We know we need to make more sustainable choices when it comes to the food we eat, our transportation choices, and use of plastics and other disposable items. But what about our fashion? For even the most eco-friendly households, fashion is often the last on the list when it comes to making lifestyle changes. It’s an unfortunately little-known fact that the fashion industry is the number two most harmful industry to the planet, second to oil.
The rise of fast fashion has forced the industry to work faster and at lower costs, resulting in dangerous uses of water, chemicals, plastics, and overall production. According to The True Cost, a documentary highlighting the reality of the fashion industry, the average American throws away 82 pounds annually of garments, accessories and shoes. Worldwide, we consume 80 billion pieces of clothing a month; which is a 400% increase from two decades ago. The average garment is only worn seven times before it gets thrown out.
It hasn’t always been this way. Ready-to-wear (or off-the-rack) clothing was first introduced in the US at the beginning of the 20th Century, but up until the 1950s and ‘60s many women made their own clothing. Women wore their clothing for years and years, then adjusted, hemmed, and repaired to be worn by someone else, or repurposed into rags or bags.
Mass-produced clothing became popular in the ‘60s and has since escalated to what we now call “fast fashion.” All those stores in the mall that are filled with hundreds of cheap tops, pants, and dresses would all be considered “fast fashion.” Fast fashion bases its business model on high volume collections and speedy production. It churns out new items that fit the latest trends, and encourages shoppers to buy something new because it’s cheap enough that they can afford to wear it only while it’s trendy – which might be for just a few weeks.
Unfortunately, almost every aspect of the production and shipping of fast fashion is harmful to the planet.
To start, it wastes a lot of water. The average T-shirt uses 400 to 600 gallons of water to produce, and a pair of jeans uses 1,800 gallons of water. Think about it this way – if you threw out just 10 t-shirts over the course of the year, that amounts to over 4,000 gallons of water.
Then, all the water used by the factories goes back into the oceans contaminated by the over 1,600 chemicals used by the fashion industry in dyeing processes. Plus, if it was used in the manufacture of synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon, it’s also releasing microfibers of plastic into the ocean. These microfibers are too small to be captured in waste water treatment plants filtration systems and they end up entering our natural water systems and as a result contaminating our food chain. One study found that 34% of microplastics found in oceans come from the textile and clothing industry and majority of them were made of polyester, polyethylene, acrylic, and elastane. Unfortunately, you continue to spread these dangerous microfibers when you wash your synthetic fabric clothing at home.
Luckily, there are ways to make a difference and help reduce the impact fast fashion has on the planet. First, you can shop from thrift stores or buy higher-quality items that last longer than a few washes. Reducing your waste and helping to save more clothes from the landfill is a great start.
But to really make an impact, it’s important to invest in sustainable fashion that challenges how clothes are made and prioritizes practices that are good for the environment. There are hundreds of brands that offer fashionable, high-quality clothes that don’t harm the planet. These companies use eco-friendly materials, reduce their usage of chemicals, build their clothing to last, and are committed to ethically-sound business practices.
When it comes to sustainable clothing, this is what you want to look for:
Cotton is a crop that requires a lot of water to produce, and non-organic cotton also uses a lot of pesticides. Look for clothing made of eco-friendly materials like organic cotton or bamboo linen, or other natural fabrics like hemp, linen, silk and wool. Recycled materials or clothing made of “dead stock” fabric are also a great choice.
Natural dyes reduce the amount of toxins and chemicals released ino the oceans. Look for materials make of natural dyes, such as indigo, turmeric, mushrooms, and onion shells. These natural dyes are also great if you have sensitive skin, or to use for children’s clothes.
When you look closely at a fast fashion garment, you can usually tell it was made cheaply. Stitches are uneven, and zippers aren’t attached with the right reenforcements. It’s no wonder that low-quality clothing doesn’t last very long. Instead, invest in items that are made to last, so you can use the same jacket or pants for years, instead of weeks. Some brands even offer lifetime-guarantees on their items, so you can ensure it’s durable. Craftsmanship still matters.
To be truly sustainable, clothes must be made in ways that are safe and healthy for workers.
One way to find worker-friendly clothing is to look for American-made brands. The US has much stricter health and safety standards for factories than most developing countries. When you buy US-made clothing, you know that the people who made it work limited hours, have a reasonably safe workplace, and earn at least minimum wage.
Or, look clothing that is made of fair trade materials, which shows the creators are committed to protect farmers and workers basic rights in regards to unions, wages, conditions and more.
Eco-Friendly Clothing Companies
So you’re ready to kick fast fashion to the curb and invest in clothing that’s good for the planet. Where do you even begin? These are some popular brands that are committed to producing clothing that is eco-friendly and ethical.
Over 80% of Everlane’s line is made from biodegradable materials like leather, wool, cashmere, cotton and silk. They also have a line of fleece and other jackets made of recycled water bottles. Plus, they are transparent about the factories they work with, and ensure the workers are treated fairly.
All of their cotton is certified organic by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and they’re bluesign® certified for 56% of their fabrics. Most of their polyester and nylon items are made with recycled fabrics. They also offer a repair and reuse program, adn encourage customers to only buy new when they absolutely must.
This UK-based company deals uses organic cotton for over 80% of its clothes, and only uses non-toxic dyes. All its products meet Fair Trade standards, and was the first clothing company to receive an official Fair Trade logo from the World Fair Trade Organization.
Nau has been a pioneer of sustainable clothing. They use recycled down, and incorporate natural fibers like hemp, merino wool and certified organic cotton into their performance fabrics. Plus, they back 2%* of every sale to their Partners for Change, who are creating lasting positive change.
Why is Sustainable Fashion Important?
When you consider the impact fast fashion can have on the environment and the world as a whole, it’s easy to see why sustainable fashion is important. From the usage of essential resources and non-toxic materials, to ensuring a longer lifespan of the products, sustainable fashion can help shift the relationship between consumerism and the health of our planet.
How will you work to change the way you buy clothing?