12.1 Clothing and Textiles: Quantity over Quality

Author: Matisse Buteau

ABSTRACT: North Americans send over 10 million tonnes of clothing to landfills every year, of which the average person throws away 37 kilograms of textiles annually, in Canada the average person throws away 81 pounds of clothing every year. This demonstrates direct effects on the environment as the fashion industry practices have become direct competition with sustainability objectives. As clothing quantity and number increase, though, the amount of times each item is worn is rapidly decreasing. 

MAIN: Textile and clothing consumption was propelled by the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the sewing machine. This led to the rise in fast fashion brands propelling a shortened fashion cycle by making efficiency in manufacturing and shipping times a reality. This has resulted in the average consumer buying 60% more clothing than they did 15 years ago. It is estimated that 100 billion items of clothing are produced each year, nearly 14 items for every human being on the planet. Some of those never even reach the consumer, and nearly 60% of the items produced end up in incinerators or landfills within a year of their production.

Figure 1. Clothing quantities and utility statistics since 2000. (Courtesy of Earth.org)

            Mass manufacturing of clothing and textiles results in insurmountable amounts of greenhouse gasses emitted as well as mass amounts of textile waste filling landfills across the globe. It is estimated that textile production alone releases 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) into the atmosphere annually. The industry accounts for between 2-10% of global carbon emissions and is the second largest polluter of water globally. Moreover, around 70 million barrels of oil a year are used to make polyester fibers in our clothes. The mass amounts of CO2 produced and water polluted are in direct correlation with the consumption of textiles and clothing by people of the twenty-first century. The average North American now owns between 102 to 148 pieces of clothing, of which they typically only wear between 40-79% of those items.

To examine a specific item, let’s look at a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans which, according to the UN, requires a kilogram of cotton that requires 7,500-10,000 liters of water to produce. Levi Strauss estimates that in the lifetime of one pair of their iconic denim, 33.4kg of carbon dioxide will be produced- 34% from fiber and fabric production, 8% from cutting, sewing and finishing, 16% from packaging and transport and 40% from consumer use.  Recall, this is for one pair of denim. Now, if we look at the annual sales of Levi’s in 2021 (which amounts to 5,763,940,000) and divide that by the average price of denim ($76.00) we can see that Levi’s produces approximately 76,000,000 pieces of denim a year. That is approximately 2,533,000,000kg of CO2 in one year- approximately 2,800,000 tons. As Levi Strauss creates denim made mostly of pure cotton, this is a cleaner version of denim, companies that contained elastane showed releasing 7kg more carbon than Levi’s analysis. 

            Once clothing is produced, sold and most often worn, there is then the issue of the clothing disposal and textile waste created by the industry and by consumers. Approximately twenty-six billion pounds of clothing and textiles end up in landfills each year. Every second, the equivalent of an entire garbage truck of textiles is landilled of burned- creating even more carbon in the atmosphere. Moreover, waste and surplus from the textile industry (that hasn’t even gotten to the market) result in even more waste to the landfills. People are buying more and wearing their items 36% less than they did 15 years ago, causing an increased use of resources and the accumulation of textile waste. There is a fundamental issue with the current fashion business model where revenues are based almost entirely on selling more products and on 52 new fashion seasons a year. North Americans are shipping the problem of textile waste across the globe yet not addressing a simple issue of clothing consumption in excess.


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BIOGRAPHY: Matisse Buteau is a third year Environment and Urban Sustainability student at X university. She is from Regina, Saskatchewan but currently resides in Toronto, Ontario. She is passionate about sustainable city planning as well as the individual components of personal sustainability. 

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