Only the fossil fuel industry pollutes more than the fashion industry. Yes, absorb that fact.

Most of us aren’t aware of this. We Americans aren’t confronted with many environmental effects from the clothing industry, because the majority of the process happens in China, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand. American companies outsource to countries with lax rules and regulations regarding human and environmental well-being.

But if you’ve never thought about the environmental impact of your shirt and jeans, have no fear. I’ll fill you in.

Why the fashion industry pollutes so much

Why is the clothing industry so polluting? The main reasons are the endless water consumption, fabric dyeing, and chemical treatment processes involved.

It takes 2,700 liters of water, or around 700 gallons, to produce enough cotton for one single T-shirt. Turning your shower on for 5½ hours straight would not provide enough water for that ONE T-shirt’s cotton. It takes more than double that amount of water to make a single pair of jeans.

That’s before the clothing article has even touched your hands.

Lydia Heida, independent journalist and photographer based in the Netherlands, researched China’s textile dyeing processes. She writes: “Among these wastes are many hazardous chemicals — tributyltin (TBT), pentabromodiphenyl ether (PBDE), phthalates, perfluorooctane sulphonate (PFOS), and aniline — that are banned or strictly regulated in other countries because they are toxic, persistent, bio-accumulative, hormone disruptive, and can cause cancer.” These difficult-to-pronounce chemicals are known to persist in water resources, yet the industry has been slow to change.

Disposing of textiles contributes to the mess even more. CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition Jason Kibbey points out that even natural fibers go through unnatural toxic processes on their way to becoming clothing. Toxins from these processes leach into groundwater or are released into the air from incineration.

Synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, and acrylic are made from petroleum. These fabrics may not biodegrade for hundreds of years — perhaps even longer.

These few startling statistics hardly convey just how destructive the apparel industry is on a global scale. Some people in China have to wear a mask outdoors because the air is so polluted from surrounding textile factories.

Companies are responding

“Out of sight” does not have to mean “out of mind.” There’s good news! Because consumers like you are demanding change, companies are starting to rise to the occasion. Some clothing businesses, like Patagonia and L.L. Bean, are already taking steps to make fashion more sustainable.

Environmental responsibility is woven into Patagonia’s core values and cultural fabric. They’ve even committed to repairing your Patagonia clothing for free to extend its lifecycle and avoid landfills for as long as possible. L.L.Bean is dedicated to energy conservation in green buildings, sustainable fibers, paper and packaging reduction, and a corporate recycling program. They constantly strive to improve their supply chain, including considerations for animal welfare.

These companies are not alone. The Responsible Fashion Company highlights companies that are actively moving toward sustainable models. These include familiar names like Gucci, Timberland, Levi’s, and Brunello Cucinelli.

For a list that includes brands taking positive steps and those who still need to take action, check out Greenpeace’s Detox Catwalk campaign. They give credit to brands that have credible timelines for limiting toxic chemicals, like Adidas, Burberry, Puma, Uniqlo, and Valentino — and call out brands that do not yet have a plan to change, including Dolce & Gabbana, The Gap Inc., Hermes, and Versace.

What you can do

As consumers, we all have the ability to impact the industry with our purchases. We can also try to limit our clothing purchases, reuse clothing, or recycle it.

These actions make a difference. The EPA estimates that diverting the 14 million tons of clothing that Americans trash each year into a recycling program would be the environmental equivalent of taking 7.3 million cars off the road.

You can make an impact at the local and national levels. Here are some actions you can take to effect change:

  • Educate and advocate: Talk to your children, friends, and neighbors about what you just learned, and stay informed.
  • Use your wallet (and your brain!): It’s unrealistic to boycott all clothing containing synthetic fibers or traditional dyes. But now there are many more eco-conscious brands and products made with the environment in mind. There’s real power in your buying power. In addition to supporting companies like Patagonia and L.L. Bean, consider purchasing brands that have a Fair-Trade certification. A company’s commitment to the Fair-Trade movement is a commitment to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading conditions and promote sustainability. Fair-Trade members often advocate for improved social and environmental standards and conditions. Paying $3 for a shirt does not feel as good when you realize that shirt was made by people who get paid less than that per hour.
  • Support organizations taking on environmental and/or ethical justice issues: By finding and supporting nonprofit research and environmental organizations, you’re directly contributing to solving pressing issues. The World Resources Institute is an independent, non-governmental nonprofit global research organization that focuses on securing a sustainable future through climate, energy, food, forests, water, and cities. The Sierra Club, with over 2 million members, is a fantastic grassroots environmental organization that works on issues ranging from land conservation to passing with laws protecting water, animals and wilderness.

They say “you are what you wear.” What better way to show who you are and what you stand for than by dressing in a more eco-conscious way? You’ll be making much more than just a fashion statement — you’ll be helping to make a truly significant impact.