How many fashion purchases do you make annually? American shoppers buy over 68 garments per year, according to Rent the Runway. That’s more than one new piece of clothing a week, which on average, will only get worn around seven times before the item is purged to make room for new pieces.
While your newsfeed might be jam-packed with articles on climate change and plastic pollution, another serious concern that gets far less airtime is fast fashion, a term used to describe the incredibly rapid turnover of fashion styles by retailers. It’s also the biggest polluter after oil and gas, according to a study by the Danish Fashion Institute.
In fact, the fashion industry produces 10 percent of humanity’s carbon emissions, according to UNEP. Producing polyester (a plastic found in 60 percent of garments) releases two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton. Not only that, polyester can’t break down in the ocean the way cotton does.
Water-use and contamination make the situation even more grim. It takes about 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt; dyeing garments causes excessive pollution since the water leftover from the dyeing process is often dumped into ditches, streams, or rivers.
It also creates public health hazards caused by production and problematic labor conditions. The high demands of producing inexpensive clothing are pushing brands to use cheap labor, low-quality fabrics, and provide unsafe working conditions. In December 2019, a bag factory in Delhi caught ablaze while operating without a fire safety license; more than 43 adults and children lost their lives.
Fast fashion is a problem, but it doesn’t mean retail is a thing of the past. Caring for the environment doesn’t have to come at the cost of your love of fashion.
Here’s how to turn looks over the holidays while staying kind to our planet.
Explore second-hand stores
Thrifting is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you hear sustainable, but you’d be surprised to hear the second-hand scene has erupted over the past ten years. You really can find super chic, high-quality garments says sustainable influencer Bianca Valle.
“All the clothes mankind need, already exist. Thrifting is more far more sustainable than buying brand new garments, and there’s plenty of opportunities for it,”
Here’s how to hack thrifting:
1. Always go to a thrift store prepared. Slow fashion advocate Kara Fabella suggests having an idea of what you need before you start sifting through the racks.
“Come with a list of items that would fill the gaps in your wardrobe and are suited to your lifestyle.”
If you go into a thrift store without a focus you can easily get lost in the masses of clothing.
2. Be ready to try on. Most thrift stores won’t accept returns so make sure you really love the item before paying.
3. Bring cash, says sustainable vlogger Kathleen Elie, and if you’d rather not pay at all, sell items you want to get rid of before buying. Stores like Beacon’s Closet and Buffalo Exchange can donate anything they don’t take to charity, and you’ll save a pretty penny on your next shopping trip. Don’t forget that the internet has enabled access to some of the best thrifting in the land, like second-hand platforms Depop, Vinted, and Grailed.
4. Writer and stylist Aja Barber recommends thinking twice before purchasing.
“Ask yourself if you’ll wear the item at least 40 times. If you think you won’t, just put it back. Asking myself that simple question has made me rethink a lot of purchases.”
Rent your closet
Renting means you can wear a big-ticket outfit for a fraction of the cost — and let’s be honest, when it comes to a big night out, some of us prefer to wear it once, especially when fashion has such a short shelf-life. And while the sharing economy is thriving with car-sharing, co-working, and co-living, it’s not such a stretch to share clothes.
Rent the Runway was the first to launch a rentable closet, and now, companies like Urban Outfitters and American Eagle have both launched their own affordable subscription services. Urban’s new service, Nuuly, gives customers the chance to borrow six items of clothing per month for $88.
Peer-to-peer rental platforms add another level of sustainability, says fashion blogger Livia van Heerde, since they don’t purchase any new inventory.
Tulerie, for example, is a peer-to-peer, invitation-only company allowing users to rent clothes, shoes, and accessories to one another, with the app acting as a medium for borrowers and lenders.
Embrace eco-friendly brands
When you buy something new, look into how it was produced before handing over your credit card. More than 81 percent of millennials expect companies to make a public commitment to good corporate citizenship, and 75 percent of millennials and Gen Zers are willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings, according to Nielsen. The mere popularity of the word ‘sustainable’ started a trend of ‘greenwashing’ — where brands report an item to be sustainably sourced when in reality it’s not. So it’s up to you to do your own investigation.
A part of this is checking the fabric tag, says Anita Vandyke, bestselling author of A Zero Waste Life.
Polyester is the most popular fabric used for fashion, but it’s synthetic, which means it sheds microplastics every time it’s washed, warns Vandyke.
“Microplastics end up in our waterways and get eaten by sea life. This then bioaccumulates up the food chain into us. Just avoid buying fibers or use a guppy bag which filters out these microplastics,”
You don’t need to be a fabric technologist to figure out which type of materials are kinder to the environment. Here’s a quick checklist:
If you’re not entirely sure about a brand’s commitment to sustainability, email their customer service team. You can also check out the Fashion Transparency Index, which assesses the transparency of each brand and gives them a score based on their performance. The index also shows how much information a brand shares about their suppliers’ human rights and environmental plans.
Kara Fabella recommends The Good Trade as a credible and educational resource to assess which brands have a sustainable goal.
Hold a clothes swap
According to a recent study, Americans only wear a mere 22 percent of their wardrobes. If you look in your closet, you’ll most likely see more than a few items you haven’t worn for at least a year. Why not add it to a section designated for a clothing swap?
Here are some tips on hosting your own:
1. Invite your most fashionable friends
2. Give your friends the lowdown, ie. bring clothes/shoes/accessories in good condition
3. On the day of the event, get everyone to lay out their clothes so everyone can see what’s on offer
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You’ll feel better for the extra space in your closet; sustainability ambassador Venetia Falconer says there’s value in having less, since “our minds are calmer and our headspace clearer”.
Clothing swaps are more effective than dumping your giveaways at goodwill. Most of them are overrun with clothing nobody wants – and eventually end up in a landfill says Adam Minter, author of Secondhand.
“Your average thrift store in the United States only sells about one-third of the stuff that ends up on its shelves. It’s always better to give or sell things directly to individuals, families, and groups who need them.”
Keep the planet in mind
It can be hard to resist fast fashion brands with attractive marketing and prices, but ultimately, cheap clothes produced by the fast fashion industry won’t last the distance, even if you do try and keep them.
No matter what stage of the conscious consumerism journey you’re on, don’t feel pressured to change your life overnight. But keeping the planet in mind when you’re buying clothes can help you make smart environmental choices — and might also help you save a dollar or two.