2.5 billion pounds. That is the collective weight of textiles we throw out each year.
Yeah – it’s incredibly hard to wrap one’s head around a number like that. I certainly was taken aback, as someone who has only done clothing purges twice in her life (we’re working on it).
The concept of waste – what we throw out, in any capacity – is something that we as a society started paying attention to a handful of years ago. Those three green arrows pointed into each aren’t something we even bat an eye at anymore, and our consumables make it easy for it to be reflexive. Plastic water bottles, compostable takeaway food holders, newspapers – we know where it goes, and it’s not an emotional decision to make. But fashion is different, and it should be different.
A few summers ago, I worked with a state-level environmental agency on just this subject. Recycling. Sustainability to me before this was just what most people think of it as: papers and numbered plastics. But weeks of research on the difficulties of recycling textiles made me realize something. This is an entirely another beast we need to pay attention to, and the fashion industry is the head of that beast.
Fast fashion is a major culprit of environmental degradation – not unlike fast food, it’s an incredibly toxic industry that poisons our waterways and our air. The fashion industry and its many legs are actually the second highest polluter to the oil industry. And that’s not considering that when you buy synthetic/polyester clothing (think: any of your activewear) you’re buying plastic thread. Its life starts in oil refineries.
Most of these plastic-based textiles can’t be broken down quickly (200 years vs a year if it’s a natural fiber). For the performance clothing in your life, this is obviously a tricky thing. Luckily, companies like Patagonia are encouraging our biggest synthetic insulation manufacturers to shift to recycled fibers while also recycling their own plastic-based pieces.
Another caveat? Natural fibers, like organic cotton, do break down quickly, but they also need a ridiculous amount of water and energy to be made. 20,000 liters of water go into just ONE pair of jeans and ONE t-shirt. That’s enough water for you to drink for 21 years. Merino wool, one of my favorite fibers after working in an outdoor retail store for three years, is another issue. Amazing performance, but it can be decidedly not that amazing for sheep. Same goes for down products. There are companies that care about their supply chain sheep and geese, just as there are valid reasons to stay clothing-vegan.
This issue is a rabbit hole of environmental sustainability and human ethics, and I highly recommend taking some time to find out what it means for yourself, your habits and your closet. For me, it meant the phase I went through in high school of primarily fast fashion – Forever 21, PacSun, Zara – was a phase I had to make sure I would never go through again, and that going forward, I needed to redirect myself to the places that recognized this responsibility.
It goes without saying that we shouldn’t count on brands, fashion houses, or manufacturers to throw themselves into ethical and sustainable responsibility. They follow the money. It’s largely in our own hands, and particularly in our pockets.
So what can you do? It’s a balancing act. And to be honest, it’s practically impossible to get it right. But it’s incredibly important for our environment and other people we try.
Disclaimer: this may well read as a love letter to Patagonia. I’m not mad about it.
While we’re on the hunt for the next piece.
- Definitely consider the benefits of a capsule wardrobe. (This is hard for me because wearing loud and personality-driven pieces of clothing is sort of a past time for me. Hell, I wrote my college application essay on my rotating collection of highlighter jeans. RIP.)
- Don’t settle on a piece of clothing or accessory. Just don’t. Make sure it fits. Make sure it makes you confident. Make sure you can and will appreciate it. Your wardrobe is a reflection of you and who you want to be, so…
- Invest in your staple pieces. Per pricing, there will always be caveats until our fashion industry is caught up with what our environment and people need. Budget out the best quality you can get at the price point you are willing to spend, therefore reducing the need to replace it in the future.
- Find your brands that work for you, your style, and what’s important to you. It’s hard to find companies that handle all heads of the beast (sustainable fabric, safe and positive working environments, short supply chains, etc.) but there is so much more out there than you think.
- Make sure the company stands behind their product, whether it be through warranty or some iteration of that. It’s important we hold companies to high standards so that they hold themselves and their products to even higher ones in order to be the benchmark. This is important later on in your clothing’s lifespan.
- Look for labels that are BlueSign certified or a B-Corp organization. These are the companies that make having an environmentally and socially sound product their identity, and give back what they put in.
- Patagonia is a forerunner here. Another favorite of mine is United By Blue, which makes the most amazing, durable bags, and for every product sold, they organize trash cleanups out of our country’s waterways.
