If you’re a fan of the outdoors and adventure like we are, you know that finding the right gear is key. You likely also believe in doing your part to preserve and protect the outdoors. But what you may not know is that the fashion industry is one of the top polluting industries on the planet and outdoor apparel and gear is a large contributor.
In this article, we’ll examine many of the ways in which the fashion industry is problematic, and what we can do to push the needle in a more sustainable direction. While everything we produce and consume as a society will have an impact on the planet, there are definitely smarter options we can support.
Let’s start by examining the fashion industry at a macro level. As stated, the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries on the planet. In fact, it alone accounts for up to 10% of the globe’s sum total of carbon emissions. This equates to more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined (which are both major polluters in their own right). And while energy production and transportation tend to get most of the attention as major polluters, the fashion industry tends to fly under the radar. If left unchecked, the fashion industry is targeted to make up more than a quarter of the global carbon budget allocated across all industries to limit global warming to 2°C by 2050.
Fast fashion brands tend to be the biggest culprit as cheap, trendy items flood the market. According to McKinsey Sustainability, clothing production has increased by 60% between 2000 and 2014 while consumers now tend to keep their clothing items for only half as long as they did 15-20 years ago - often times viewing these cheap, fast fashion items as disposable.
Up to 98% of the fashion industry's emissions come from production. And as already mentioned, clothing production has recently increased by about 60% due in large part to these global "fast fashion" brands that release more collections each year than traditional brands. In an effort to minimize our production and reduce waste, The Merrimack Company produces quality items that are meant to last. We also only produce a small number of items at a time to minimize waste and not have 'leftovers'.
In addition to cheap, disposable clothing, it’s also worth considering the materials that are used to produce more quality items. For instance, a large amount of “weatherproof” and “outdoor” gear is made from cotton and/or synthetic materials derived from petroleum or other toxic textiles. While these materials have desirable qualities, let’s take a look at the impact they can have before exploring more eco-friendly options.
The Problem with Traditional Cotton
Many companies will claim that conventional or traditional cotton is an “eco-friendly” option, but this is not the case and should be considered “greenwashing”. While traditional cotton is a biodegradable natural fiber and preferable to synthetic materials like nylon or polyester, it is far from eco-friendly due to the vast amounts of water and toxic chemicals used to produce it. In reality, about 25% of the world’s insecticide use and more than 10% of the world’s pesticide use comes from growing cotton. When worn, these chemicals can affect our overall health - many have been linked to cancer and other major and minor health issues. Additionally, it takes nearly 3,000 gallons of water to produce just over 1 pound of cotton on average. In India, where a large portion of the world’s cotton is grown, over 100 million people don’t have access to clean water. Meanwhile, the water consumed to grow India’s cotton exports in 2013 would be enough to supply over 1 billion people with 100 liters of water every day for a year.
So what materials can we use instead?
The Benefits of Organic and Recycled Cotton
A primary textile used at The Merrimack Company is 100% organic cotton. We’ve selected organic cotton due to its many positive attributes. For example, items made with organic cotton are better for your body because they do not contain any of the harmful insecticides and pesticides used in the cultivation of traditional cotton. Additionally, when grown organically, cotton conserves land biodiversity.
Organic cotton also holds the following advantages over traditional cotton:
91% lower water consumption
62% lower energy demand
46% lower CO2-emissions
26% lower soil erosion
Recycled cotton is another solution that’s a better choice for the environment as it prevents additional textile waste and requires far fewer resources to produce than traditional cotton. For example, over 200,000 gallons of water are saved for every one ton of recycled cotton used in place of traditional cotton. Recycled cotton also reduces the need for additional insecticides and pesticides from being used and is less carbon intensive when compared to traditional cotton.
The Benefits of Hemp
Another material you’ll find used at The Merrimack Company is hemp. Hemp fiber is completely natural and biodegradable. And similar to organic cotton, it uses significantly less water and energy to produce, and doesn’t require the toxic chemicals used in traditional cotton. In fact, replacing 1,000 traditional cotton baseball hats with fair hemp hats saves over 44,000 gallons of fresh water that would be used in cotton production and keeps over 72 pounds of chemicals and pesticides out of our environment.
Hemp is also a high yield crop, meaning more can be produced with the same amount of land. Additionally, hemp is incredibly durable and strong, meaning your clothes will last longer - resulting in your needing to buy less.
The Problem with Polyester & Nylon
Polyester and nylon are used in a large portion of “outdoor” and “weatherproof” gear - from tech shirts, to rain coats, to tents and even dog beds. So what’s the problem?
Polyester is a non-biodegradable plastic that is derived from petroleum. Similarly, Nylon is a type of plastic derived from crude oil. The production of both of these materials is a highly chemical process requiring the use of carcinogens and toxins that are harmful to both the environment and humans. When synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon are washed, tiny bits of micro-plastics can run off in the drained water and make their way into rivers and oceans where they then can be ingested by both animals and humans - having an overall negative impact on the environment and our health.
The Benefits of Recycled Polyester (rpet)
While organic cotton and hemp are clear choices, recycled polyester tends to exist in a bit of a gray area due to its pros and cons. Recycled polyester (rpet) melts down existing plastics (such as recycled plastic water bottles) and re-spins it into polyester fibers. This process uses far fewer resources than producing virgin materials and keeps plastics from heading to landfills and into the ocean. While recycled polyester doesn’t solve the issue of micro-plastics, it is a large step in the right direction for sustainable fashion - particularly in the “outdoor” and “adventure” clothing space due to its desirable properties (water resistant, moisture wicking, form holding, etc).
We use recycled polyester in some of our items at The Merrimack Company because we believe it fits the bill in terms of the 3Rs of sustainability (reduce, reuse, recycle). We reduce the amount of resources needed and the amount of plastic in oceans and landfills by recycling and reusing existing plastics.
In conclusion, we believe the fashion industry needs to change and that it starts with offering the consumer better choices. The Merrimack Company is pleased to bring you apparel made from recycled and organic materials and is already looking to expand its offerings. Plus, when you shop at The Merrimack Company, at least 1% of all revenue goes towards the cleaning and conservation of the Merrimack River and the communities it runs through. Join the revolution, and Stay Adventurous!