Why Textile Waste is an Environmental Justice Issue

Why Textile Waste is an Environmental Justice Issue

We are all connected, we are all interdependent. This sentiment often seems to be missing from the world today, but there’s just no way around this truth. We all breathe the same air, drink the same water, we even feel each other's feelings. The escalating impacts of climate change prove this interconnectedness more and more. Just like we are all connected to each other, so are the aspects of our material world - the products we choose to purchase, their supply chains, material sourcing and processing, their use, care, and end of life - all have impacts on everyone living today and for generations to come. 

We often talk about textile waste as an issue of keeping useful materials out of landfills at production facilities far away in manufacturing zones overseas, but the impact of textile waste actually goes far beyond that. Textile waste is an environmental justice issue right here in each of our communities locally as well as around the world. 

What is environmental justice? 

Environmental justice is defined by the EPA as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” Environmental justice came into being with the creation of the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, an all-encompassing statement presented in October 1991 at the First National People of Color Environmental leadership Summit in Washington DC. It is rooted in Indigenous wisdom and affirms extensive topics including equitable land use, the right to clean air, land, and healthy work environments, spiritual interdependence, environmental education, the sovereignty of Native Peoples, and more. Read the full document here. The impacts of climate change disproportionately affect people of color: around the world and in our own country, and it was designed to be that way by the leaders of wealthy nations. Environmental sustainability cannot be achieved without environmental justice. Sustainability must be achieved across all economic, racial, and social groups in order for it to be fully achieved. If there are injustices present within any of these, then the system as a whole cannot function properly going forward to serve all people in the future.  

Enter the Textile Waste Issue

There are two main types of textile waste: Pre-consumer textile waste is generated during the manufacturing of a garment or textile product where on average 10-30% of fabric is cut away. Post-consumer textile waste comes about when a consumer is done using a garment or textile product. Locally and globally, these two types of textile waste are landing in landfills and incinerators and drastically affecting the health and well-being of humans and other living beings. 

When we think of the harmful effects of the fashion industry and overproduction, we often think about the atrocities happening out of sight overseas in manufacturing regions: greenhouse gas emissions, intensive water use and contamination of drinking water, human rights violations, toxic chemical use, the list goes on and on… Yet there are environmental hazards locally too, even outside of large manufacturing areas. Here in the Minneapolis - St. Paul area, most of our household and commercial waste goes to a local incinerator, of which there are seven in the state (the third most in the U.S.). In Minneapolis, it’s the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC), a facility marketed as a “waste-to-energy” facility that processes our waste. As is the case with a majority of incinerators in the U.S., HERC neighbors North Minneapolis, a community largely made up of individuals of color whose health is disproportionately affected by the facility. 

It’s been popular over the last few decades to re-brand (or greenwash) newer incinerator facilities as “waste-to-energy” plants since they can generate some energy from the burned trash and also contain measures in place to reduce toxins deposited into the air compared to older incinerators. Yet, these facilities still spew carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, and other toxins which harm humans and other living beings. Their presence is still linked to heart and lung conditions, asthma, high blood pressure, cancer, hormonal imbalances, and more. Local advocacy groups have been campaigning for years to get the HERC facility shut down since it disproportionately affects communities of color, yet no plans have been made by the powers that be to close it down. Additionally, the dominant white-led environmental movement tends to focus on other areas of improvement in Minnesota and often overlooks the disproportionate negative impact on communities of color in our region. 

By diverting textile scraps from this harmful waste stream, we are working to reduce the impact of the fashion industry on communities of color locally. This is just one piece in the big dire puzzle of climate justice, but change needs to happen at every stage of a product’s lifecycle to disrupt the powerful systems that are threatening the survival of our species. Ethel Studio has chosen to focus on pre-consumer waste specifically as this is the most viable for our business model of manufacturing, yet there’s still so much household textile waste that each of you and I can do our part to divert from the waste stream as well. 

Spirituality + Environmental Justice 

It’s incredible to see the presence of spirituality in the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice. The introduction says that the delegates “do hereby reestablish our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth; to respect and celebrate each of our cultures, languages, and beliefs about the natural world and our roles in healing ourselves…” They go on to affirm the sacredness of Mother Earth several more times. Unfortunately this connection to spirituality doesn’t make it to mainstream environmentalism: perhaps because it requires us to see each other as equals and truly examine ourselves. This is the connection we strive to bring to life through our work on the path to create products that support your well-being and liberation practice. We  provide supportive tools that simultaneously serve to eliminate harm to our environment and on all the many human lives impacted by the fashion industry. But it’s not about just what Ethel Studio does - we are a small fish in the huge sea of social and environmental problems. Even more importantly, the more we can spread the word about the importance of textile waste in regards to environmental justice and inspire more designers and individuals to take responsibility for textile waste, the more we can mitigate the catastrophic trajectory of climate change.  And we must do this in a way that serves the well-being of everyone on this interdependent planet.


Further Reading

9 Ways to Reduce Textile Waste at Home 

Intro to Textile Waste: Pre-Consumer Waste

The Seventeen Principles of Environmental Justice