Small — and big — changes you can make today.
The 2015 documentary The True Cost has largely accomplished what it set out to do: wake up Western consumers to the horrifying impact of the fashion industry on exploited workers and the environment. And more consumers watch it every day.
But there’s one criticism of the movie that rings true: After all the visual carnage, viewers are left with no next steps. If we agree that mass-produced fashion is awful, that garment workers shouldn’t die making our clothes, that rivers should not be poisoned just for a cheap T-shirt, and that 1.715 billion tons of CO2 released a year (or about 5.3 percent of the 32.1 billion tons of global carbon emissions) is way too much, what can we do to change it?
Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent in the fashion industry to Michael Pollan’s sharp, easy-to-remember instructions: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That’s because the fashion supply chain is so confoundingly opaque and complex, that even if you buy a purse that was handcrafted by a Peruvian artisan, the leather tannery might still have poisoned the local river, and the cows that provided the leather might have been abused. It’s exceedingly difficult as a shopper to say with any certainty that you are making the “right” choice when you buy something from a green collection or one that is purported to be fairly made.
Still, once you know all the horrible, awful, no-good things the fashion industry does to the planet (pouring carbon into the atmosphere, dumping increasingly large mounds of waste into landfills) and to (mostly female, mostly brown) workers, it feels wrong to throw up your hands and say, “Welp, everything sucks, and I’m going to do some retail therapy at Forever 21.”
As complicated as it can be, there are still things that you can do to lessen your impact on the planet and, of course, not feel like a total hypocritical dirtbag. Here they are.
According to this analysis, a full 22 percent of a garment’s climate impact comes from the process of a consumer driving to the store to try something on, driving to another store to try that thing on, then bringing their final selection home in their car. If you live in a city where you can walk or take public transportation to a store, then do that!
And don’t feel guilty about ordering items online. First, because a UPS, FedEx, or USPS truck is like public transportation for your clothing: efficient at moving a lot of stuff with minimal fuel. Second, your clothing probably comes through a distribution center, skipping the process of going to the store at all and going straight to you. And according to multiple studies, online shopping has a much lower environmental impact than brick-and-mortar shopping. It may feel wrong to get an item of clothing in a plastic bag in a box, but rest assured that if it goes to a store instead, it’s also showing up in a plastic bag — the bag’s just gone by the time you see it on the rack.
Another benefit of shopping online is the opportunity to be more thoughtful and discerning with what you buy. In a physical store, it might not be possible (or even occur to you) to research every brand you encounter then and there on your phone. But when you’re home and on the internet, you probably have more time, along with more access to resources, to do some deeper digging.
There are some excellent resources documenting the bad, good, and gray areas of shopping. The Good on You app lets you search for a brand’s environmental impact, labor policies, and even animal-friendly considerations, plus makes recommendations in different categories (dresses, hosiery, outerwear) of sustainable and ethical brands. Project JUST does about the same thing — carefully researches the impact and policies of various brands, plus puts out roundups of the most ethical and sustainable brands in categories like athletic wear and denim — but on a website.
There’s also the DoneGood browser extension, which pops up in the corner of your browser when you’re shopping and tells you whether or not the brand site you’re on is sustainable and/or ethical, and links you to alternatives if it’s not. If you’re visiting a conventional webstore, it also highlights which sustainable brands you should check out while you’re there.
Also, look through the About section or — even better — the sustainability or social responsibility section of a brand’s site to see if they say anything about how items are made. (If they don’t, it’s a bad sign. Skip ahead to step #7 and reach out to your favorite brands.) Google the brand’s name and look for recent news. And finally, check and see if it’s in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a trade group that requires its members to quantify their supply chains’ impact on the environment and is funding some really cool initiatives along the way. (It’s not the same as a third-party certification like the ones mentioned below, but does indicate that a company is serious about making changes.)
Of course, all of this supposed efficiency will be negated if you’re the kind of person who buys a dozen things from a dozen different stores and returns 11 of them. All of this advice really only works if you’re the type of person to use the internet to buy smarter, rather than impulsively.
Look for certifications.
There are a few gold-standard certifications that indicate that an objective deep dive into a product’s supply chain has been conducted. OEKO-TEX is an independent test and certification system for textiles, and it offers multiple levels of certification, the most basic of which indicates that the product is free of hazardous chemicals. The next level up concerns whether the textiles are made in socially and environmentally responsible conditions. GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) is a certification for textiles that contain “a minimum of 70% organic fibers.”
Forest Stewardship Council certification indicates that any trees involved (yup, some fabrics are made from trees — more on that later) were sustainably harvested. Fair Trade certification indicates that the factory workers are paid at least the minimum wage, and that the working conditions are safe.
