When people think of environmentally damaging industries, they usually think of “dirty” industries like oil, mining, and sewage. But what about the industries that make the shoes on your feet, your trusty pair of jeans, or your favorite mascara?
We rarely think about clothing and beauty products beyond our own closets, but the growing popularity of environmental activism has created a higher demand for environmentally conscious fashion and cosmetics.
The fashion industry has been dubbed “the second dirtiest industry in the world next to big oil.” That claim has yet to be completely corroborated, but the severity of the fashion industry’s environmental impact is clear. Many smaller industries are involved in the process of producing clothing, including farming, processing, manufacturing, and shipping, all of which involve chemicals, water waste, and pollution. In fact, 4 of the top 10 polluting industries in the world are used in the creation of fashion items.
The biggest area of criticism within the industry is “fast fashion,” which produces inexpensive clothing at a high turnover rate. Retailers like H&M, Zara, Forever 21, and Target are at the forefront of the fast fashion market, and they gladly supply the demand. The appeal is obvious; every time you go to Target to pick up a gallon of milk, you can glance at the clothing section and see something new that you have to have.
Unfortunately, the desire for the “new” causes sweatshops and manufacturers to produce at all costs, using thousands of liters of water and several million tons of chemicals in production each year.
But the impact doesn’t stop after production. When an item goes “out of style” after a short fashion season and consumers are ready to get rid of their clothing, thrift stores are unlikely to take the items; fast fashion items are often cheaply made to begin with, and because items go out of style so quickly they’re considered “worthless” and 75% of garments end up in the garbage. To make matters worse, many fabrics can take up to 50 years to decompose in landfills.
Fast fashion isn’t the only industry contributor to environmental damage. High-end designers who use imported fabrics and ship their designs to-and-from their international fashion houses forget the impact that vehicle emissions have on their carbon footprint.
For the average person, conscious consumerism is key to making sustainable fashion choices. Purchasing the majority of your clothing from resale shops and boutiques is an easy way to make sure you aren’t financially contributing to fast fashion. If you have more freedom in your budget, looking at the fabrics and materials of your garments (no dyes or non-organic cotton) can prove valuable. As fashion designer Vivienne Westwood has said, “Buy less, choose well, make it last.”
While it’s unlikely that the fashion industry will convert to an entirely sustainable model, many designers and celebrities are taking a stand against its bad practices. Eileen Fisher, Stella McCartney, and Ralph Lauren are leading sustainable designers, and several prominent celebrities, including Emma Watson, Zac Posen, and Lupita Nyong’o, have made bold statements about sustainability.
Many beauty brands are beginning to adopt a sustainable attitude as well. It is fairly common for beauty items to be sold in sustainable packaging like recycled (or recyclable) paper, plastic, or glass.
Some companies have taken conscious consumerism a step further to address the global impact of factory farming. Most cosmetics use animal products in their formulas, and many companies test their products on animals. By adopting cruelty-free testing and creating vegan products, companies are taking a stand against factory farming.
Unfortunately, the beauty industry has not developed a fully accountable system in their environmental activism. Some brands that claim to be cruelty free are owned by parent companies that are not cruelty-free, which can raise doubts over product sourcing within the company. In addition, product labeling isn’t always clear, and consumers could easily think a product that is labeled “cruelty-free” is free of animal products altogether. It is important to note that cruelty-free products only address animal testing, while vegan products address the product formulas themselves.
Researching vegan cosmetics involves a careful look at product ingredients. Ingredients to avoid include keratin (found in hair, nails, and horns of mammals,) squalene (made of shark liver,) collagen (made from bones, tissues, and skins from animals,) guanine (made from fish scales,) lanolin (made from the grease of sheep’s wool,) carmine (made from insects,) and beeswax.
Luckily, there are many cosmetic brands that have jumped on the vegan bandwagon, from affordable brands you can find at the drugstore lie NYX, Physicians Formula, Wet n’ Wild, Milani, and E.L.F, to high-end brands like Tarte, Kat Von D Beauty, Urban Decay, and Too Faced. While animal-hair brushes still dominate the market, many cosmetic tools, applicators, and brushes are going vegan as well.
Whether or not eco-friendly models in clothing and beauty brands will become mainstream remains to be seen and will likely depend on continued consumer demand. With luck, awareness of the environmental impact of bad practices will continue to grow, and the desire for every industry to become environmentally aware will rise in tandem.