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Threading the Line: A Look Into Sustainable Apparel

Meshing Entrepreneurship and Sustainability

Throughout the course of my college education, I have constantly been conflicted. On one hand, I am a business student who is taught that the ultimate goal of a firm is to maximize stockholder value. On the other hand, I am sustainability student who is taught that every decision of a business has an impact on someone, somewhere down the line. I have constantly toiled with what gives. Surely these two can work together.

Prior to taking an environmental ethics course this past fall I was a firm believer that capitalism and sustainability could coexist. Capitalism could drive technological change to make up for the negative environmental impact of capitalism. I believed that yes, capitalism is all about growth, but if we grow with green technology and with minimal impact priorities then we will be growing as a society into a sustainable world. It would even be the capitalistic market that drives the production and use of these green technologies and minimalist impact. It all depends on consumers and what they demand.

 sustainability as a college student

Economics vs. sustainability

By the end of the class I no longer had the belief that a capitalistic market is the definite way forward. My beliefs now somewhat align with the natural capitalism train of thought. Services rather than products and growth is not always necessary. Yet I still have my entrepreneurial passion and the drive to create something new that invokes a business trend that positively affects the environment.

My entrepreneurial pursuits have led me to explore the area of textile manufacturing, the apparel industry’s environmental impact and potential opportunities for improvements. Wanting to do more than conceptual learning of entrepreneurship, I launched Abroha Threads a couple months ago.  I am attempting to build a brand through a website selling reused clothing and hope to expand to brand new clothing made from recycled materials. The whole basis of this project is to make more individuals aware that there are other, potential more rewarding, ways to buy clothing than buying new goods made from raw materials. This article will explore why we should reuse clothing and make our clothing from recycled materials. I also want to determine how manufacturing new clothing from raw materials has an impact on the environment and different steps individuals can make to having a sustainable closet.

Exploring the Apparel Industry

Everyone wears clothing. Some people care a lot about what they wear and some people will put on an outfit without thinking twice about how it looks. Regardless, we are all wearers of clothing. If you have bought any brand new item of clothing this past year you have contributed to the apparel industry. The apparel industry is huge; with more than $600 billion in revenue in 2015 and is expected to continue to grow substantially every year (IBISWorld). The United States is the industry’s largest market, accounting for around 19% of the industry’s imports, despite not having the largest population (IBISWorld). This is not surprising due to our disposable culture; we consume more because we have the resources to continue make and purchase these items without a significant hit on our wallets.

Apparel is also income elastic, which means that a small change in income can greatly affect the amount of apparel the person demands. Those Christmas bonuses being handed out last month may have caused someone to buy a few more unnecessary items of clothing for themselves or as a gift.

fast fashion

Fast fashion drives apparel industry waste

Recent trends within the industry have shown that consumers want to purchase more items while paying less for these articles of clothing. This consumer demand, also known as fast fashion, has pushed clothing manufacturing from the Western Hemisphere to low cost manufacturing in Asia. With fast fashion, clothing becomes a disposable item that is only worn during one season and then tossed out or put into the back of the closet to become future waste. Consumers tend to purchase clothing based on price and quality unhindered by the environmental impact that producing their item caused.

Environmental Impact of Apparel Industry

The use of both man-made and natural fibers to manufacture apparel both have significant environmental results. Man-made fibers, such as polyester, are often made from petroleum. According to Luz Claudio in her Waste Couture article, “The manufacture of polyester and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of  crude oil and releasing emissions including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, all of which can cause or aggravate respiratory disease” (Claudio 450). When thinking about climate change we often will think about cars and factory smokestacks; rarely do we associate the clothing we are wearing as the cause of the smoke coming from that factory.

It is not only manmade fibers used to produce apparel that have an environmental impact. Natural fibers, most notably cotton, require ample water, fertile soil and often times a multitude of pesticides. Cotton is responsible for 1/4th of all pesticides used in the United States (450). Chemical runoff from cotton pesticides can be harmful and destroy ecosystems. Cotton is a substantial part of American agriculture and the US government has taken strides to ensure it stays there. Subsidies of cotton provided by the US government allow cotton to be produced at a high rate with a low cost. This is a large contributor to the globalization of fashion; both pushing manufacturing overseas and enabling fast fashion due to cotton’s low cost.

apparel industry waste

Your clothes may give off smoke

Additionally, it takes a lot of water to grow enough cotton to meet this fast fashion demand. According to a 2005 study by the Institute for Water Education, “Cotton consumption is responsible for 2.6 percent of the global water use” (Chapagain 31). This is a substantial percentage just for one crop within the large scale of water use. This study also found that water consumption for cotton also caused problems within the regions of cotton growth. Because of globalization, “nearly half of the water problems in the world related to cotton growth and processing can be attributed to foreign demand for cotton products” (31-32). Not only does cotton take a large amount of water to grow, it also causes problems due to it being a part of the global apparel industry that has a linked impact throughout different communities in the world.

Besides the environmental impact of manufacturing apparel, there is also a significant impact once the clothing is actually made. A conscious individual may wonder about what happens to all the clothing that is deemed disposable as new fashion trends drive the consumer to purchase more clothing and no longer wear the out of style clothing. According to the Council for Textile Recycling (CFTR), over 21 billion pounds of textiles end up in United States Landfills every year (Council). That averages out to about 70 pounds per person, per year of post-consumer textile waste (PCTW) that ends up in landfills every year (Council). This number includes all textiles, not just apparel. Footwear, sheets, and draperies all are included in this, but it is still a significant amount of waste that ends up in the landfill.