Avoid these fabrics.
I’ll keep it short: Polyester is made from oil (it’s basically a plastic thread) and all synthetic fibers (excepting a few alternatives mentioned in this piece) shed microfibers into waterways. (You’ve probably ingested these fibers in your last seafood meal.) Acrylic is even more toxic to produce than polyester. Viscose rayon (this includes bamboo rayon) turns plants into a textile through a toxic, polluting process and is contributing to the disappearance of rainforests.
Conventional cotton relies on pesticides and herbicides which are improperly, excessively, and dangerously applied in underdeveloped countries, and might have led to the worldwide decline of insect populations. The typical leather tanning process is so toxic that 90 percent of the people who live in the leather-tanning neighborhoods in Bangladesh die before they reach 50.
Look for these fabrics.
It’s pretty hard to avoid polyester altogether, especially if you enjoy athleisure clothing, swimsuits, or anything with stretch. So look for polyester that’s made of recycled water bottles, fishing nets, carpet, and other post-consumer products. These products financially support the recycling industry and help to keep plastic waste from the landfill and ocean.
Tencel is a viscose rayon alternative by the Austrian company Lenzing made from sustainably-sourced eucalyptus trees in a closed-loop process that ensures no toxins are released into waterways. Silk, hemp, linen, and wool are all natural, low-impact textiles. (Just watch out if you’re vegan — the typical silk thread process kills the silkworms, and wool-producing sheep aren’t always treated the best, especially in Australia.)
Vegetable tanned leather doesn’t use heavy metals in the process (but as an FYI, that means it’ll take longer to soften up and break in). More leather alternatives are coming, but right now the best new alternative available for purchase is Piñatex, which is made from pineapple leaf waste.
Seek out brands that pay their artisans fairly.
Understanding the environmental impact of your garment’s entire supply chain is nearly impossible — all the variables (production, dying, finishing, shipping), debates (are GMOs bad or not?), and scientific reports can lead to a mental burnout on the whole idea of conscious consumption. But picturing the positive social impact of a fairly-made garment is much more inspiring — and easy.
Many fair trade brands, like Lemlem, Voz, Siizu, Brother Vellies, Par en Par, Ace & Jig, Uniform, Manos Zapotecas, and more, have photos and information on their websites of the women and men who hand-make the garments or the factories they use. Other brands, like Reformation and Saint James, give factory tours. Still others, like Naja and Nisolo, give you a report on working conditions, pay, and benefits, plus how getting paid to use their community’s traditional skills positively impacts a worker’s community.
We could argue all day about relative merits of recycled polyester versus organic cotton, or how much you’re benefiting the environment by paying more for organic cotton, but it’s hard to argue with a mother getting paid a fair wage in safe working conditions. It feels a lot more rewarding, too, which can help keep you motivated.
There is a glut of secondhand fashion in the West. Secondhand shops can only resell about 20 to 45 percent (75 percent on a really good day) of unwanted threads — the rest is downcycled into insulation, carpeting, or rags, or (if it’s still wearable) shipped to developing countries to be resold for a few dollars.
This overabundance of orphaned clothing makes secondhand the perfect solution for fashion addicts who feel guilty about their waste and wallet. It prevents production of toxic or exploitative new clothing, and it keeps textiles out of the landfill or from being shipped overseas. Secondhand stores are almost all charitable, locally, or family-owned, so you direct your dollars away from multinational corporations and to small business. And best of all, it’s a way to get fresh threads (sometimes with the tags still on!) for fast-fashion prices.
If you have something really specific in mind and find the chaos of the thrift store intimidating, you could shop online at affordable sites like ThredUp and Tradesy, or Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal for upscale and designer items.
Show your favorite brands you care.
Not ready to pass up on that so cute ruffled viscose top from J.Crew? Curious where it’s made? Email or tweet at the brand! “Consumers think their voices don’t matter, but they do,” says Jessica Radparvar, the founder of the social impact communications consultancy Reconsidered. “Tweets, emails, questions asked in retail stores — if frequent enough, these communications get laddered up. I know many Corporate Social Responsibility teams that then use these anecdotes as ‘proof points’ to show that consumers are demanding transparency,” she says. “That can in turn help them get buy-in, approvals, and funding for projects they want to push forward.”
Again, that only works if the brand has a team like that instated. If they don’t answer, and you can’t find any information anywhere about attempts to go sustainable or ethical, you might want to cross them off your shopping list.
Capsule your wardrobe.
The best thing you can do is just buy less stuff. And you can buy less stuff if you buy things that are timeless and high-quality enough to last a long time.
