Does This Outfit Make Me Look Toxic?

Did you know that one of the largest pollutants in the world, alongside the oil and gas industry, is the fashion industry? You may be skeptical, but I am totally serious. Let's break this down.

The fashion industry highly impacts our environment because fabrics are made of either natural or synthetic fibers. Natural fibers are made from plants, animals, or minerals. Those grown in the earth are cotton, hemp, flax, sisal, jute, and coconut while fibers from animals include silk, wool, cashmere, and mohair.

On the other hand, you have synthetic or man-made fibers produced chemically through a process called polymerization. These fibers include polyester, acrylic, nylon, rayon, acetate, spandex, latex, orlon, and Kevlar. With the influx and high demand of the fashion industry, aka fast fashion, companies and brands have pushed and modified the natural and synthetic production of fibers. They do this by increasing production of genetically modified plants, adding harmful synthetic chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides to the process, and producing in manufacturing plants that lack hazardous waste management and controls which leads to toxic runoff into lakes, rivers, and oceans.

Design by  Elizabeth Stilwell . 

Design by Elizabeth Stilwell


It may come as a surprise, but according to Alternatives Journal, the fashion industry has the highest use and pollution of freshwater. It takes about 2,720 liters of water to make one cotton t-shirt (that’s how much we normally drink over a 3 year period) and 17-20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment. That’s. 👏 A lot. 👏 Of. 👏 Water.

When converting fibers into clothing, hazardous materials like heavy metals, flame retardants, ammonia, phthalates, and formaldehyde are used to create the products. These harmful chemicals are in the fabrics we put next to our skin every day, plus the runoff from production seeps into our waterways. The trickle-down effect of this process is so massive that climatologist and oceanographers are beginning to see the impact the fashion industry is having on our oceans and ecosystem.

The University of California at Santa Barbara found that, on average, synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash. These microfibers then travel to our local wastewater treatment plants, where up to 40% of them enter rivers, lakes, and oceans. In a groundbreaking paper, Mark Browne, a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales, Australia, found that tiny fibers (or microfibers) from synthetic fabrics microfibers made up 85% of human-made debris on shorelines around the world. What is even more concerning is that the fibers are also being found in freshwater. “This is not just a coastal or marine problem,” said Abigail Barrows of the Global Microplastics Initiative. Of the almost 2,000 aquatic samples Barrows processed, about 90% of the debris was microfibers – both in freshwater and the ocean.

Making their way from our washing machines, the non-biodegradable fibers are not only polluting the waterways, but they are also being consumed by the aquatic life. This is particularly dangerous because synthetic microfibers have the potential to poison the food chain when they are readily consumed by fish and other wildlife. This is very alarming because we directly consume the end result of our own pollution through the consumption of fish, shellfish, lobsters, shrimp, crabs, oysters, and other aquatic life.

Not only are the earth’s water resources being destroyed with pollutants, the land is as well. The average American discards 82 pounds of clothing each year, 85% of which ends up in landfills, degrading into toxic waste and poisonous run-off.

You may be wondering what you can do to shift this densely populated industry that is deeply saturated with wealthy and powerful companies and brands. It is within your power as a consumer to make the change and eliminate fast fashion. The fast fashion industry is going to continue to supply at the demand of consumers. But as consumers, we get to be the deciding factor. It is our duty to our planet to push back and protect our natural resources.

Design by  Elizabeth Stilwell . 

Design by Elizabeth Stilwell


What You Can Do

First and foremost, don’t be afraid to ask questions: How was the clothing made? What dyes and process was used? Where was it made? As we educate ourselves, we can make decisions based off, not the desire to consume or make that next purchase, but based on the entire impact our purchase will have from seed to landfill. It is crucial to know all the facts.

Second, use your dollar to vote, but also use your voice to be the change. Vote for regulators, locally and nationally, that support research into climate change, global pollution impacts, and sustainable advancement. By voting for regulators that push comprehensive bills, we are stopping the corrupt fast fashion companies by using the chain of command to initiate a movement. Be an active citizen with your dollar and voice.

Third, choose ethical, sustainable, and responsibly made clothes. By supporting brands that are producing less, in higher quality, and with more responsibility, we are creating a chain of events that affect the lifecycle of the product and our global impact with the purchase. When a garment is made with natural or low impact dyes, we are limiting the dangerous runoff into our waterways and lands. By purchasing a garment that is made with natural fibers, we know that the fibers are biodegradable. Ultimately, the trickle down effect of choosing to purchase eco-friendly, slow fashion means a healthier environment for humans and wildlife.

🌹   Want to read more articles like this? Grab an issue or make a donation here   🌹

Last, but not least, reduce, reuse, recycle, and repeat. It is really hard not to want more or want to explore the next up-and-coming trend. To be a more conscious consumer without losing your style, hold a clothing swap with friends, shop vintage, or transform your old clothing into a new piece with basic DIY sewing skills (or a talented friend’s skills). When we decrease our consumption and increase the longevity of our clothing, we are again limiting the power of fast fashion companies and brands, and minimizing the amount of clothing that ends up in landfills. This creates a cycle where we begin to see a decrease or elimination of fast fashion.  

If we don’t make any changes and we limitlessly consume our Earth’s resources while only giving back toxic waste, we will destroy our ecosystem, and deplete animals, plants, and other living matter into extinction. The choice is ours. As legendary fashion designer Vivienne Westwood says: “Buy less, choose well, make it last.”

Design by Elizabeth Stilwell for Selva Beat.

Edit: A previous version of this piece stated that the fashion industry was the second largest pollutant in the world. We regret the error.