As one might expect, this number is growing. CFTR indicates that “between 1999 and 2009 the volume of PCTW generated grew by 40% while the diversion rate only increase by 2%” (Council). Human population growth and the addiction to fast fashion is helping the amount of textile waste grow, while little is being done to curb this waste. This is not accounting for latent waste, or unused items that sit in closets until the individual decides to clean it out (Claudio 450-451). Those items will someday enter the landfill too, or hopefully live an alternative new life somewhere else.

The environmental impact of the apparel industry is certain and is part of a larger problem with consumerism on Earth. As with many other industries, humans have decided to take a disposable outlook of their items and prefer instant gratification of making a purchase over a long lifecycle of a product. There are ways that the waste can be curbed however.

Options for Change – Reduce Consumption

Perhaps the simplest way to make changes to the growing footprint of apparel waste is to reduce consumption. In a step to reduce consumption of textiles, one could buy higher quality items with a longer expected lifetime. This lifetime depends on both physical makeup and trends. Buying an item that is made to last may be more expensive at first, but I would argue that the consumer saves in the long run and is more satisfied.

In addition to high quality items, fashion neutral items disregard fashion trends and the need for new items every season. The wearer does not have to worry about having the latest fashion and buying a replacement for a piece of clothing that is still useful. Another way to reduce consumption is to say no to more one-time event t-shirts. College campuses are t-shirt crazy. Almost every event has to have a t-shirt made of it. Go to any college student’s closet and you are bound to find a plethora of abandoned t-shirts. Yes there are a few shirts that make it into the weekly rotation of wear, but they are often replaced by a new event’s shirt while they are still wearable.

items built to last

Buy items built to last

Another option to help reduce consumption is to repair items that are broken instead of purchasing a brand new item. Patagonia has taken the corporate lead on this with their “Worn Wear” initiative. Patagonia pleads with the purchaser to be an owner of an item, not a consumer. An owner takes pride in their item, fixing it as it needs while a consumer throws an item away when it breaks in favor of a new item (Marcario). Patagonia draws an emotional appeal to their well-worn clothing and goes on to offer repair guides for its items.

Options for Change – Purchasing Responsibly

Okay say you reduce consumption, but you need an item that you do not have in your closet already. You have a few options going forward without having to buy something completely new from raw materials.

The first is buying used clothing. This is not something small or unheard of. First Research estimates that the resale industry is a $16 billion industry that is constantly growing (Used Merchandise). The resources have already been used to make the clothing, so just buying used is a way to make a minimal footprint. Purchasing used clothing is also typically less expensive and each decision to purchase reused clothing drives down demand for new clothing and the use of resources needed to manufacture this clothing.

This is how we learn all this information

Another option is deconstructing clothing and making a new item from the deconstructed material. This is an alternative that offers more unique items of clothing, but is time consuming and is hard to mass produce. Purchasers of these items would tend to be a niche market of customers “who are willing to spend more for a more individual product” (Young 67).

Lastly are brand new items, made from recycled materials. Instead of producing more polyester from petroleum or growing more cotton, these items are made by recycling old products and spinning new fibers from these materials. It’s not only clothing that is recycled to make fibers. Companies use plastic bottles to create a polyester fiber and some even use coffee grounds to create a special fiber (What Do We Recycle?). This may be the most viable future option for sustainable clothing. It can be mass produced and offer consumers the “new” and unworn feeling while causing less of an environmental impact than clothing made from raw materials. Yet this method is far from perfect. Patagonia is the first to tell you how their jackets made from 60% recycled polyester still require 135 liters of water and generate 20 pounds of carbon dioxide per jacket (Marcario).

Spinning a New Thread of Purchasing Behavior

There is certainly no ethical debate whether clothing should be worn; clothing is a basic human need right up there with shelter and food. The ethical issue lies within the processes used to create the clothing that is worn and the individual’s behavior in selecting what they will be wearing.

The environmental and social effects that the apparel industry creates is a major issue that should be at the top of our purchasing priorities. It’s more than a use of resources problem. It’s a consumerism problem that drives this use of resources. The mindset of individuals that physical “things” can easily be thrown away and disposed of while they still have useful properties is what drives the consumer culture. A change in attitudes starts with each individual and then grows into groups and eventually the masses switching over. Next time you think of purchasing new clothing, give sustainable fashion a chance.



Casey is one of the Abroha founders. Click here to learn more about him.

 abroha threads

Works Cited

  1. Chapagain, A.K., A.Y. Hoekstra, H.H.G. Savenije, and R. Gautam. "The Water Footprint of Cotton Consumption." Value of Water Research Report Series 18 (2005): n. pag. Water Footprint Network. UNESCO-IHE, Sept. 2005. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
  2. Claudio, Luz. "Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry." Environmental Health Perspectives 2007: A448. JSTOR Journals. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.
  3. "Council for Textile Recycling." Council for Textile Recycling. Council for Textile Recycling, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
  4. (2015, May). Global Apparel Manfacturing. Retrieved from
  5. Marcario, Rose. "Worn Wear: Better Than New." com. Patagonia, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <>.
  6. "Used Merchandise Stores Industry Profile." First Research. Hoovers, Inc., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <>.
  7. "What Do We Recycle?" ECOALF Upcycling Worldwide. ECOALF, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <>.
  8. Young, Carol, Charlotte Jirousek, and Susan Ashdown. "Undesigned: A Study In Sustainable Design Of Apparel Using Post-Consumer Recycled Clothing." Clothing & Textiles Research Journal 22.1/2 (2004): 61-68. Art & Architecture Complete. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.