How you launder it, how you dispose of it, even where it’s shipped from — all these factors are a sliver of the total impact of a typical garment. But most of the impact comes from the very fact that it was produced. The longer you use a garment, and the more times you wear it, the lower the impact. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go out and buy exclusively locally-made, organic fashion that costs well in the hundreds of dollars. Whatever it is, if you think you will wear it 30 times or more, that’s definitely a sustainable choice.
One popular notion in the conscious fashion world is the idea of a capsule wardrobe: an extremely edited collection of versatile pieces that can be endlessly mixed and matched, so that you get maximum use out of minimal possessions. If you want some guidance in this area, try the app Cladwell, which helps you discern your style, whittle down your wardrobe, donate or sell what you don’t love anymore, and come up with interesting new combinations.
The goal is to stop getting tossed about on the expensive seas of new trends, and confidently stand in your own personal style, with a closet full of (and only of) pieces that make you feel like your best self. If you love your closet and can easily put together a great outfit, you’ll never say, “I have nothing to wear!” and run out to buy something last minute to make you feel beautiful again, nor will you be tempted by whatever fun cheap thing is in the window at Forever 21, because you already have everything you need, thank you!
If you’re keen to try out a new trend, have a special event coming up, or you’re just bored with your closet but on a budget, renting lets you feel fabulous while using fewer resources. You can try Style Lend, which lets you rent luxury fashion from real women’s closets; Le Tote, which sends you a box of everyday items to try; or the OG of renting, Rent the Runway.
Donate to NGOs and watchdogs.
Don’t stop at conscious consumption! Direct your dollars to organizations that are trying to create systemic change. You can help send a Bangladeshi garment worker to college, fund Canopy’s efforts to save the rainforest from destruction by rayon-viscose pulping mills, donate to Greenpeace or Natural Resources Defense Council, which respectively combat toxic garment factory effluent and increase the energy efficiency of factories, or become a supporter of Project JUST and their deep research on the sustainability and ethicality of large brands.
The main thing to know is that you can take or leave any of these tips and build a sustainable wardrobe that feels right for your lifestyle, your budget, and your personal style. There’s no one way to be a conscious consumer, just like there’s no one way to dress yourself. And as the sustainable fashion movement grows and evolves, dressing yourself with thought will hopefully only get easier with time.
*This story first appeared on Racked
By Lucy Seigle
Every year millions of garments are discarded as consumers ditch fast-fashion styles for a new wardrobe. At last the industry is acting – but more has to be done
Facebook users will be familiar with the On This Day feature. From time to time it greets you with a blast from your relatively recent past. Some find it unnerving, especially if it’s a picture with an ex, for example. But my eye is always drawn to the clothes. Whatever happened to that handbag? Do you still wear those jeans?
If it’s an image from more than three years ago, then the answer is probably “no”. According to a recent report from Wrap (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), the average piece of clothing in the UK lasts for 3.3 years before being discarded. Other research puts the lifespan of UK garments at 2.2 years. For a younger demographic, you can probably halve that. A UK-based fashion company tells its buyers to remember that a dress will stay in the owner’s wardrobe for only five weeks.
The way we get dressed now has virtually nothing in common with the behaviour of previous generations, for whom one garment could be worn for decades. Wrap estimates that we purchased 1.13m tonnes of new clothing last year in the UK. While an estimated £30bn-worth hangs about gathering dust – Tinie Tempah’s refrain “I have so many clothes, I keep some at my aunt’s house” was spot on – an unpalatable quantity goes in the bin. A survey commissioned by Sainsbury’s last spring found that 235m items ended up on landfill sites as people readied their wardrobes for summer. Surely we can do better than this?
Vivienne Westwood – never one to miss an opportunity to call her legion of fans to action – thinks we can. “It’s about quality, not quantity – not landfill,” she said recently at one of her own shows. Hot on her heels, Vetements, very much the “it” brand of our times, made its own statement last week. The label filled the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York – one of the commercial hotspots of global fashion retail – not with its latest collection, but with waste garments en route to a recycling charity.
But it was Stella McCartney who really upped the ante, electing to shoot her latest collection on a Scottish landfill site. Models lay across the rusted husks of old cars and languished on top of household waste. From a sustainability perspective, Stella McCartney is the luxury Kering group’s top-performing brand. Much of this success is based on McCartney’s own personal resolve. It’s clear that the landfill backdrop is not just an interesting aesthetic to her.
Now there’s an obvious contradiction between selling fashion and instructing us to buy less, but what these designers are calling for is some sanity in an industry now rated as the fifth-most polluting on the planet.
The fashion industry has developed a pretty terrible reputation – not least for exploitation of human capital, outsourcing production to the world’s lowest-wage economies. Four years ago, 1,133 garment workers were killed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, while producing clothing for high-street brands and their subsidiaries. After that, many worried what was next.
