Are your clothes a burden on the planet? How to curate an Earth-friendly wardrobe.
Fast fashion brands have a lot to answer for with their harmful processes and questionable ethics that continue to have a grave impact on people and the planet. We, as consumers, aren’t completely blameless in all this mess, but now, with awareness and education, we are equipped with the knowledge and tools to regain some power and do our part in reducing the impact of our own wardrobes have on the world.
If you, like our team, have been striving to make more conscious clothing purchases, read on for some simple yet effective steps you can take to keep your fashion footprint as low as possible (that are gentle on the wallet too!).
We’ll start, however, by taking you back a few decades to the emergence of a problematic trend…
Fast fashion: how did we get here?
Clothes shopping used to be occasional, usually occurring seasonally, when we’d outgrown our current threads or needed a special outfit for a particular event. Quality and longevity were high on the priority list, with people looking to dependable high-end brands to fill their wardrobes. Twenty years ago it all changed, with consumers no longer willing to spend big on one or two well-constructed items, and instead purchase more affordable pieces much more frequently. This meant cheaper clothes, quicker trend cycles and clothes shopping becoming a hobby, with global chains dominating the high-street and subsequently, online retail space. This phenomenon is known as fast fashion, a term coined by the New York Times to describe fashion giant Zara's mission to take just 15 days for a garment to go from the design stage to being sold in stores.
Shopping for trendy, low-cost clothes as soon as stores were dropping new collections; wearing pieces a few times before becoming outdated or falling apart; what could go wrong? The world needed a wakeup call and that certainly came in 2013 when tragically over 1,000 workers were killed when the Rana Plaza clothing manufacturing complex in Bangladesh collapsed. Consumers took notice and started to question the real cost to people and the planet of the cheap clothing they were buying up and binning at an alarming rate, all in the name of fashion. The increasingly new demand for more clothing, made cheaply - and with a detrimental impact to both humanitarian and environmental issues - could no longer be ignored.
While the widespread mistreatment and violation of workers' human rights are incredibly important issues, we’re going to delve a little deeper into the effects of this industry on the planet. It’s an industry that relies on energy and water intensive production methods, toxic dyes and bleaches that pollute the waterways, low-quality textiles that shed micro-plastics and end up clogging our landfills, that all contribute to a world suffering an environmental crisis. ( a climate crisis.) The shocking reality is that the fashion industry accounts for about 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions, and is the second largest consumer of the world’s water supply, accounting for around 20% of wastewater. To put this into perspective, fashion uses more energy than both the aviation and shipping industries combined!
What can consumers do?
A study conducted by jeans’ manufacturer Levi Strauss estimates that a pair of its iconic 501 jeans will produce the equivalent of 33.4kg of carbon dioxide equivalent across its entire lifespan, of which 40% is from consumer use. As well as sending thousands of harmful micro-plastics into the waterways with devastating effects on aquatic life, the washing process and our tendency to over-wash low-quality, fast-fashion items means that they don’t last long, and as fast as collections hit the catwalks, last season's clothes are being tossed in the garbage! Staggeringly, we consume 400% more fast fashion than we did in the 1990s, and over 85% of pieces end up in landfills long before they should. That’s close to 9 out of 10 garments binned due to no longer being considered “on-trend”, or more often because the too frequent washing process (and doing so too often) has caused irreparable colour fading, shrinkage and misshaping. Unfortunately, the damage doesn’t end there; discarded fast fashion pieces are often full of harmful dyes and chemicals such as lead and pesticides, which very rarely break down and instead continue to release toxic chemicals into the air. We examine the impact of such dyes and chemicals in a recent blog post here.
How and what we buy, how we care for pieces and how we dispose of our clothing once no longer wanted are the key areas where consumers can make a difference. It is now more apparent than ever that it’s not just big brands that hold the power, but us as individual consumers who can help to shape the future of our suffering planet and the people on it for the better. Learning how to make more conscious fashion decisions and caring for clothing in a more sustainable manner could well make the world of difference.
Enter, Slow Fashion
The industry as a whole has seen a wave of change over the last few years as real truths about fashion’s impact on the planet, people and animals have come to the fore. This has spurred an increasing number of brands to distance themselves from fast fashion and implement a more ethical and sustainable approach to making clothes. The term slow fashion was coined by Kate Fletcher, professor of Sustainability, Design, and Fashion at the University of the Arts, London’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion, after the movement grew in popularity. Study NY, another slow fashion pioneer, explain it as:
“The movement of designing, creating, and buying garments for quality and longevity. It encourages slower production schedules, fair wages, lower carbon footprints, and (ideally) zero waste.”
