speak for themselves. Fashion is considered to be one of the most polluting industries in the world, and the 1,135 people who died in the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh are a constant reminder of the terrible conditions suffered by millions of garment workers around the globe.

People rescue garment workers trapped under rubble at the Rana Plaza building after it collapsed April 24, 2013.
People rescue garment workers trapped under rubble at the Rana Plaza building after it collapsed April 24, 2013.
Andrew Biraj / Reuters

Americans alone produced 15.1 million tons of textile waste in 2013, and around 85 percent of that ended up in landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

On average each American throws away roughly 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles per year, equivalent in weight to more than 200 men’s T-shirts.

The scale of waste is no great surprise when you consider that retailers tend these days to focus more on price than quality, which means many garments may survive only a few washes. More than this, the constant change of styles leads to heavy markdowns as retailers need to get rid of stock to create space for the newest styles.

Those clothes that don’t get thrown away often end up in cheap markets in the developing world. This ever-growing mountain of garments prompted five East African countries earlier this year to announce they are considering banning the import of secondhand clothes because their own domestic garment industries have no hope of competing against them.

While the scale of the industry’s problems are immense, the good news is that there are many solutions out there and many more in development.

We are seeing an immense amount of innovation, ranging from the development of less toxic materials, to new technologies that can transform old clothes into new garments, in a similar way to paper recycling.

Environmental organization Greenpeace is campaigning for the apparel industry to eradicate toxic chemicals, and there is increasing pressure for garment workers to be given a living wage to support themselves and their families.

There is also an emerging movement, supported by organizations such as Fashion Revolution, to find alternatives to buying new clothes. These range from going to thrift stores, swapping clothes with your friends or work colleagues, and renting clothes for a special occasion.

Though retail giants seem unable to break out of the fast fashion system they have created, a number of them are taking action to make their products more sustainable. Nearly three-quarters of Nike’s footwear now contain materials made from waste products from its own manufacturing process; H&M is investing in new recycling technology and offering in-store collection points, where customers can deposit old clothes.

But much more needs to be done. First and foremost, the big fashion companies need to be more transparent about the environmental and social impacts of the products they sell. It’s no wonder customers keep shopping to the max if they don’t feel any connection between what they buy and the environmental and social impacts, which disproportionately play out in developing countries, where regulations tend to be lax and the public’s gaze doesn’t often turn.

Even if a piece of clothing is made from organic cotton, the customer has no idea of whether the factory that produced it treats its workers fairly or whether the dyes used are polluting local rivers.

But while the fashion industry has a clear responsibility to take action, just as important is the need for every one of us to become more responsible about the amount of clothing we buy. That means taking a moment to breathe every time we get tempted by the latest fashion ― or enticed by a new markdown ― and asking ourselves a few very simple questions: Do I really need this, will it make me happy and will it make the world more or less beautiful?

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