Action Required: Textiles

Textiles may not be top of mind in terms of troublesome waste streams, but our habits carry an environmental cost. We can break the cycle with small but beneficial changes.

Reduced textile waste is the topic of this third post in our series on minimizing our household footprint (be sure to check out the installments concerning food waste and plastics. Clothing is probably not near the top of the list of items that come to mind when you think of household waste, but textiles are environmentally costly.

Manufacturing synthetic fibers requires crude oil, a nonrenewable resource, and can produce harmful emissions and even hazardous waste. In 2015, polyester manufacturing produced 1.5 trillion pounds of greenhouse gases. Even natural fibers, such as cotton, come with a cost – in the United States, only corn, soybeans and potatoes use more pesticides than conventionally grown cotton. Natural fibers also require more land and water resources than synthetic options – it takes 2,700 liters of water to make a single cotton shirt.

In an environmental context, it is expensive to produce and dispose of clothing, and a culture of “fast fashion” means that clothes, shoes and accessories are less-durable and more quickly discarded than in the past. We buy 60 percent more of these goods and keep them only half as long as we did 15 years ago – and an estimated 84 percent will end up in a landfill. Our “norms” about where our clothing comes from and how much we need to own are not shared by most of the world, or probably even our parents and grandparents.

Even knowing this, I struggle with making smarter choices when purchasing clothing. I hate taking the time to shop and try on clothes, and it is easy to rely on the convenience of online shopping.

Currently, however, I feel motivated to take on a lifestyle adjustment that is a bit more of a personal challenge. Beyond the statistics, I have found inspiration in my recent exposure to the massive secondhand markets in Tanzania, where you can seriously find just about anything, and from some folks (@nevereverpayretail @stevieyaaaay @bezerowastegirl) I follow on social media (hey, I am a millennial after all … I think) who are dedicated to buying secondhand clothes, and they look great doing it.

So, for the next six months my goal is to avoid buying any new clothing or accessories. If I want something, it needs to be secondhand. As increased motivation to follow through, and in an effort to actualize the environmental costs that are not incorporated in purchase prices, I have committed to making a $25 donation to The Trust for Public Land each time I opt for new.

Here are a few tips to slow down your own fashion lifecycle:

Buy for durability: Reduce the number of clothing items added to the annual donation or throw-away pile by making an effort to buy fewer but longer-lasting pieces. Clothing that is pre-shrunk, pre-washed, contains high-density fibers, reinforced seams, and does not have visible imperfections (eg. uneven seams or loose threads) will be more physically durable. Check out these resources on how to identify high-quality pieces. The stylistic durability of pieces is also important – garments that are semi-tailored, multi-functional, come in classic colors, and provide some allowances for adjusting fit are more likely to be worn for years to come.

Buy secondhand: High-quality clothing and accessories can be expected to come with a higher price tag. Although this might even out over time if you purchase fewer items, ponying up the extra cash may not always be desirable or possible. Another great option is to look for secondhand items from thrift stores, clothing swaps, and online retailers that sell second hand clothing, like ThredUp, PoshMark, and eBay . The same goes for electronics – certified refurbished items are often just as reliable, for a fraction of the price.

Repair: Rather than throwing away clothing with broken zippers, frayed edges, or holes, try to fix it. Be crafty and try it on your own, or take the items to a tailor. Some brands offer to make repairs on their products, consider this before buying a replacement. Sweden offers some inspiration here – in an effort to combat ‘throwaway culture’, the government is offering tax breaks on repairs for everything from clothing to appliances.

Know the brand: Ranking fabrics based on their environmental impact is difficult because all options have consequences, but there are ways to reduce your impact when buying new. Consider purchasing garments from companies that are dedicated to reducing inputs and toxic byproducts, as well as those that offer clothing recycling programs. The jury is still out on options made from organic natural fibers. In general, it is often difficult to determine what resources and manufacturing processes were required in order to produce any given item of clothing. The best option? Buy less and wear longer.