Updated: Sep 4
We've all been there – the allure of quick, affordable fashion that keeps our closets ever-evolving. The guilt-free mentality of donating unwanted and in some cases unused clothing after a trend goes from hot, to not. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself why a brand new shirt could cost less than $5.00, when you couldn’t even buy a cup of coffee for that? Or what actually happens to your clothes after you donate them? If I am being honest, until a few years ago, I hadn’t given it much thought.
The truth is, there's a darker side to the fashion industry that involves exploitation, environmental harm, and a race to the bottom for production costs - not to mention growing mountains of textile waste and microplastics flooding our oceans. At the end of the day, someone, somewhere is paying the price.
The Truth About Clothing Production and Textile Recycling
According to Earth.org over 100 BILLION garments are produced each year globally, and 92 million tons end up in landfills. To give you a visual, that is the equivalent of an entire dump truck full of textiles being dumped in a landfill every single second of every day. In America alone, the average person throws away 81.5 lbs of clothing and textiles every year, that equates to 2,150 pieces of clothing every second.
Now, I know what you’re thinking - but I donate my clothes when I’m done with them, that’s better right?! The sad truth is, that only about 10-15% of the clothing and textiles donated are actually ‘recycled’. The remainder of those garments are incinerated or shipped to landfills in the Global South, like the ones in Ghana, Pakistan and Chile. One of the biggest reasons for low recycling rates when it comes to donated clothing is that many of these clothes come from fast-fashion brands who keep production costs low by utilizing non-renewable resources like petroleum which is used to create synthetic hard to recycle materials such as acrylic and polyester.
How Microplastics Fit Into the Fashion Equation
The problem doesn’t just stop there either. One of the biggest problems when it comes to the production of synthetic garments? One word, microplastics. In one wash cycle, more than 700,000 microfibers aka microplastics can come off of our clothes and make their way into our wastewater. These tiny plastic fibers are so small that they can often pass through filtration systems and make their way into our rivers and oceans. In fact, textiles account for 34% of the microplastics that are found in our oceans. A recent study found that humans are ingesting a credit card sized amount of microplastics every single week. Sushi with a side of plastic, anyone? Yikes.
Greenwashing is the New Black
Fashion's environmental footprint can feel incredibly overwhelming, because it is. So, what are we going to do about it? The hard truth is we cannot afford to wait for fashion brands to ‘do the right thing’. Greenwashing is the new black and more and more businesses are simply concerned with sounding sustainable to capture a greater market share, rather than actually changing their production practices to align with a more sustainable future. While regulations surrounding greenwashing are coming, it's going to be a minute. So we, as consumers, must speak to fashion brands and businesses in the only language they understand. The bottom line.
At the end of the day, fashion brands feed off our need to belong and they use that psychology to target us into buying more and more crap we don’t need through the use of social media influencers, FOMO marketing tactics and data harvesting. As consumers, it starts with slowing down, asking some questions and truly reconnecting with who each of us are at our core and why we buy the things we buy. As we disconnect from societal pressures like social media, celebrity style and letting labels define our worth we can find a way to develop our own signature style that expresses our individuality, not someone else's.
Three Tips to Become a More Conscious Fashion Consumer
Not sure where to start? Here are 3 tips to get you started on your sustainable fashion journey and empower you to become a conscious consumer without sacrificing your style.
Tip Number One: Adopt a Circular Approach to Your Wardrobe
One of the biggest problems in the fashion industry is that many brands view the life cycle of a piece of clothing as linear. We buy it, we wear it, we donate it or toss it. The end. One of the most sustainable things we can do as consumers is adopt a more circular way of thinking. We have all heard the term ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’
Well allow me to introduce you to a few more R’s to consider for an even more circular planet: Refuse, Rethink, Repair, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle.
For example, when you are about to buy something, first ask yourself why you need or want it. If the desire is coming from a place of fitting in, instant gratification or something to that effect, try refusing the purchase instead. I like to put that money in an ‘experience account’ that can be used at a later date for a concert or something more meaningful.
Rethinking is a fun one too. Try experimenting with different ways to wear your own clothes in new ways. As the saying goes, the most sustainable thing is already in your closet, and who knows? You might just start a new trend!
Repairing clothes is such a great way to showcase your individual style. Repair a rip with some colored thread and a cool embroidery pattern or patch a hole with a completely different style of fabric, tie dye your white t-shirt. The options are endless.
Reusing is all about buying vintage or second hand. There are so many amazing secondhand marketplaces from The RealReal and Poshmark to local spots like Namedroppers. By buying something already in current circulation you are signaling to brands to decrease their production output of new goods and also reduce the chances of twinning with someone else at your next party.
Have you ever loved something so much you had a hard time letting it go? Try repurposing it! Cut jeans into shorts, take an old concert t-shirt and turn it into a halter top, turn an old placemat into a clutch. There is nothing more fun than breathing new life into your fave threads.
Recycling may seem like the obvious choice when it comes to letting go of your old threads but how and where you recycle them is such an important part of the equation. Instead of simply dropping them at the nearest Goodwill, try hosting a clothing swap with friends. It is a great way to build community, add new looks to your wardrobe without spending a dime and ensure that the clothing you are getting rid of ends up somewhere other than a landfill.
Tip Number Two: Do Your Homework
We hear words like sustainable, ethical so much now they have almost lost their power. But they are super important when it comes to vetting the kinds of brands we want to support. One of the biggest keys to identifying brands who are walking the walk is their commitment to transparency. Transparency breaks down what is happening behind the scenes of a brand and answers questions like who makes their clothes, what are their clothes made of, what are the environmental impacts of their production. By slowing down and looking for answers to these questions we can truly become more conscious and informed consumers. Some great resources to get you started are the Remake Brand Directory, and the Good On You App.
Tip Number Three: Opt for Natural Fibers
When it comes time to buy new pieces of clothing, opt for organic natural fibers. This is a great way to cut down dramatically on the amount of carbon emissions, water consumption in production and microplastics that are being introduced to the water supply. It also increases the chances that these kinds of material will be recycled. If you have synthetic clothes that still have plenty of life in them, try using a Guppy Bag, Cora Ball or PlanetCare filter to capture those microfibers so they never enter your drain. The key is to remember progress over perfection.
I remember when I first started my journey to living a more sustainable life and began to learn about the impact that fashion was having on people and the planet, I felt so overwhelmed that I didn’t know where to start. I loved fashion so much but hated that something that I loved so much could be causing such harm. I wanted to throw out all of my clothes from fast-fashion brands and create this perfect example of sustainability. That is when I realized that throwing out my wardrobe wasn’t the answer and that this journey is a marathon, not a sprint. By making informed choices, demanding transparency, and embracing sustainable alternatives, we can fashion a brighter, greener future—one stylish choice at a time.