Clothing options can seem endless; before you know it, you’ve spent hours lost in the racks or scanning websites looking for the perfect item. You can thank “fast fashion” for the overwhelm. In 2017 alone, Americans spent $379.7 billion on clothing and footwear. Add to that, the clothes we are buying either wear out quickly, or we buy into the marketing ploy of trendiness. Every American, on average, purchases 68 garments a year and wears each piece 7 times before throwing it away. So what do we do with our old, worn, or no longer stylish clothes?
Obviously, we can opt-out, and make different purchasing choices. See the first blog post in this series, 9 Ways to Support Sustainable Clothing Consumption, for some great ideas about how to cull your wardrobe and invest in a quality “capsule wardrobe,” plus other tips. Changing our entire relationship with fashion takes time though, and it is difficult to limit your clothing consumption when everywhere you look is telling you to buy more.
Fast fashion (trendy clothing at low cost) is a relatively new concept. Less than a century ago buying clothing tended to be expensive and time-consuming, since most garments were either made at home or in small workshops. During World War II the mass production of uniforms normalized readymade clothing for middle-class consumers who began buying inexpensive, trendy items in droves during the economic boom of the 1960s. This has led to pros and cons, the positive being that clothing became more affordable, but the industrialization of the fashion industry has also led to many social and environmental problems.
The people who work in and around these factories also sacrifice their home’s natural environment. The United Nations estimates that 20 percent of global wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions can be linked to the fashion industry. This is more carbon emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping, and the industrial dye used in textiles is the second-largest polluter of water globally. This has turned bodies of water in countries such as Bangladesh inky black and toxic because of the polluting chemicals and dyes. This endangers the health of the people and wildlife that rely on natural water sources.
Textile recycling is difficult but ideally would involve recycling fabrics in a way that maintains their quality at an economically viable price. However, unlike plastic bottles or aluminum cans which are made from one solid material which can be melted down. Textiles are constructed from tiny fibers made from different sorts of materials and deconstructing these fibers can be problematic. Particularly if they are a blend of natural and synthetic materials, such as a polyester/cotton shirt. These technicalities mean that textiles are rarely recycled into new clothing, but instead are shredded up and used as fill for products such as cushions and carpet pads.
This does not mean that upcycling clothing isn’t possible, and several clothing companies are now adding a percentage of recycled natural fiber (mostly cotton or wool) to their products to decrease their environmental impact. Clothing containing recycled synthetics, such as polyester, often use recycled plastic bottles as their raw material, as the technology to break down synthetic textiles isn’t available at an industrial scale yet. If you are buying new clothes, consider investing in pieces that use recycled materials. Doing so can help decrease the stress on producing new materials, increase demand for recycled textiles, and encourage other companies to use recycled fabrics as well, which can push innovation.
It would be entirely untrue to suggest that recycling is the solution to textile waste, it is far from a perfect system and the dream of a closed-loop clothing manufacturing process is far away. However, demand for more sustainable clothing has also made old textiles more valuable, potentially seen as a resource instead of trash. We as consumers drive this trend, and our purchasing habits matter. The best that we can do as consumers is to purchase and dispose of our textiles responsibly and advocate for others to do the same, see the first blog post in our textile series,9 Ways to Support Sustainable Clothing Consumption, for tips and ideas on how to do so.
Amanda Clement is serving as an ECO AmeriCorps member at the CVSWMD this year. Amanda is a life-long Vermonter who grew up in Fair Haven, VT. She has a BA in Environmental Studies and Political Science from Castleton University, and enjoys learning new things about the planet every day. When the world allows it, she enjoys travelling and has been to seven countries including New Zealand, Iceland, and Japan. Currently Amanda lives in Barre, and when she’s not serving, spends time hiking the local trails and trying to kill her many plants.