Getty Images


How to Fashion a Sustainable Future

The clothing industry needs to change, and we can help

By Lisa Szabo, '16 BA

April 21, 2021 •

There’s a problem with my closet. It’s filled with clothing that took a lot of resources to produce and, statistically speaking, will probably end up in the trash. 

It’s not just me. Environmental sustainability is a fundamental issue for the fashion industry, according to Marilyn McNeil-Morin, ’77 BSc(HEc), director of the Fashion Exchange (FX) at George Brown College. She says the industry has a firm hand in global pollution and contributes around 85 million tonnes of textile waste into landfills every year. 

Thankfully, fashion companies and researchers have noticed this massive environmental footprint. And people like McNeil-Morin are catalyzing lasting change. She and her team at FX are developing methods for industry partners to make a difference in the fashion industry — from researching how to break down unwanted textiles so they can be reused to developing digital body scans that will help keep clothes in your closet — and out of the trash — by improving fit. But she has some tips for consumers too. Here, she shares how you (and I) can help spin the thread of a more sustainable future.

1: Understand the impact

The fashion industry has been accused of being one of the most polluting industries in the world. Nearly 20 per cent of water pollution comes from textile dyes and chemicals, she says, and around 10 per cent of all global CO2 emissions come from the production and distribution of fashion

“Part of the issue is that it’s an intricately connected global industry,” she says. At every stage of the supply chain — from growing cotton to producing fabric to designing, sewing and finally selling a garment — products are travelling all around the world to get to the consumer. “It’s incredibly complex.”

While she says there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, producers and consumers can take strides toward solutions. “We need to shift consumer mindsets to a slower fashion.”

2: Take control of your part

Around 100 billion garments are produced around the world in a year, but McNeil-Morin says only 80 per cent are purchased. The 20 billion leftover? They’re either incinerated or sent to the landfill

While the clothing producers are the major players in this drama, consumers aren’t just sitting in the audience. By slowing your shopping habits, you can help change the industry, too. 

Start by reducing the amount of clothing you buy, reusing what you already have and repairing items that just need a little love. If something doesn’t fit you anymore, donate it. A thrift store or charity may be the obvious end of the road for you, but McNeil-Morin says that, on average, consumers only donate around 15 per cent of their unwanted clothing. The rest ends up in the trash — usually, she says, after escaping the closet only five times.

3: Leave the “maybes” on the rack

Online shopping has exploded during the pandemic, and without being able to try garments on in the store, many don’t fit properly. “One of the biggest wastes in fashion comes from problems with fit,” McNeil-Morin says. “Things that don’t fit get returned, and they don’t necessarily make it back onto the shelf or get resold.” Often, they go to waste. To avoid sending your recent purchase to the landfill, make a deal with yourself to only buy items that you love and that fit you well. When trying on clothes in-person isn’t an option, keep purchases to a minimum. Instead, think about ways you can give new life to the clothes you already have.

4: Look forward to the future

Long-term sustainable change for the industry would mean a total shift in the way we think about clothing. For McNeil-Morin, that means moving from a linear economy — where an item is used and then discarded — to a circular economy, where all inputs are used and reused in a continuous loop. So, once your much-loved pair of jeans has seen its last wear, it gets sent to a recycling plant where it’s broken down into fibres and made into something new. The same thing happens with that garment and the one that follows. This type of circular system would literally turn trash into treasure by converting textile waste into a valuable commodity.

While a closed-loop system on a large scale is still a ways away, she says there are a lot of companies that have sustainability on their radar, including MEC, Eileen Fisher and Arcteryx. Some smaller companies are even starting to design their products for a circular system by using materials that can be easily broken down or reused.

“It’s hard to be sustainable in every aspect,” she says, but a lot of companies are finding their niche and where they can make a difference. 

I think I’ll start with my closet.

Go Deeper

We at New Trail welcome your comments. Robust debate and criticism are encouraged, provided it is respectful. We reserve the right to reject comments, images or links that attack ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender or sexual orientation; that include offensive language, threats, spam; are fraudulent or defamatory; infringe on copyright or trademarks; and that just generally aren’t very nice. Discussion is monitored and violation of these guidelines will result in comments being disabled.

Latest Stories