In an industry where hot messes like Lindsay Lohan can catapult to the role of "creative advisor" for one of Europe's most vaunted fashion houses, it's easy to dismiss fashion as frivolous, shallow, and completely irrational. Who has time to obsess over skirt lengths and boot heights when planet-spanning issues like world hunger, climate change, and water shortages are at stake? But fashion isn't something that exists in dresses only, as the late great Coco Chanel once said. It has to do with ideas, the way we live, and how we relate to the world around us.
The garment sector is a thirsty beast, using more water than any other industry besides agriculture. It's also an incredibly toxic one. Take conventional cotton, for instance, which is grown in more than 70 countries and comprises almost 50 percent of textiles worldwide. Cotton growers release $2 billion of hazardous chemical pesticides into the air every year, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation, accounting for 16 percent of global insecticides—more than any other agricultural crop. To put it in more palpable terms, it takes about a third of a pound of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to grow enough cotton for a single T-shirt.
That's not the worst of it: When it comes to the battery of chemicals at its command, the traditional dyeing process is one of the most environmentally devastating aspects of the textile manufacturing process. A staggering 17 to 20 percent of industrial pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment, according to the World Bank. Plus, 72 of the toxic chemicals that threaten our freshwater resources are the direct result of textile dyeing, 30 of which cannot be removed through purification processes.
Beneath the glitz and glamour of the fashion industry are the farmers and garment workers who pull everything together. Labor standards in the developing world, where most manufacturing is outsourced, are spotty at best. Deplorable working conditions, meager pay, verbal and physical abuse, and child exploitation are par for the course.
Pesticide poisoning is another occupational hazard. (A single drop of aldicarb, a common cotton pesticide, can kill an adult when absorbed through the skin.) The World Health Organization estimates that at least 3 million people are poisoned by pesticides every year, resulting in 220,000 deaths worldwide annually. In rural communities, where poverty prevents farm workers from taking the necessary precautions, miscarriages, premature births, and sickly children are commonplace.
Like any good industrial design, fashion can be accomplished in a better, smarter, and more socially and environmentally sustainable manner. Eco-fashion may not save the world, but thoughtful, well-considered design—beyond silly fads and mindless consumerism—can make it a helluva nicer place to live in.
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