Day-to-day, we give a lot of thought to our clothes as a way to express ourselves to the world. Our sense of style, professionalism, fandom, and even economic class all go into carefully constructing our outfits before we leave the house. But what we don’t often give thought to is the environmental impact of each of those garments. The reality is that the clothing industry has some surprisingly large negative effects on the planet: from the amount of water needed to grow cotton, to the CO2 emitted when manufacturing polyester. But there are some perfectly reasonable ways to first identify and then minimize these impacts within your own closet. And you can still walk out looking like [literally Googles “fashionable teenagers”] Maddie Ziegler of Sia music video fame! Hello, fellow kids!
How the clothing industry hurts the environment
The world’s population has been growing at an exponential rate since the 1950’s. This is in large part due to objectively good things such as fewer World Wars being fought and advances in medical care. Along with that population growth, more and more countries are industrializing and lifting their citizens out of poverty. However with this growth in both numbers and quality-of-life comes some burdens on our natural resources. For one, all of these people are going to want [checks notes] swag.
And it’s not just the increase in population that is causing an increase in the clothing industry’s output; we’re also wanting more clothes to keep up with the constant change in fashion trends. According to Mckinsey & Company:
“..clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, and the number of garments purchased each year by the average consumer increased by 60 percent.”https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability/our-insights/style-thats-sustainable-a-new-fast-fashion-formula
All of that equals more clothes and more materials needed to make those clothes. The most common non-synthetic textile used in clothes is cotton, a notoriously thirsty plant. According to the World Wildlife Fund it can take 2,700 liters of water to grow the cotton needed for one T-shirt. Water scarcity is a growing concern and the need to use more water to grow more cotton to make more clothes isn’t going to help that problem get any better.
Then there is the synthetic textile industry. It is estimated that 65% of all fibres used in the fashion industry are made from a synthetic material – mainly polyester, but also nylon, acrylic, polypropylene and elastane. And all of those synthetics are manufactured using fossil fuels.
Regardless of what material your clothes are made out of, it’s quite likely that they weren’t made in the U.S. They very likely came from Asian countries such as China and Sri Lanka, or Mexico, where labor is cheaper but still skilled enough to make good quality clothing. So on top of the environmental cost of manufacturing, there is also the environmental cost of shipping your [Googles latest fashion trends] adult onesies across the Pacific Ocean.
All told, the fashion industry is currently responsible for approximately 10% of greenhouse emissions and 20% of the world’s wastewater. And with demand increasing each year, the problem is only going to get worse unless we find ways to curtail the production of new clothing.
First: limit the amount of new clothes you’re buying
Our first step to cutting down on our impact is to limit the new clothes we are buying. Obviously, that firstly means don’t buy any clothes that you don’t need. An easy solution for some, but for those who express themselves through fashion this could be tricky. This is where creativity comes into play. There are plenty of ways to repair and/or modify existing clothes to make them last longer and to be a little more exciting.
My wife has these tailoring tools that I’m not even going to pretend to know the name of or understand how they work. But It’s basically a flat, square board and what looks like a pizza cutter for shirts.
Regardless of what it’s called, once she’s done she will have transformed a normal T-shirt into something like this:
And the scraps can be used to make things like headbands. The Internet is a wealth of creative ideas for turning old or outdated clothing into something fun and fashionable. Here are 350 ideas for modifying clothes that I found on one quick Pintrest search. If you, like me, aren’t tailor-ly inclined, you probably have someone close to you that is that may do modifications for you or even show you how. Or you could support a small business and have a professional tailor use their pizza–cutter-for-shirts on your threads. No matter how you go about it, the endgame is to extend the life of your clothes and still look [checks notes] swaggarific… Who wrote these notes?
Second: buy stuff secondhand
Okay, so say you really need a new outfit for that hoppin’ shindig a week from next Tuesday…. Hello again, fellow kids! Nothing in your closet, even the clothes you’ve modified, are going to do. Your former best friend is going to be at this party and you’ve got to outshine them but you know they just took a trip to Spain and came back looking PHENOMENAL and no this isn’t actually based on true events, Dennis! How dare you try to one-up me!
Lucky for you (and unluckily for Dennis) this Saturday is half-off-day at Goodwill. Most Goodwill locations will have a half-off-day sale routinely where you can get secondhand clothes ridiculously cheap. But honestly, any day is fine to hit up a Goodwill and get some killer deals. You’ll be getting clothes at way cheaper than when buying new and you’ll be surprised at how good the quality and fashionability some of the finds can be.
