Behind the Forecast: Polyester to Pollution - How our clothing affects the climate

Listen to Science Behind the Forecast with Meteorologist Tawana Andrew every Friday on 89.3 WFPL at 7:45 a.m.
Listen to Science Behind the Forecast with Meteorologist Tawana Andrew every Friday on 89.3 WFPL at 7:45 a.m.
Published: Nov. 20, 2020 at 9:16 AM EST
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - When we think of the climate, our clothing is one of the last things we consider unless we’re thinking of what to wear during hot or cold conditions.

The fast fashion industry is responsible for nearly 20 percent of wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions, according to experts. Fashion uses more energy than shipping and aviation combined!

It’s not just energy either. Fashion requires an immense amount of water. The United Nations calculates that one pair of jeans requires a kilogram (2.2 lbs) of cotton. A kilogram of cotton needs around 7,500–10,000 liters (1981 - 2642 gallons) of water to grow. That around a decade of drinking water for a single person.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters (more than 24 trillion) of water each year. That’s enough water for five million people.

Levi Strauss & Co., the company that makes the famous Levi jeans, estimates that one pair of its jeans will contribute around 33.4kg of carbon dioxide equivalent during its lifespan. That amount of carbon dioxide is around the same amount produced by driving 69 miles in the average car in the United States. Forty percent of that carbon dioxide comes from consumers washing the jeans and eventually throwing it in landfills. Sixteen percent of the carbon dioxide comes from retail, transportation, and packaging, while around 33 percent comes from creating fibers and fabric. Cutting, sewing, and finishing the jeans contribute to the last eight percent.

Fabric dyes pollute bodies of water, contaminating drinking water, and impacting aquatic flora and fauna.

Synthetic materials made from plastic used to make the stretchy elastane materials in many clothes have lower recyclability. The fashion industry consumes around 70 million barrels of oil to make polyester fibers for our clothes each year. Each year, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles worth of plastic microfibers are dumped into the ocean. Microfibers cannot be removed from the water and can spread through the food chain.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 11.2 million tons of textiles end up in landfills, while 3.2 million textiles tons burned in 2017. Experts estimate that one full garbage truck of clothes is burned or dumped every second.

A fifth of the clothing owned by US consumers is not worn. Keep in mind that in 2000, the fashion industry produced 50 billion new pieces of clothing. A decade later, that number has doubled.

How can you reduce these numbers as a consumer? Experts recommend recycling or donating clothing if you no longer want them. Keeping clothing longer can also help to reduce their environmental influence. Experts calculate that actively wearing clothes for just nine more months can decrease impacts on our planet by 20 to 30 percent in some countries.

Where you buy clothing can also help to lower your carbon footprint. A Carbon footprint is an estimate of the total amount of greenhouse gases (including methane and carbon dioxide) created by our day-to-day activities. The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, one of the highest rates in the world, according to The Nature Conservancy.

An MIT study found that online shopping carbon footprint is lower than driving to, then shopping in an actual store. This lower footprint only exists when we don’t use express shipping. Keep in mind that returning items by shipping can double the emissions from shipping your purchases.

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