For those in and around the industry, garment waste has long been rumoured to be the next big scandal. Globally, levels of production and consumption are forecast to increase as fashion waste becomes an environmental crisis to rival plastic pollution in oceans. This is a tale of over-production and supply, powered by the relentless “fast fashion” system of production that over the past three decades has revolutionised both the way we dress and the way clothing is produced – and not often for the better.
Much of the waste in the fashion industry is hidden along a chaotic supply chain and doesn’t make it into the environmental accounting that underpins a Wrap report. Perhaps the worst of it comes in the form of readymade garments, assembled and sewn but discarded because of an order mistake or an issue with the colour. According to industry insiders, this waste represents 3-5% of every factory’s inventory (and a large factory in Dhaka can produce 240m pieces a year).
There is no verified figure for the amount of clothing produced globally each year (predominantly in low-wage textile hotspots like Dhaka without waste management systems) but my own research puts it between 80bn and 100bn garments. That means a lot of hidden fashion waste.
Where it becomes highly visible is on the outskirts of big production areas, such as the garment districts of Dhaka. This is where the production waste leaves the factories and is absorbed by the air and earth in the local community. Waste from the cutting room (called jhut) often ends up in so-called go-downs. These makeshift sorting operations are the stuff of legend in Dhaka, with fires a regular occurrence. But what happens to all the rest?
“You don’t even want to know,” says Estonian designer and clothing waste researcher Reet Aus, who spends a lot of time following unwanted garments out of factory gates. “You see it by the side of the road being sold, or just dumped, but a lot is burned,” she says. “I know a brick factory near the garment district where the main fuel is garment waste. You can’t really see anything around there, the pollution is terrible. Remember that thanks to the chemicals and finishing agents, used textile waste is basically toxic waste.”
Meanwhile, the urge to buy grows stronger as clothes shopping takes on a quasi-addictive quality. And let’s be honest here, are the fast-fashion corporations with their extraordinary profits likely to do anything about consumption, the driver of waste and the driver of the industry’s impact? Their business model, after all, depends on it.
Increasingly these brands are signposting a way of allowing us to have our cake and eat it. They are buying into recycling schemes and investing in competitions to close the loop on textile fibres. The idea is that if they can collect waste garments and regenerate fibres to be used in new garments, the impact of fast fashion can be negated.
The trouble is, it’s hard to buy into. I have been critical of brands overclaiming in this area before, particularly when I looked at the numbers around H&M’s recycling week in 2016. In truth, there are quite a few technical barriers to closing the fashion loop – that is, regenerating fibre from an old, unloved outfit, spinning and making it into something else, all within a timeframe and quality that’s interesting to the consumer.
“Every fabric is different,” says Aus, “so one garment might contain a blend of different fabrics. On top of that, you have to strip out the zippers and buttons inherent in post-consumer fashion waste.” So while a consumer may believe that a loved jumper or sundress is going to be magically regenerated into a new item, in practice your old T-shirt is probably going into a well-worn recycling network.
She and her team have developed software to keep track of potential garment waste data during production, which she is trialling with a large manufacturer: Beximco in Bangladesh. By getting information about the volume and material of leftover textiles, she can design that material back into a product before it becomes waste. “I’d rather not produce waste in the first place,” she reasons. “Plus, this is a better system for large brands who find recycling and regeneration difficult. That is easier for smaller, more agile companies.” This means some of fashion’s big lessons about its waste may come from unlikely parts of the apparel world. For once, the smaller companies have a chance to steal.
Tom Kay, the founder of Cornish outdoor brand Finisterre, is addressing a waste problem highly relevant to his customer and doesn’t care that it might seem niche to the rest of us. “The average neoprene wetsuit only lasts two years,” he says. “We’ve redesigned with wider seam tape and better stitching but it still only lasts probably for three. It would be disastrous for these things to be dumped, but there’s nowhere for them to go. That’s why you see them piled up in people’s garages.”
Last week, he launched an intriguing job advert in partnership with Exeter University: a £26,000-a-year position, paid by Finisterre, to be filled by a materials scientist who shares his dream of making wetsuits from wetsuits. “We don’t know how it will go, but I’m excited,” he said.
■ Last year 1,130,000 tonnes of new clothing was purchased in the UK – an increase of 200,000 tonnes since 2012.
■ Fashion in the UK lasts an average of 3.3 years before a garment is discarded.
■ Extending the life of a garment by an extra nine months reduces its environmental impact by 20-30%.
■ Providing one tonne of clothing for direct re-use by giving it to a charity shop or selling it online can result in a net greenhouse gas saving of 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.
*This story first appeared on The Guardian