With slower production schedules, small batch collections, and zero waste designs, slow fashion brands aim to reduce the textile waste taking over our landfills. These brands forgo trend chasing and instead design enduring styles and create classic and versatile pieces that can be mixed, matched and layered. As a result, customers can build a capsule wardrobe, with pieces that will last for a lifetime. Slow fashion garments inevitably hold a higher price tag, which is not only down to the ethically sourced materials including dyes, sustainable manufacturing processes, and green distribution channels, but often the company’s investment in employee initiatives, fair and living wages for workers and environmental non-profits as well. In which case, buying a garment from a responsible brand provides you with agency over your personal style, ensuring that you are getting a quality product, and also helping to protect those that need it most.
Good On You is a great resource for discovering ethical clothing labels. You can search sustainability ratings for thousands of fashion brands, as well as learn their impact on people, planet and animals.
Thrift, sell, donate, swap, rent!
In a very short space of time, global warming and climate change has hit home at all levels: individually, locally, nationally and internationally. Increasingly, people want to have a positive impact on the planet and a recent Futerra survey of over 1,000 consumers in the US and UK showed that 88% of consumers want brands to help them be more environmentally friendly and 96% of people feel their own actions can make a difference. Slow Fashion brands are emerging the world over and an increasing number of high street chains, as well as many smaller businesses, have vowed to do better and have set wheels in motion towards sustainability.
While this is great news, building an ethical capsule wardrobe is not seen as achievable for those with limited disposable incomes, particularly among the younger generation who tend to be the biggest consumers of fast fashion. However, fear not, as there are a number of budget-friendly and widely accessible ways in which we as individuals can start to combat the over-consumption of fast fashion:
- Thrifting /Op shopping: The donation and purchase of second-hand clothing promotes a circular economy that gives clothing a second life and is a great means of consuming with less impact on the environment and your wallet! Most Op shops are also not-for-profit, meaning your second-hand purchases go towards charities such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army. It’s important to note that to keep Op shopping sustainable for people and the planet, it is our responsibility to ensure we only gift items in a clean, wearable state and we refrain from making fast fashion purchases on the premise that we’ll donate them later.
- Rehome or swap before you donate: Consider friends, family or those in a less fortunate position who may appreciate your unwanted items. Clothing swap evenings between friends can also be a fun idea to freshen up your wardrobe.
- Fashion rental: From formal event wear and high-end accessories to everyday pieces, maternity and children’s clothes, fashion rental is on the rise, proving popular with consumers who are reluctant to invest in items they may not need for long or those who want to keep up with fashion trends without feeding mass consumption. Renting clothes can be a more environmentally friendly alternative to buying into fast-moving fashion trends, and consumers can also save space in their homes.
- Sell/give away clothes online: Listing your preloved garments for online sale or donation is growing in popularity and another great way to practise circular fashion, providing you try to refrain from reinvesting your earnings into more fast fashion! Commission-based, as well as free websites and smartphone Apps such as eBay, Depop, Facebook Marketplace, Gumtree, and Etsy are widely used platforms on which to offer your second-hand, vintage or repurposed pieces.
- Take the 30-wear pledge: Before you buy something, ask yourself: “Will I wear it a minimum of 30 times?” Consider what else you have that will ‘go’ with it and If the answer is yes, buy it and enjoy it, but if it’s a no, step away (or exit the website)!
- Recycling: Where clothing has been worn or damaged beyond repair, the most environmental way of disposal is to send them for recycling. Clothing recycling is still relatively new for many fabrics but increasingly cotton and polyester clothing can now be turned into new clothes or other items. A few big manufacturers have (now) started using recycled fabrics, but it can be hard for consumers to find places to take their old clothes.
- Shop less: Try to limit your excursions to physical shops as well as your online shopping time by setting realistic targets and budgets. It may mean occasionally declining a friend’s shopping invitation or setting a limit on your screen time. Actively unsubscribing to fashion retailers’ newsletters and unfollowing or muting their accounts and Ads on social media can help you to consume less, resulting in planet and money savings.
Clothing care is just as important
When we’re thinking about creating a more sustainable industry with the movement towards slow and circular fashion, it’s important to remember that the process goes beyond our purchases. That is, our responsibility doesn’t end when the clothes are hanging in our wardrobe and instead, it’s how we care for our garments that not only preserves threads, fibres and often memories, but also protects our environment.
