There's a certain level of jubilation that comes from buying something new. I'll be the first to admit it, but as of late, I can't stop thinking about the flip side of that shiny new purchase, which is its environmental impact. Yes, I know that's the most millennial statement ever. Still, it's valid. In 2015, the greenhouse gas emissions from textile production exceeded those from all international flights and maritime shipping combined. On top of that, every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is either burned or taken to a landfill. Fast fashion is a large culprit in this crisis. Still, it's not the only one. Even in recent years, fashion houses (that won't be named) have been caught burning products rather than lowering their retail value. Within the United States and globally, laws around regulating the fashion industry's environmental impact have been scaled back or are nonexistent.
For many—even if you are an avid secondhand shopper like me—the emotional burden of worrying about the environmental impact of the fashion industry can often feel like it outweighs the joy of clothing. But I'm here to tell you it doesn't have to be this way. While it's going to take a serious commitment from industry leaders and governmental powers to combat our clothing's environmental and societal toll, we as consumers do have the ability to lower the impact of our own closet's carbon footprint. It's just a matter of becoming a conscientious consumer.
If you're not sure where or even how to start, that's okay. Ahead, you'll hear from Erin Wallace, ThredUp's VP of integrated marketing, and Kathleen Talbot, Reformation's chief sustainability officer and VP of operations, who break down how your shopping habits impact the environment, tools you can use to check your footprint, and little changes you can make that won't cost you or the environment anything. But first, a breakdown of facts…
Defining Fashion's Carbon Footprint
What exactly is a carbon footprint? Wallace explains, "Generally speaking, when people are talking about a carbon footprint, it's the number of greenhouse gases produced due to some type of human activity. In the case of a fashion footprint, it's the amount of carbon dioxide that is generated through collective activities around your wardrobe—where you shop, how you shop, how you take care of clothing, how you dispose of your clothing—but it's also the emissions created in creating the clothing itself—from production to packaging to shipping to consumption. It's the full life cycle."
The fashion industry directly affects that footprint throughout the journey. From production to distribution, every part contributes to environmental pollution. This pollution is exacerbated by the overproduction of clothing caused by fast fashion and the rampant use of nonbiodegradable and nonrecyclable fabrics. So how exactly can you cut your carbon footprint? Keep reading…
Ways to Cut Your Carbon Footprint
1. Be Selective About Your Fabrics
One of the best ways to ensure your purchase will be good for both your wallet and the environment long-term is to check the fabrics. Opting for natural, biodegradable fabrics is always the best call because it is estimated that 20% of industrial water pollution globally is attributable to the dyeing and treatment of textiles and that nearly three-fifths of all clothing produced ends up in incinerators or landfills within years of being made, even if you happened to donate that top for recycling.
This is why it's so important to shop brands that not only prioritize using more renewable resources and less water during fabric production—like Reformation, which is part of the BEF Water Restoration program and vows to use less water during the fabric production process—but that also continue to use the best materials for the environment long-term. As Talbot tells us, "At Reformation, we use three sources of materials for all of our clothing: repurposed vintage clothing, recycled deadstock fabric, and new sustainable materials. With these pieces, we work with other designers and fabric warehouses to purchase leftover or over-ordered fabric that would otherwise be destined for the landfill."
While Reformation's dedication to using the best possible materials is commendable, we must be realistic in stating that most companies are not prioritizing these environmentally friendly tactics. So what can you do as a consumer? You can donate old clothing to companies dedicated to recycling properly—ahem, ThredUp—and try to avoid purchasing the following fabrics.
Invest: linen, hemp, organic cotton, silk
Created as a cheaper alternative to cotton in the 1940s, polyester is one of the most widely used fabrics in fast fashion and happens to be one of the least environmentally friendly of them all, followed closely by rayon and nylon. These fabrics are not biodegradable (meaning that they will not decompose in landfills), and in the production process, fossil fuels and excessive amounts of water are used to create polyester and clothing dyes that have been found toxic to humans and that have been linked to long-term health issues. This fabric takes a huge toll on the Earth in production, but it doesn't stop there. When washed at home, the fabric releases plastic microfibers. It is estimated that half a million tons of microfibers are released into the ocean every year, which is equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles. Synthetic fabrics are bad all around, and it's best to opt for linen, hemp, or silk pieces if you're in need of lightweight fabric. If you do want cotton, make sure it's organic, as nonorganic cotton also puts a strain on the environment.
