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Environment

New Report Documents Staggering Toll of 'Wasteful, Polluting' Fast Fashion

The fashion industry is on pace to triple global production by 2050 to more than 160 million tons of clothing, according to a new report released Tuesday by the environmental organization, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

And that would lead to catastrophic levels of emissions and pollution, according to the report.

“Today’s textile industry is built on an outdated linear, take-make-dispose model and is hugely wasteful and polluting,” Ellen MacArthur told the Guardian. “We need a new textile economy in which clothes are designed differently, worn longer, and recycled and reused much more often.”

Fashion designer Stella McCartney, who is known for her environmental advocacy and adoption of sustainable practices in her own brand, joined the foundation in calling for a major overhaul of global practices and consumer expectations, according to the Guardian.

"The report presents a roadmap for us to create better businesses and a better environment," Stella McCartney said in a press release . "It opens up the conversation that will allow us to find a way to work together to better our industry, for the future of fashion and for the future of the planet.”

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The report is filled with jarring statistics, including the fact that only 1% of clothing is ever recycled. The rest — at a rate of a garbage truck’s worth per second — is burned or dumped into a landfill.

That makes the fashion industry one of the most wasteful in the world, the report says, and it’s record of pollution isn’t limited to landfills.

Each year, half a million tons of microfibers make it into the world’s waterways, becoming contaminants that harm marine life, the report notes. And the fragmented nature of the fashion industry — design in one country, production in other countries, and sales in numerous countries — leads to enormous amounts of carbon emissions through transportation and energy consumption.

Read More: Does Recycling Your Clothes Actually Make a Difference?

Global emissions from textile emissions are currently more than 1.2 billion tons annually, more than all flights and maritime shipping combined, the report notes.

Ultimately, fast fashion is driving the industry’s problems, a trend of rapid production and rapid turnover, the report argues.

The amount of clothing units produced globally has doubled since 2000, according to the consulting firm McKinsey, and the amount of use a person gets out of each piece of clothing has declined by 36% over the past 15 years.

The World Resources Institute says that 20 pieces of clothing are made for each person on the planet every year.

Changing the industry is not going to be easy, according to the Guardian.

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The report calls on companies to use more sustainable materials such as naturally occurring fibers; for consumers to use their clothes longer and buy less overall; and for the development of practices like short-term rental shops so that clothes have more long-term value.

Such an approach could reduce revenue in the $2.4 trillion industry, but the alternative isn’t sustainable, the report argues, and better practices could potentially save companies $500 billion annually.

The effort to reform the fashion industry has been ongoing and there are signs that brands are responding.

Companies such as Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, and Stella McCartney have embraced a sustainable model of production, according to the documentary True Cost, which explores the environmental toll of the fashion industry.

Bigger brands like Levi’s, Adidas, and H&M are beginning to incorporate more sustainable materials into their production cycles.

Read More: 9 Brands to Buy If You Want to Make the World a Better Place

Taken together, however, these efforts are too isolated and oftentimes incomplete, or even superficial, the report argues. In the years ahead, huge new markets are expected to open up throughout Africa and Asia, according to the report, and this could further accelerate the pace of fast fashion.

Plus, too much of the industry pays lip service to sustainability, according to an article in the Huffington Post, that argues that the multinational nature of the fashion industry pushes environmental costs onto less regulated countries.

For instance, a lot of production has shifted to lightly regulated countries like India, where pesticide use by cotton farmers has led to severe health consequences and leather tanneries heavily pollute rivers and soil.

Real change will come about when regulations are carried out around the world to limit pollution and improve working conditions, and when companies reform their supply chains, the report says.

“The time has come to transition to a textile system that delivers better economic, societal, and environmental outcomes,” the report says.