- Bigger companies, or faster companies, can be a little slower on the uptake here, but look out for the movement. Collaborations like Adidas x Parley’s stunning runners made from recycled ocean plastic are an indication of that movement and reinforcement that this isn’t solely on the outdoor retail industry’s mind.
- For what it’s worth, we generally word-associate eco-friendly clothing with boho, hippy, and perhaps not modern fashion. Drop that. They’re out there.
- Buy local/in the US, if you can’t verify a company uses factories with safe working conditions and livable wages or their supply chain at all (many companies have no idea where their products even comes from, which is incredibly problematic). I have a list of US-based designers I love and support because I trust in our safety vetting.
- Embrace secondhand (sorry mom and dad). I’m an obsessive eBay buyer and stand by all of my Goodwill sweaters. Nothing will beat them. There are so many places that are committed to giving clothing a second life like Boston’s the Garment District or similar companies. This is also the only way I can really stomach buying a product from places like Urban Outfitters. Not only is it cheaper, but my money isn’t going directly into the pockets of companies who don’t align with my philosophies, and instead into integral parts of the local economy.
- I recognize the ethics of this are a little hazy, as sometimes we can tread the line of taking secondhand, affordable products away from disenfranchised communities. Make sure you put what you have back into these loops, if possible. This will be discussed at the end. Again, just vet the places and make sure you believe in what they do (I do a lot of research, but I also have a borderline neurotic moral compass).
Life with your clothing
- Please take care of your clothing correctly. I spent the majority of my life just throwing whatever I had into the laundry machine without paying attention to what the fabric needed. Not only will it extend its life for you, but also its life after you.
- Side note: this also means outerwear/jackets and activewear. Before I started working in the outdoor industry, I honestly never considered washing jackets, but it is SO important. Rain jackets and synthetic insulated jackets need to be washed with fragrance-free detergent, down products as well (throw them in the dryer with some tennis balls to fluff the feathers up). This keeps your things doing their job and will save you money in the long run. Trust me.
- Work it out. If there’s something wrong with your clothing, do everything in your power to make it right. If you don’t have the technical ability or machines to make the repairs and alterations you need, find a tailor and build a relationship with them. And again, so many companies offer warranties if you need to get something repaired. Patagonia’s Worn Wear is an example (“If it’s broke – fix it!” – not, “let’s get you a new pair and throw this one out”). High-end fashion houses are also committed to repair, so while you are at a substantially higher price point, it will live forever and ever.
- Take a lesson from brands like Re/done and give that old stuff new, modern life. I can’t tell you how many times my sister has said, “I can just DIY that with that jacket I already have,” and really slayed it.
We don’t want it anymore. And that’s okay.
- Why not? …
- If it is in need of repairs, but past your relationship with it, do it the courtesy of repairing it before donating it. It served you well.
- Consignment is okay! Most places will discuss what will happen to your donations if they aren’t purchased, but make sure you have control over it or are comfortable with their options. Help a broke college kid out.
- Donate to local community organizations before the big guns I don’t need to name. That has direct, immediate effects on the neediest people and families around you. There are also more specific organizations for causes just as in-need, such as LGBTQ+ and homeless youth organizations.
Do NOT throw it out unless it is past the point of no return.
- Even the most tattered of clothing can be turned into pillows or blankets for animal shelters, or donated to local artist communities, like New Haven CT’s EcoWorks and similar urban organizations.
- Dropping it off in parking lot boxes seems easy, but those are generally for-profit corporations that sell the fabric they acquire. And while we love the images of donated clothing being sent to third-world countries (and, in some cases, these are very necessary operations), many of these can have the unexpected effects of undermining local goods markets and taking away the livelihoods of tradesmen and women.
- Check the retailer you purchased it from. Many places will take back their old products to be up- or downcycled into new goods.
Final thoughts? Embrace the circular economy, not a linear, abbreviated one. And just don’t buy as much. Period.
Links for your journey down the eco-fashion rabbit hole:
This post was written and photographed by one of my best friends and ultimate sustainable queen, Kelsey. The shoot features her sister, Kaitlin, and was shot in Wallingford, Connecticut.
Photography by Kelsey Quartuccio