There is a narrative behind the clothes you are wearing right now. This narrative begins from the moment raw material is collected and used to make the fabric, to the last moment the garment exists as torn and scattered bits wherever it ends up. It is basically guaranteed that you will not witness the entire life of your shirt, pants, shoes, jewelry, and so forth. Yet this story is very important, and tracing the steps of global fashion companies reveals horrible truths about how resources, labor, and our environment are wasted in an arguably negligent and criminal manner in the process of clothing production.
Polyester production globally releases over 700 billion kilograms of greenhouse gasses a year. Production of a single cotton t-shirt takes over 700 gallons of water. Our overall resource consumption due to the apparel industry is expected to triple by 2050. Of all virgin materials used to produce clothing, only a fraction of it is recycled into new pieces. These are only a few of the ways apparel production puts extreme stress on our world’s resources, yet what seems to be an already wasteful and harmful operation only gets worse when the merchandise is shipped out of the warehouse. Regardless of the fact that many items of clothing are successfully sold and worn by at least one person a handful of times, thousands of unsold pieces are typically left as surplus. While it may pain the environmentalist who looks at the situation and considers how many resources, how much energy, and how many hours of labor were wasted in creating this pile of extras, theoretically there are ways to prevent this overall wasteful process from progressing. However, in recent years, many companies have been exposed for handling the leftovers by burning or destroying them. Last year alone, fashion company H&M was found to have $4.3 billion in unsold product and burned 19 tons of unused clothing, and full garbage bags of new Nike sneakers were found discarded and slashed open from the tip of the shoe to the heel, rendering them useless. These companies strive for profit and would obviously rather have their extras eradicated than allow people access to them who aren’t paying their price, despite how low that price is.
On the other hand, high end labels come at a greater cost than products churned out by fast fashion, however this does little to deter companies with a surplus problem a motive to keep extra goods from being sold at reduced price points. For designers and other notable labels, the “value of the brand” is conserved when the effort is taken to prevent items, whether they are made from cheap or expensive materials, from being offered at a lower cost and from being available to more people. An employee of Burberry, one of the major labels experiencing backlash from their burning practices, explained that her job in a Burberry showroom was to unload racks of clothing into boxes that were destined for incineration, including brand new leather items and furs. In July of 2018, Burberry reported that they burned nearly $40 million worth of unsold merchandise and cosmetics, and even unused fabrics. Everything that went into their fires, all of it new material, was completely viable and had the potential to be used for a different purpose. They decided that destroying it was, for some reason, the best way to ensure that the brand retained its appeal.
What gives these companies the right to conduct business in such an inefficient and unsustainable manner? Every single material used in fashion production must be used responsibly because we are limited by what our planet can provide. A need for more cotton means a higher strain on water for growing, processing, and cleaning the fibers. A higher demand for leather means more cows, more feed, more water, and more land are needed. The list goes on about what other materials put pressure on already limited resources, and beyond that, what ecological impact is experienced with the demand for new production. If we continue to allow usable resources to be cycled out of rotation by completely destroying them, we continue to threaten our economy and environment by giving major fashion companies the power to keep expanding unsustainably.