A whopping 25% of fashion’s carbon footprint comes from us washing the clothes we already have, according to UK organisation Fashion Revolution. Washing and drying a 5 kg load of laundry every two days creates nearly 440 kg of carbon dioxide emissions in a year and not only that, just doing laundry can take up 13,500 gallons of water a year for the average household. In which case, there are a number of steps we can take to make our laundry more eco-friendly and further reduce the carbon footprint of our wardrobe:
- Do less laundry less often: Clothing doesn’t actually need to be washed as often as we may think, according to sustainable fashion experts. Garments that don’t sit directly on our skin such as jackets, coats and sweatshirts can be worn four to five times without needing a wash, while dresses, jeans and trousers can simply be hung out to air after wearing. Of course, undies, socks and bras must be washed following each wear, as must reusable fabric masks which have become a daily outfit essential for many to fight the spread of COVID-19.
- Invest in an energy efficient machine: Replacing your old top loader with an energy efficient front loader will help significantly in the reduction of electricity and water usage which will in turn lower the number of microfibers shed into the waterways. Additionally, efficient front-loaders are gentler on clothing which means they’ll last longer, lowering your need to purchase new items as often. This, coupled with the reduction in your water and energy usage, will lead to money savings and before long your initial investment in the new machine will pay for itself!
- Opt for cool water: Up to 90% of the energy used to wash your clothes in a machine goes to heating water. Choose colder temperature settings as often as possible to reduce your electricity usage and in turn make savings of hundreds of dollars per year, depending on how much laundry you do, what kind of water heater you have, and what your utility rates are.
- Use a Scrubba wash bag: Step away from your machine altogether! For small loads like your everyday essentials i.e. underwear, socks, tops and reusable face masks, hand-washing is a great environmentally friendly option. Where sink washing can often be messy, cumbersome, unhygienic and simply not practical, the Scrubba wash bag provides a self-contained, electricity-free clothes washing solution for small loads as often as necessary. The washing process itself takes only a few minutes and requires minimal water and detergent, and the Scrubba bag’s internal washboard will efficiently wash clothing while preserving clothing fibres, aiding in longevity. To further reduce your impact on the planet, our latest and most eco-friendly washing machine yet – the Scrubba wash bag Untouched – not only contributes towards environmental savings whilst being used but is also created without the use of harmful bleaches and dyes. Find out more here.
- Hang your clothes to dry: Drying machines are not only incredibly energy intensive, much more so than washers, but there is an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that tumble-drying does irreparable damage to clothes. Line-dry clothes when you can, which will also help your clothes to last longer. Outside, you can use a simple clothesline and your clothes will benefit from the anti-microbial and whitening effects of the sun. Hanging clothing inside in a well-ventilated space is a good option in colder climates, and par-drying clothing in a micro-fibre towel, such as the Scrubba travel towel, prior will help to speed up the process.
- Steer clear of dry cleaners: While dry cleaners are increasingly using gentler, ‘greener’ practices and products, years of high energy usage and harmful chemicals have taken their toll, with dry-cleaning sites being notorious for soil and groundwater contamination. No need to avoid buying “dry clean” items altogether however, as many brands stick the term on clothing care labels as a recommendation, indicating that items may be damaged if washed in water. Many delicate fabrics can be hand washed, especially in your Scrubba bag, or put in the delicate cycle of your high efficiency washer.
- Avoid using harmful chemicals: Laundry detergents, bleaches and softeners need careful selection, too. Many products contain sodium lauryl sulphate and optical brighteners, both skin irritants, as well as artificial fragrances, usually derived from petrochemicals – all of which act as toxins once flushed into our waterways. Eco-detergents are now widely available at prices to suit all budgets.
- Choose natural clothing fibres: As mentioned earlier, slow fashion brands and more high street chains are increasingly using ethical and natural fabrics such as organic cotton, wool, bamboo or other natural fibres for your clothing and bedding. Opting for garments made from these materials is better for the environment and your wallet as they last longer when looked after. When we wash synthetic fibres such as polyester fleece, acrylic, and nylon, thousands of microscopic pieces of plastic wash away with the rinse water and research has shown that marine life ingest these fibres and absorb plastics into their tissue, which is then passed on through the animals that eat them and so on down the food chain.
We can make a difference
The evidence is clear; donating, recycling, buying better, practising responsible care¸ wearing garments more often, and holding onto them for longer are all achievable ways of contributing to a cleaner future for generations to come! If it all feels a little overwhelming, perhaps start with one or two steps and then add in a couple more where you can.
Travelling soon and looking to continue on in your sustainable journey? We have put together an easy 4 step guide to sustainable travel here. And before you go, take a look at our range of innovative travel products that will help you tread lightly on your next adventure.