Let’s talk Fashion: Environmental Impacts of Your Clothes

I have a confession to make

Photo: Unsplash/@sweetpagesco

Photo: Unsplash/@sweetpagesco

I have a confession to make. I don’t wear most of the clothes I own—and I’m not alone. Most of us only wear 20% of the clothes in our closet and it’s estimated that each one of us throws away over 81 pounds of clothing every year. We seem to be driven by our cultural obsession with “fast fashion” which strives to deliver a continuous stream of fresh products while enticing us to return with our money over and over again. There’s good news and bad news when it comes to the clothes we buy and wear. First the good news: fashion has become increasingly inexpensive and more readily available. But, here’s the bad news: the cost to our environment and the toll on the human beings that make our clothes continues to dramatically rise.

I was shocked to discover that the clothing we wear is responsible for one of the most polluting industries—the other biggies being the animal agriculture industry, and oil production. It’s a staggering $3 trillion a year industry with a thirst for profits at all costs on the backs of its human workers. We spend between 4 and 5% of our monthly income buying new clothes, even though we don’t need them. The truth is, Americans dump more than 14 million tons of discarded clothing into landfills every year.

Every decision we make builds the foundation of our character. Why do we buy cheap clothes when we are well aware of the environmental and human impacts of our buying decisions? A study out of Finland suggested we often do things that are not in line with our values due to a deeper need for “social status, constructing identity through product symbols and brands, or desire for certain lifestyles.” We put our need for beauty and status above our belief that workers and the environment need protection. While we may know the impact of clothing production on the environment, our behavior doesn’t always line up with our values. Once we become aware of our contradictory choices, habits, and routines, we can make changes. So, what can you do to help improve the environment? Simply look at the choices you make when you buy and discard your clothing—and realize you can do something different.

Choose clothing made from organic cotton.

The amount of pesticides used to grow cotton is about 3 to 1: for every pound of conventionally grown cotton, ⅓ of a pound of pesticides must be used. It may cost a little more, but by choosing organic cotton clothing, you can play a part in helping to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals deposited into our soil, as well as the levels imposed on the people who cultivate the crops.

Don’t be fooled by the bamboo revolution.

The bamboo fiber-to-fabric process is highly toxic. While bamboo as a crop is more environmentally friendly than cotton or other fibers, requiring less water, less fertilizer, and regenerates from its own roots, it’s essentially the same as rayon. About half of the waste from the production process goes right into the environment. If you’re considering bamboo apparel, choose brands made with the award winning Lyocell bamboo, which uses a closed loop manufacturing process that yields very little by-product and is completely biodegradable.

Recycled, reclaimed, surplus, and vintage fabrics are the most sustainable.

Seek out your local thrift store, consignment shop, or check out this on-line second-hand clothing store. Better yet, try swapping your clothes for free. Have an online swap party or, a party in your own home.

Know where your old clothing is going.

Before taking that bag of old clothes to your local Goodwill drop off center, consider what happens to the clothes once they get to Goodwill. Donating old clothing to Goodwill isn’t always the best option. There are many organizations that can make good use of clothes that you never wear. For instance, Dress for Success provides women with a professional wardrobe to help them find jobs. With a little research, you can find other organizations that put your unwanted togs to good use.

Quality rather than quantity.

Make your money go further by choosing companies that value quality and last longer. There are many brands that provide amazing products and stand on a solid commitment to pay it forward such as socks for the homeless or shoes that lead to better access to health care. Shop with a conscience and stay away from brands that depend on unethical business practices to keep their prices low. Also, in general, you get what you pay for, so those $10 cardigans from H&M may be cute and easy to pick up, but they aren’t going to maintain their color beyond a few washes. A higher end cardigan that costs you $60 may seem like an indulgence, but you may find you’ll still be wearing it five years down the road.

Join the Slow Fashion movement.

Coined in 2008 by sustainable design consultant Kate Fletcher, the Slow Fashion movement encourages slower production schedules, fair wages, lower carbon footprints, and minimal waste. Studies show we tend to keep clothing longer than one season if there is an emotional or cultural connection. Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion said it best, “It’s about reconnecting with our clothes, rather than viewing them as quick trends or throwaway items.” Do a little digging of your own and build a wardrobe you can fall in love with.

Let’s face it, it’s as simple as this: we can change the world by becoming conscious consumers and (gently!) educating those around us in the process. By changing your buying behavior, you can improve your personal bottom line while making a positive impact on the environment and the humans of the world.

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