Is what we wear an environmental issue? The answer is, yes, far more than most people realize. The apparel industry is a global giant (worth $3 trillion dollars globally) , and as it turns out a leading cause of climate change and resource depletion. The massive scale and power of fashion drives its outsize and surprising planetary footprint. Here are 13 shocking facts to show just how big of an impact our clothes are having on the Earth.
More than 150 billion garments are produced every year around the world, enough to provide 20 new garments to every person on the planet. (1) Americans buy one in every seven of those garments.
The amount of unwanted clothing generated in the United States every year, at 12.5 million tons, is the equivalent in weight to 57 billion t-shirts or 34 Empire State Buildings. Clothing going to landfills is one of the fastest-growing categories of waste in the United States.
The global fashion industry uses nearly 1 billion kWh of electricity or 130 million tonnes of coal per year, making the industry a significant contributor to global greenhouse emissions. (1) It’s estimated that fashion is responsible for 5% – 10% of global carbon impact.
A fifth of all industrial water pollution is caused by the fashion industry. (6)
A quarter of all chemicals produced worldwide are used by the textile and clothing industry. 
A single pair of jeans churns out 44 pounds of carbon during manufacture and requires 2,700 gallons of water to make. (3)
The production of polyester, the world’s most common textile, is soon to reach 73 million tons annually, weighing as much as 200 Empire State Buildings. (1)
Fast fashion garments, which we wear less than 5 times and keep for 35 days, produce over 400% more carbon emissions per item per year than garments worn 50 times and kept for a full year. (7)
Over 70 million trees are logged every year to make rayon, viscose, modal and lyocell, enough trees that if placed end-to-end they’d circle the Earth seven times. (4)
As of 2009, the U.S. textile industry was the 5th largest contributor to CO2 emissions in the United States. In the developing world, where the textile industry represents a larger percentage of GDP and mills are often antiquated, the CO2 emissions are much greater. (2.)
Cotton is the world’s single largest pesticide-consuming crop, using 24% of all insecticides and 11% of all pesticides globally, adversely affecting soil and water. (8)
Plastic microfibers shed while laundering our synthetic clothes is a leading cause of ocean pollution. They account for 85% of the human-made material found along ocean shores. (5)
It requires more between 6 and 9 trillion liters of water to produce the 60 billion KG of fabric made in 2009. (2) To put that in perspective, the average person drinks only around 1,800 liters of water in a year.
- MIT Sustainable Materials Lab, http://msl.mit.edu/publications/SustainableApparelMaterials.pdf
- O Ecotextiles, https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2009/05/25/carbon-footprint-of-the-textile-industry/
- Business of Fashion, https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/news-analysis/what-goes-into-making-everlanes-earth-friendly-68-pair-of-jeans
- Canopy, http://www.canopystyle.org/forests/
- The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/oct/27/toxic-plastic-synthetic-microscopic-oceans-microbeads-microfibers-food-chain
- The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/water-scarcity-fashion-industry
- Zady, https://zady.com/thenewstandard
- Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2015/12/03/making-climate-change-fashionable-the-garment-industry-takes-on-global-warming/#309025b179e4