Where Do Our Clothes Go? The Environmental Toll of the Fashion Industry


Florence Dugué

Fabric being dyed in a factory.

Kate DiBartolomeo, Contributing Writer

The EPA has revealed that in the last 20 years, the amount of clothing thrown away each year has doubled. The life cycle of clothing items is destroying our planet. It starts with significant retailers who overproduce articles of clothing with inexpensive labor. Next, consumers buy products from retailers, wear the item until they are satisfied, and then dispose of the item by donation or the trash.  The question is, where are those items going?

84% of ALL clothing ends up in a landfill or burned in an incinerator. The clothing industry is one of the largest waste producers. Such a massive production of waste contributes to the death of our planet and harms our environment. 

Popular retailers like Shein, Romwe, H&M, and thousands more have been around for years, and some have just recently come to public attention. Fast fashion items appeal because of their low prices and alignment with rapidly changing fashion trends. Present-day clothing fabrics consist of plastic and animal fiber; Fast fashion retailers use the cheapest materials to cut costs. Unfortunately, making textiles calls for the use of dangerous chemicals and massive amounts of resources and energy. To create the actual clothing items, these companies notoriously hire children and workers to pay next to nothing to lower their retail prices further. 

Once the items are complete and packaged, they are shipped nationally to stores and warehouses for sale. Shipments arrive as close as a few days from each other, each one brimming with new items that took time and materials to make. Production is so fast to keep up with the greedy habits of consumers, especially in the US. The typical American buys 68 garments a year, only to wear these garments, on average, seven times before discarding said items. 

When individuals dispose of items, they do so in one of two ways, by the trash or sent to a donation center. Clothing put directly in the waste goes straight to a landfill or incinerator. Textile fibers can take up to 200+ years to decompose once they arrive at the dump. Some consumers believe donating their clothes solves this problem, a terrible misconception. Less than 20% of donated clothing is resellable. The more than 80% of donated items that retailers cannot sell again travel to 3rd world countries where street vendors attempt to sell them. The issue continues because citizens of these countries do not want the clothing either (considering most of it is damaged and undesirable). The dress that is unprofitable gets burnt or thrown in a landfill.

Hingham High School Home Economics teacher, Mrs. Beischel, has valuable insight on donated clothes. ” When I donate clothes, I like to think they are going to someone in need. Still, in reality, most of those clothes are either sold for profit, discarded in a landfill, or burnt,” she continues, “it adds so many toxins and pollutants to our atmosphere.” Mrs. Beischel teaches a course on Fashion at Hingham High School. The beginning of the year curriculum includes an extensive dive into the origins of textile pollution and the reality of the problem today. 

Despite the severity of textile pollution, the public overlooks it for an alarming reason. The corruption in our waters, soil, and atmosphere is virtually irreversible. Unfortunately, many individuals assume that if there is no way to solve a problem, there is no reason to stop contributing.

Junior at Hingham High School, Lily Andrey, reveals that “Many times there is a large amount of guilt when purchasing clothes that are cheap, knowing that the smallest amount of cotton leaves a large impact on the environment.” Researchers project that an individual’s textile consumption statistics will worsen as the population rapidly increases with time. Many are starting to understand their impact on the planet’s future. Textile pollution is a daunting crisis, with few known solutions. Society can only solve this looming threat through proactiveness from now on.