By Rex Tanmizi M. Acc.

Head of BioEntrepreneurship i3L

The growth in many businesses is often accompanied by environmental costs. Take for example the fashion industry. Its astronomical growth in the last few years comes with many costs to the environment, such as costs from growing the cotton plants, the garment dyeing process, and the increasing amount of textile waste.

The rise of the fashion industry can be attributed to the fast fashion trend of the last two decades. Fast fashion centers around the manufacturing of apparels quickly and cheaply to capture ever-changing trends in fashion. Companies that embrace this trend like Zara, H&M, TopShop and Forever 21 have seen double digit growth in that time span.

To keep up with the rapidly growing fashion industry, farmers around the world are growing more cotton than ever. The cotton plant is the world’s most commonly used natural fiber and is in nearly 40 percent of our clothing. This ubiquitous plant is surprisingly thirsty. In fact it takes almost 20,000 liters of water to grow enough cotton to make a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. The cotton plant also requires many chemicals to grow. While cotton is planted in only 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland, it consumes 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals and 25 percent of insecticides. These chemicals often found their way into the water supply and are linked with increased risk of cancer.

Agricultural chemicals and pesticides are not the only chemicals used in the garment producing process. There are other chemicals used in the garment dyeing process that are also major polluters. Our own Citarum river is a testament to how toxic the dyeing process can be to the environment. About 68 percent of the industrial facilities on the Upper Citarum produces textiles, and chemicals dumped into the river by these companies have made Citarum one of the most polluted river in the world. Clothing manufacturers dumped chemicals that include lead, mercury, arsenic and a host of other toxins. A test by Greenpeace found alarming amounts of nonylphenol, an endocrine disruptor, in the chemical discharge dumped by these companies. Greenpeace described the discharge as “highly caustic, will burn human skin coming into direct contact with the stream and will have a severe impact (most likely fatal) on aquatic life in the immediate vicinity of the discharge area.”

In addition to toxic chemicals used in the production of clothing, the clothing themselves are increasingly becoming a waste problem to our environment. The fast fashion trend is accompanied by higher obsolescence of clothing items, as apparels are becoming increasingly disposable. Fast fashion companies relies on this trend to keep churning out sales. In the US alone, the average household produces over 30 kilograms of textile waste every year. This is a worrying trend that is bad for the fashion industry’s carbon footprint and the environment.

The growth in the fast fashion companies comes with many costs to the environment. However, this may not be necessary if the fashion industry could find more sustainable ways to produce clothing. Several prominent designers such as Stella McCartney and Ralph Lauren are pioneering changes in the fashion industry toward more sustainable practices. It is still a long way before the entire industry could be reformed, however, this presents opportunities for creative minds to come up with better processes and more usage of sustainable materials in the future.