Avoid: acrylic and newly made cashmere
Invest: alpaca, wool, and secondhand cashmere
Don't come for me. I know y'all love your cashmere, but demand for this formerly rare fabric has put pressure on China and Mongolia, which produce 90% of the world’s cashmere, to create more of this luxury fabric. As a direct result, the herding of more animals and increased production of new cashmere are making its regions a desert—which has, in turn, resulted in lower-quality cashmere. But virgin cashmere isn't the only fabric that's compromising our resources. Man-made, water-resistant fabric acrylic is literally flammable. To add fuel to the fire, so to speak, acrylic fabrics often use polypropylene in the production process, which is said to have the same impact as cyanide when inhaled. Instead of buying fabrics that are killing the flora and fauna around them, opt for good old wool or alpaca for your winter-ready fabric. If you find yourself still craving cashmere, hunt for it at secondhand shops to score a deal and keep your carbon footprint low.
2. Shop Secondhand
I will be the first to back this. Shopping secondhand is the way to live your life. Clearly, I'm not the only one who caught on to this: ThredUp reported that 62 million women bought secondhand products in 2019—up from 56 million in 2018. Who can blame them? Not only is it the best way to ensure your closet is eco-friendly, but you can also score incredible pieces in almost any price range. Brands like ThredUp, Depop, The RealReal, LePrix, Gemma by WP Diamonds, and Vestiaire Collective are among my favorites for online secondhand shopping, but don't be afraid to shop at your local Goodwill or consignment shop, too.
3. Shop Sustainable Brands
"We know sustainable brands are often fairly expensive and fairly unattainable for some consumers, especially if they've been accustomed to the fast-fashion pricing,” acknowledges Wallace. But that is exactly why the relationship between secondhand and sustainable brands is so important—investing in those brands will make them more accessible to more people—and shopping sustainably as whole plays a key role in bringing down the fast-fashion footprint. When approaching sustainable shopping, we should see it in the same vein as investing in luxury items long-term. The pieces will be part of your life, and over the years, their impact, environmentally and fiscally, is better, too. After all, shopping from sustainable brands like Reformation makes the investment worth it, as it's had a continued dedication to upholding ethical and environmental standards during all phases of the product life cycle.
4. When in Doubt, Apply the Test Theory
There's no denying that we live in an age when there's a stigma around wearing the same outfit on Instagram, and that mindset has led the average consumer to purchase 60% more items of clothing compared to 2000. This means that we're consuming clothing at a rate faster than we can actually wear it, much less store it in a New York City apartment. While I'll never judge you for needing a fire ’fit for the ’gram (not everyone can commit to never purchasing anything again like Jane Fonda), there are multiple solutions to looking "trendy" without actually buying anything. My favorite thing happens to be the test theory.
The test theory is simple: Before you commit to buying something, try renting it. There are great services like Rent the Runway and Nuuly that will allow you to get that new-clothing feeling without actually buying new clothing. Or you can use services like HauteTrader that let you swap clothing. But if you still are in need of a new piece, apply the 24-hour rule: Before you purchase something on a whim, wait and see how you feel the next day. If you still want or need it, then go get it!
5. Wear Your Clothes Longer and Invest in Long-Term Pieces
This might seem like a no-brainer, but honestly, you'd be surprised how much clothing utilization has dropped around the world in the past 20 years. In the U.S., for example, clothes are only worn for around a quarter of the global average, and it's estimated the population loses $460 billion each year by throwing away clothes that they could continue to wear. The best thing you can do for the environment (and your wallet) is to invest in quality pieces you can wear for longer periods of time that you actually love.
6. Handle Your Clothes With Care
"There are so many small things you can do to curb your closet's environmental impact," says Wallace. For starters, consider how you clean and maintain your clothing. She recommends washing them in cold water and air-drying, as the cleaning process uses a lot of energy and water. She also recommends skipping or infrequently using dry cleaning, as it does require a lot of energy, and it uses chlorinated solvents (like perchloroethylene), which are bad for the environment and your health. But if you have pieces that absolutely need to be dry-cleaned, go out of your way to find a green dry cleaner that isn't using toxic solvents. Don't be afraid to get your clothing fixed over time, too. Never underestimate the importance of having a sewing kit on hand or a cobbler and tailor on speed dial.
