[Intern Insights] Imagining the Future: Value Perception vs. Environmental Impact in the Fashion Retail Industry

Value Perception vs Environmental Impact

Why did humans become the leading species of Earth?

We did two things:

  • We ranked the importance of things surrounding us, giving them value
  • We changed the environment according to these value perceptions

If we look back at the proto-humans, thousands of years ago, and judged them based on the current principles of survival, our assured conclusion would be that they would not survive. Nature did not equip them with sharp claws, poisonous teeth, or hard-shelled exoskeletons. How could they possibly go up against apex predators when countless species of mammals have done so and disappeared?

The one advantage that humans have had is the fact that they wanted more. More food, more heat, more comfort. Although nature did not equip them with features that enabled them to easily achieve it, humans took it for themselves by changing their environment. That still holds true for today!

Value Perception

Nowadays, people expect speed, transparency, and immediate gratification in/with any service or product they purchase. Taking technological advancements into consideration this may seem an easy process. However, to get what we want, we transform our environment, and not always in the best of ways.

Take a look at the fashion industry, we notice that this sector has one of the most drastic impacts on the global surroundings. This makes sense, considering that it is a $3 trillion global industry. Making abstraction of the social issues it supposes and the community sustainability principles it must uphold, the fashion industry starts its environment impact with one word – ‘fiber’.

Here are some dramatic facts about fiber processing:

  • ‘Approx. 70 million barrels of oil are used yearly to create polyester fiber, the most commonly used fire in clothes today.’
  • ‘It takes 200 years for polyester fiber to decompose.’
  • ‘More than 70 million trees are logged yearly and turned into fabrics like rayon, viscose, modal and lyocell.’
  • ‘Plastic microfibers shed from our synthetic clothing into the water supply account for 85% of the human-made material found along ocean shores, threatening marine wildlife and ending up in our food supply.’
  • ‘The apparel industry is the second biggest polluter of freshwater resources on the planet.’
  • ‘A quarter of the chemicals produced in the world are used in textiles.’

(Conca, 2015)

The question is why do we need to invest so may resources into the creation of fiber. True, we number 7.2 billion people now, but it is not our numbers that pushed this change (Conca, 2015). It is our value perception. We want more, we want newer, flashier, more complex, and instant products and services. And if it lasts one or two years, that’s ok, because a better version is right on its heels and we are going to buy that one. Durability, consistency, stability, preservation, these features are no longer sought after.

You might ask yourself why that is so important. Not so long ago, all the products available on the market were handmade. Hours were put into their development and so, because they were not instantly available, they were cherished and their durability appreciated. Now, the speed of consumerism drives a hard-competitive edge and nature by itself cannot keep up without artificial support. What does that mean?

Environmental Impact

Considering the current energy expenditure, we realize that the highest amount is for the least eco-friendly fibers.

For instance, linen is woven from the fibers of the flax plant and it is one of the world’s oldest textiles, as old as 7000 BC.  It is white, lightweight and durable, gentle on the environment, consumes the least of energy, water and pesticides. However, it takes more to weave it and is more expensive. On the upside, it is more durable and more gentle in the contact with the body (Conca, 2015).

Fashion Value Perceptions - Comparative Chart

Cotton, however, is advertised as one of the most natural, high quality fiber. It is used in 40% of clothing and requires large amount of water, 2.6 % of the global water use and is chemically dependent, using 24% of all insecticides and 11% of all pesticides globally (EcoWatch, 2015; Hermes, 2017).

Polyester and nylon are made from petrochemicals and by nature they are not biodegradable. They need the highest amount of energy in their manufacturing, but they also emit large amounts of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. Its impact on global warming is almost 300 times that of carbon dioxide, the most ubiquitous greenhouse gas (EcoWatch, 2015).

The next step from the fiber is to give it the desired color. Dyes processing is becoming a concerning issue in Indonesia, where the Citarum River is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world. All along its banks there are hundreds of textile factories (EcoWatch, 2015).

The end of the life cycle in fashion is when clothes are not needed anymore. With the rising of fast-fashion chains like Zara and H&M, weekly fashion has become the norm (Hermes, 2017). Trends are changing too fast for nature to keep up with the expected demand on its own, and as we buy more, we throw away more. Clothing waste reached new peaks in U.S. in 2014, where the average person discarded 32kg of clothing annually. Approximately 85% of them reach landfills or incinerators. In China millions of tons of unused fabric go to waste each year when dyed the wrong color. Taking into account that 41.3 million tons of fiber are processed there and account for 53% of the world’s total production, this paints a grim color on the textile industry. Although clothing recycling is rising, currently it cannot face the environmental challenges that fast-fashion creates (ibid).


Change is good, it’s what made us who we are today. But I believe we are sufficiently advanced nowadays to understand the consequences of our action on an environment that expands throughout the whole planet. We want more, we want to fit in, we want self-achievement, we want to promote a certain image, because today’s battle of wits comes through value perception. And we want to be valuable in the eyes of our peers. The easiest way to achieve this is through fashion statements. What we wear, what we show other people, with what we are associated, this decides our status in society, our worth. The problem is that we are changing these values so fast that there is no time for the environment to absorb the impact.

It’s simple, today’s value perception is reduced at the power we have over others. Powers is the easiest obtain through accumulated wealth. Wealth comes through the development of businesses. Business need the required services and products to exist. But power over nature we have not. And what we should strive for is a co-existence in harmony. That can only be achievable through the shift of our value perception. Durability over speed. A well-made blouse will still be a blouse in 5 years. It should last 5 years! It will fulfill the same function in 5 years! And by changing the fashion trends we are making it useless in 2 weeks.

We became the apex predator of this planet by transforming the environment to suit our needs and wants. We created our own claws, our own poison, our own shells. But there is no one else to challenge us anymore. And despite that we keep wanting more in the detriment of all other creatures that share our planet. The force of nature is the ultimate power and I am not sure we can become winners by tackling that. I may want to look good now, but I also want to live on this planet when I’m 80. Will nature allow me to do that in 50 years? Will nature even allow humanity to exist in 100 years? Food for thought!

This post is brought to you by one of AQ’s Undergraduates, Laura Susnea. As part of our internship programs, undergraduates and classic interns are encouraged to take part in company culture. Laura’s primary project focusses on training programs and eLearning and how best to adapt this to industries under pressure. 

1 reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] It might be because whilst the examples above provide services, the retail industry is product based. Furthermore, owning assets such as a car comes with a lot of extra costs, such as insurance and ever-rising fuel prices, that make it less attractive to own a car. Owning a normal-priced piece of clothing, on the other hand, does not have further implications for the owner than the initial price and using up some space in the wardrobe – however, the implications on the environment the production and distribution of clothes have is huge. To get a better idea of what impact the fashion retail industry has on our environment read this blog. […]

Comments are closed.