The True Cost Of Our Wardrobes

An ESGSense Analysis

I recently moved and decided to go the Mary Kondo way. This was not the first time I was shifting house, but this was the first time I decided to finally donate or dispose of the clothes that I had not worn in over a year. I expected to end up with a few bags of clothes to be discarded, after all I never was a prolific shopper or one to stay current with fashion trends, preferring to buy trend agnostic clothes. But I still ended up discarding many, many bags of clothes – from my wardrobe, the bed boxes, suitcases and linen cupboards. And this got me thinking how fashion, twice a year sales, several new collections each year and rising consumerism are impacting our society and environment. And, if it is time that we all embrace sustainable fashion.   

Assorted clothes

Fashion is no longer the domain of models or limited to the ramps of fashion weeks in Paris and Milan, where a new collection is introduced four times a year – every spring/summer and every fall/winter. Over the last few decades, fashion has become more accessible, more affordable and much more dynamic. There is a new collection out every month or so as retailers race to capture more and more customers. Refreshing one’s wardrobe ever so frequently to meet new trends and styles has become a norm, especially in developed economies and this trend is catching up in emerging economies as well.

Rising middle class and fast fashion leading the growth in demand for clothes

Demand for garments, which accounts for more than 60 per cent of the total textile used, has been growing steadily driven by a growing middle class across the world; earlier it was mainly in the developed economies, but now emerging economies in Asia, Africa and South America lead the growth in demand. Going by current growth rates, clothing sales are expected to grow to more than 100 million metric tonnes in 2029 from around 60 million metric tonnes in 20191.

At the same time, as ‘fast fashion’ has gained purchase among the general population, utilization of garments has been on a decline. This often means that in the ‘use and throw’ culture, to adhere to current trends, people buy less-durable clothes at lower prices more frequently or discard garments before they can be fully utilized. Even though utilization rates are higher in many low-income economies, estimations suggest that the average number of times a garment is worn before being disposed has declined by more than a third in the last couple of decades. To put this in context, more than US $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing under-utilization and the lack of recycling.

This growth comes at a high cost to the environment

The make-use-dispose linear model impacts the environment across the value chain. In the production phase majority of the raw materials used is virgin and includes crude oil (~340 million barrels annually), freshwater (~90+ billion cubic meters or ~4% of total freshwater withdrawal annually’; 2.700 liters of water goes into producing one cotton t-shirt), and non-renewable energy. In the process, tonnes of green house gases (GHG) are produced – 2.1 billion tonnes of GHGs were produced by the textile industry in 20183. Additionally, high volumes of water contaminated with hazardous chemicals is discharged during the production of textiles – nearly 20 per cent of industrial wastewater globally can be linked to dyeing and treatment of textiles.

During the use phase, plastic microfibres are shed when textiles made of polyester, nylon etc are washed. Nearly half a million tonnes of these plastic microfibre find their way to oceans annually.     

More than 85% of the material used to produce garments end up in landfills or being incinerated after these garments are disposed, often underutilised. This contributes further to GHG emissions and the degradation of environment as some of the plastic based clothes can take centuries to decompose, leaking harmful chemicals meanwhile.   

Only 12 per cent of the material used to produce clothes is recycled and that too into lower value applications such as insulation material, mattress filling etc. Less than one per cent of clothing is recycled into new clothing. 

Cheaper textiles do not always benefit human societies

The environment is not the only entity that is impacted during the production of textiles and clothing. Human communities, too are impacted adversely.

In order to keep costs low, a lot of textile and garment production happens in low-income countries. The need to reduce costs and increase production has led to poor working conditions for workers, exposing them to unsafe and unhealthy working conditions (hazardous substances, long hours) for low wages. Modern slavery and child labour is not unheard of in some parts of the world.

In one of modern industrial tragedies, over 1,100 garment workers were killed and more than 2,500 injured in the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh. These people were earning approximately $50 a month, working under not just sub-optimal conditions but life-threatening ones as well. $50 may not be enough to buy dinner for two in a fine restaurant in New York.

Also, the untreated waste water produced during the making of textiles is discharged into the environment and can impact the health of local communities by contaminating land, air and drinking water.

It is, therefore, evident that the true cost of the clothes that we wear, is much, much higher than what we paid, if we take into account the environmental and social costs. How long can the industry survive in this scenario?

Transitioning to sustainable business models is key to survival for the industry

It is clear that there is a strong case for transforming the textile and garment industry into a sustainable system; sustainable fashion, if you will. Companies operating in this space need to make the transition to sustainable operating models in order to be future ready and remain relevant. There is a need to create a shift in culture as well among the consumers of textiles and garments.

Moving to a more sustainable system

There are several initiatives that can be taken to transition from the current linear industry model to a more circular industry model which is restorative and regenerative by design and creates positive impact for the society and the environment. Many companies have already started taking note and are taking action to make this change. We will explore some of these themes further in upcoming pieces.  

Growth is good, its what keeps every one of us motivated and gives us a purpose, however, there is no value in growth if there is no planet left to grow on.


1 UNEP, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

2 Circular Fibres Initiative analysis based on Euromonitor International Apparel & Footwear 2016 Edition (volume sales trends 2005–2015). All numbers include all uses until the garment is discarded, including reuse after collection and resale.


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