Sustainability Seconds: Review: "Can fashion ever be sustainable?"

Posted on January 25, 2022

Feb Sustainability Seconds

How many clothing items did you buy last year? How many times do you usually wear each item before tossing it? A study conducted in 2019 showed that the average US shopper purchases 68 clothing items per year. This number is about five times higher than it was in 1980. The average clothing item will only be worn 7 times before being tossed. It is estimated that the world will consume about 102 MILLION tons of clothing annually by 2030 – if we don’t change our consumption habits, that is (Thomas, 2019).

Why does this matter? Why should we care how many clothing items we buy?

The fashion industry accounts for nearly 10% of total carbon emissions around the world. If that doesn’t sound like much, this is more than the global aviation and shipping carbon emission totals combined. The fashion industry’s complex supply chain and the emissions associated with it are not all that unique among consumer goods. The key difference is how often trends and buying patterns change. With every change in season comes a new style or trend. And when that season comes back around the following year, well the styles and trends have changed. So that cute summer dress or linen shirt that we wore last year must be replaced with this year’s trendy version.

This article chose to take a deeper look at denim. Denim required to make one pair of jeans is roughly one kilogram or 2.2 pounds in weight. To produce this much cotton takes about 10,000 liters of water, or enough drinking water for one person to last a decade. It’s not only what is being used to produce the cotton, but also what is being produced when making manufacturing jeans from cotton. Levi Strauss estimates that about 33 kg of carbon dioxide is produced by a single pair of its iconic 501 jeans. In other words, every pair of jeans is producing the same amount of CO2 as getting in your car and driving about 70 miles, assuming you drive an “average” American car. And if you choose a jean made with 2% elastane, those jeans will produce about 7kg more in their lifetime. So, choosing a more natural, raw denim product can make a positive, albeit small, impact on the climate.

But how do clothes produce so much carbon dioxide?

Well one third of the emissions come from producing the fabric they are made with. The rest comes from putting the fabric together, packaging, transporting, retail, and the final consumer washing the jeans and disposing of them in a landfill. If you look at the fabric that clothing items are made with, it’s not cotton that makes up the majority of the clothes. Polymers, particularly polyester, make up 65% of global clothing fabric. And annually, the global production of the polyester needed to manufacture clothes requires about 70 MILLION barrels of oil. Polyester clothes have nearly twice the carbon footprint compared to their cotton counterparts. Washing a clothing item between every wear and drying in an electric dryer can also increase its carbon footprint.

How we can change our habits to be more sustainable fashionistas.

  • Cut down on washing. Outer garments used for light activity do not need to be washed as often as we might think. Hang them up to air out instead of washing them.
  • Only purchase clothes you intend to keep for a while. In some countries, 40% of clothes purchased will never even be used. If we only buy what we need and will use for a long time, we can cut down on total clothing manufacturing. Wearing an item for about nine months longer than you normally would can decrease its environmental impact by nearly one quarter.
  • Purchase second-hand clothing. Giving clothing items a second life can also help cut the number of newly manufactured clothing items.
  • Cut down on online shopping. Impulse buying leads to unnecessary purchases and a lesser number of wears per clothing item. Decrease the amount of time you spend online shopping to help curb your impulse buying habits.
  • Go more natural. Purchase clothing items made with raw, natural fabrics rather than polymers or highly treated fabrics.
  • Dispose of unwanted clothing items in a more sustainable way. Do not simply get rid of clothes to buy more clothes, but rather use this as an opportunity to get rid of items that do not get worn very often. Instead of placing these items in the trash, pass them on to a friend, family member, second-hand clothing store, or someone in need.

If we all implement these habits, we can collectively reduce the carbon footprint associated with clothing manufacturing. If you want to read the full article written by Christine Ro from the BBC, click the HERE! And don’t forget to tune in next month for some more tips to reduce your own carbon footprint!


Thomas, D. The High Price of Fast Fashion. August 19, 2019. The Wall Street Journal.