7. Part Ways Amicably
As Wallace confesses, "It's very difficult to tell how to responsibly get rid of items that aren't resellable in their current form. It's really just an awareness that throwing it into a bag and dropping it off at the Salvation Army isn't the solution you thought it was. I would say it's a longer story. Keep things longer, buy less, buy better-quality things that last longer, shop secondhand, and then try to resell anything you can. It's a whole shift in consumer behavior that needs to happen." So after you've shopped smarter and saved pieces for longer, if you still feel the need to consciously uncouple with that tube top, then we'd suggest trying to sell it on The RealReal, on Depop, or at your local consignment store. If all else fails, you can donate it to ThredUp with a clear conscience knowing that your '90s-inspired piece won't just end up in a landfill, as the company is dedicated to the full process of reselling and recycling up to 90% of the clothing it receives.
8. Use Your Tools, Do Your Research, and Vote Accordingly
As Wallace professes, "It's dense when it comes to breaking down all the granular things that contribute to a carbon footprint, but when you take it apart, there are so many simple things you can do to combat your impact on the environment." That's what's great about the time we live in. Acquiescing to the whims of fast fashion isn't the only option. There are brands that are dedicated to creating tools and programs to make conscious shopping and recycling easier.
ThredUp—which created its signature carbon footprint calculator that will tell you your own individual impact—is at the forefront of this mission and leading the charge on the resale front. Reformation has its RefRecycling program that allows customers to send back their old clothes for recycling in exchange for a Reformation gift card. In addition to that, there are so many other resources such as the app Good on You, which allows you to check a brand's environmental and social impact. The biggest shocker of all, there's this thing called Google. We as consumers have the power to not only research our purchases but to also buy into what we believe in. When our purchasing power is paired with voting and protesting for substantial regulations to change our environmental toll, well, that's a true fashion statement.
Shop more sustainable brands:
Mara Hoffman is a sustainable brand that's dedicated to ethical production and labor practices.
Brother Vellies is a sustainable brand that specializes in artisan, handcrafted shoes and handbags from South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Morocco.
Mother of Pearl is a London-based sustainable luxury brand dedicated to clothing production transparency.
Amur is dedicated to using sustainably sourced materials to create tailored pieces.
Dôen is a female-owned brand that is dedicated to a more sustainable clothing production process all-around, and since the brand's creation, it has partnered with Planned Parenthood to provide women across the world with healthcare.
Grey State is a female-owned and eco-friendly casual-apparel brand. The brand follows all of the UN's sustainability goals and uses upcycled fabrics and cotton produced in the United States.
Your search for a sustainable bag brand is over; meet the vegan-handbag brand JW Pei. Its bags are affordable, and they're made from recycled plastic bottles.
Whoever said swimsuits couldn't be sustainable didn't know about Lokiki. The swimwear brand's fabric is made with 100% recycled nylon from fishing nets and is produced in small batches in NYC to reduce the brand's carbon footprint.
Denim can be some of the least eco-friendly clothing to produce—that's not the case with Boyish. The denim brand uses sustainable fabrics and a third of the amount of water utilized in traditional denim production.
Your perfect summer-ready sandals can be sustainable—need proof? Look no further than sustainable shoe brand Ma'am.
This post was originally published at an earlier date and has since been updated.
Jasmine Fox-Suliaman is a fashion editor living in New York City. What began as a hobby (blogging on Tumblr) transformed into a career dedicated to storytelling through various forms of digital media. She started her career at the print publication 303 Magazine, where she wrote stories, helped produce photo shoots, and planned Denver Fashion Week. After moving to Los Angeles, she worked as MyDomaine's social media editor until she was promoted to work across all of Clique's publications (MyDomaine, Byrdie, and Who What Wear) as the community manager. Over the past few years, Jasmine has worked on Who What Wear's editorial team, using her extensive background to champion rising BIPOC designers, weigh in on viral trends, and profile stars such as Janet Mock and Victoria Monét. She is especially interested in exploring how art, fashion, and pop culture intersect online and IRL.