Sustainable Fashion—what is it really?

How do you get rid of your old clothes? Do you toss them out? Or do you try to do our planet and its people some good by taking the time to bring it to a Goodwill or a Salvation Army donation center? 

Well, it turns out that neither option is good for our planet at all. 85% of donated clothes end up in landfills where non-biodegradable fabrics release chemicals and dyes into our water and soil. You may have also heard about companies that recycle old clothing into new, more on-trend pieces. However, the truth is that only 1% of all clothing is recycled into new clothing. Fabrics often contain a mix of materials that are difficult to separate and recycle, and the quality of fabric is diminished after recycling.

So where do the majority of unwanted, donated clothes go? They’re sold to third world countries in bulk to be sold at markets there, not donated or given to the needy. That’s right, big companies can profit off of people’s donations. 

Even in countries that are large consumers of second-hand clothes, such as Kenya, a majority of clothes still end up in landfills because they are too low quality to be sold. Most people are believers of the clothing deficit myth. But in reality, there are far more unwanted clothes than people in need of clothes. In fact, some East African countries have banned second-hand clothes from other nations because it was destroying their own textile industry. The bottom line is recycling does not make fast fashion sustainable.

So what exactly is “sustainable fashion”? Traditionally, sustainable fashion refers to eco-friendly fashion, which includes careful use of natural resources, selecting renewable energy sources, and maximizing reuse and recycling of products. However, the modern definition is also beginning to include socio-economic issues, such as working conditions, exploitation, fair trade, and animal welfare.

Globalization often means that materials and labor can be outsourced to places where costs are very low. Workers in these areas often work long hours in highly unsafe conditions in order to produce such clothes. These savings by the clothing company are passed on to the consumer, so high street fashion is cheap and thus often considered disposable, which further promotes the issue of clothes that end up in landfills. 

Knowing this, why doesn’t everyone shop sustainably? Often, companies that use sustainable materials, ethical working conditions, and transparency in their manufacturing methods charge more for their clothing, which makes sense because they pay their workers more and use materials and methods that often cost more. 

However, there is often a neglected way to shop green— secondhand shopping. Not only is secondhand shopping most of the times cheaper than buying new commodities, but you also have the opportunity to find one-of-a-kind pieces. And since trends always come seem to come back around every few years and decades, secondhand pieces can be a lot more on trend than you may think.

But what if you want to buy new? There are certain fabrics which are better for the environment because their production minimizes the use of chemicals and natural resources. These include organic cotton, hemp, recycled polyester, linen, and silk. Don’t forget to check for pieces which were made using minimal or no dyes. If there are nasty chemical dyes used to create your organic cotton t-shirt then it defeats the purpose. As always, the best you can do is check the labels and be a more conscious consumer, taking the time to research the clothing company or maker, which in turn can make you feel better about the clothes you choose to buy and wear. 

Although there are many large and fast fashion companies that pollute the earth, there are still numerous companies who are trying to make a change in the status quo. For instance, Patagonia has been repurposing plastic bottles and clothing scraps into polyester for its fleeces and jackets. Meanwhile, social media cult-worthy brands like Everlane and Reformation have been transparent about their business models and manufacturing methods. 

The average American buys 70 new clothing items per year which will almost certainly  end up in landfills someday and take thousands of years to break down. As fashion-conscious consumers, we should try to switch our focus from quantity to quality — invest in better quality clothes that will last longer and withstand trends, especially clothes from sustainable brands. If your clothes rip, try to fix it yourself or bring it to an alterations store to see what can be done, don’t just toss them out. Pro tip: old t-shirts make for great and cheap cleaning rags. If you’re tired of your clothes, try to give it to someone who will actually use and love it. This can be done in clothing swaps with your friends or by selling your items to consignment stores.

The bottom line: consumerism is not healthy for Mother Earth, but we should do our best to balance our love of fashion with respect for the planet and its people.

– Tiffany Wong