Even before it gets worn once, that new T-shirt you bought is already dirtier than you can imagine. It’s soaked through with toxic waste, factory smog and plastic debris—all of which is likely just a few spin cycles away from an incinerator, or maybe a landfill halfway around the world. Our obsession with style rivals our hunger for oil, making fashion the world’s second-most polluting industry after the oil industry.
According to the think tank Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), the majority of fast-fashion products —the hyperactive production and marketing cycle fueled by high-volume, high-speed supply chains, which often bludgeon the environment while driving ultra-cheap retail market —are incinerated or trashed within a year. In the U.S., wasted leather, cloth, rubber and other scraps constitute over 8 percent of the total volume of solid waste. Global clothing consumption averages about 22 pounds annually per person, though the U.S. and Europe each average roughly triple that amount.
While local pollution piles up, a more chronic hazard looms on the horizon. At the current rate of pollution, the apparel sector’s carbon emissions will balloon by 60 percent by 2030, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, amounting to about a quarter of the global carbon budget. The total share of carbon emissions from the sector by 2050 would actually be equivalent to roughly 300 million tons of oil—more than tripling within a generation.