Goodwill not quite your style? No problem. Consignment stores can offer a higher standard of secondhand merch at a slightly higher price. Or there’s bound to be plenty of other thrift stores in your area. Shop around and find the store that best matches the style you’re going for.
Thrift shopping isn’t the only way to get your clothes secondhand. Don’t be afraid to hit up those garage- and yard sales when they pop up in your neighborhood. And make sure your friends and family know that you’d love to take a look of any clothes they are getting rid of before they donate them or throw them away. Once you’ve explored all of your options, you’ll be amazed at how much you can pad your closet with secondhand options, and how freaking jealous Dennis is going to be at how good you look!
Last resort: when you absolutely have to buy something new
So occasionally we all do need to have new new clothes, especially when it comes to things that I wouldn’t recommend getting from a thrift store, such as socks and underwear. Or maybe there’s a specific look you’re looking for and coming up empty in every thrift store within a 40 mile radius.
There are two things you should keep in mind when buying brand new clothes: where they were made, and what they were made from. The material clothes were made from are likely going to compose the greatest portion of the environmental impact as we’ve covered above. But you should also be aware of how far an article of clothing had to travel to get to you, and the emissions associated with that travel. If you can get something that was made locally, that’s always a good start.
As far as materials, there are a few options. Probably the best is using recycled plastic. There are plenty of fashion companies now making clothes using recycled plastic to give that plastic a second life. Now, there is a drawback to this: washing machines. When you wash an article of clothing made from plastic, the micro-plastics will run off and into the water supply and eventually the ocean, adding to the mounting problem of plastic in our waters. However, the same is true when you wash clothes made from polyester, so you’re not really adding to the problem that already exists. You’re just… not fixing it. So balance the give-and-take here before you decide if recycled plastic clothes are right for you.
A big option for making textiles is hemp. Now, hemp has had a negative connotation and even has been banned for really stupid reasons, and is still banned in the U.S. for stupid reasons, but we’re quickly and sort of quietly putting that all behind us. Hemp is way friendlier to the environment than cotton, or even wool, since it is easy to grow and is a versatile plant. Patagonia is a company that makes and sells hemp clothing. They also donate some of their profits to environmental causes and are aware of their own impacts such as the the energy used for lighting their business offices, and seek to counterbalance those impacts in other ways. They are not the only clothing company using hemp to make clothes, and it’s likely more will join the market as we move forward.
There are some other plant-based materials that are being used to make clothes such as “banana sylk” and “pineapple leather”. Finding these clothes won’t be too difficult as the companies that make them are going to want to advertise that they used these materials, partially for the green initiative value, but also because it’s a unique way to stand out in the market.
At the bottom of the list we have cotton and wool. While these are still better than synthetics, they carry a rather heavy environmental cost as well. We know cotton leads to water waste, as well as pesticides that could be harmful to insect populations. Wool, on the other hand, comes from sheep. Sheep eat food and then, well… methane. I’ve talked before about how livestock is harmful to the environment, and sheep are no exception. So buy clothes made with wool or cotton with caution.
But above else try to avoid polyester and other synthetic materials entirely.
Bonus: make your own clothes!
If you’re of the rare talent (Hi Jess!) where you can go to a Michael’s, grab some sheets of material or some yarn, and turn that into a hat, I applaud you. And I definitely recommend you put this talent to use when you can. You’re helping lessen environmental impact in a few ways. You’re cutting down on emissions due to transportation of goods, and you’re in complete control of what your clothes are made out of.
Now, yarn can be made out of lots of materials, but is most commonly made of cotton, which we know has a pretty aggressive environmental impact. But there are other options including silk, tencel, and our good buddy hemp! Here are some companies that sell environmentally friendly yarns.
As far as swaths of fabric go, it’s hard to beat silk as far as friendly to the environment. The biggest drawback there is going to be the price. Outside of that, any plant-based material is going to be the best bet. As long as you’re avoiding synthetics, you’re in a good place overall.
So, in summary….
- Keep the clothes you have as long as possible
- Buy clothes secondhand
- Pay attention to what your clothes are made of an avoid synthetics
- Pay attention to where your clothes come from and buy locally
- Make your own clothes if you can
- Show Dennis what’s what!