The world’s textile industry consumes the equivalent of thirty-two million Olympic swimming pools of water in just one year, according to “Pulse of the Fashion Industry,” a report co-authored by the Boston Consulting Group and Global Fashion Agenda, an organization working to make the industry more sustainable. 2,700 liters of water are used to make a T-shirt, according to data from the World Resources Institute. That’s more than one person would drink in three years.
Discards are also a problem in the fashion industry. The sector produces more than 92 million tons of waste every year, according to the same report. Only 20 percent of this waste is reused. Microplastics represent 15 to 30 percent of all the plastic that pollutes the oceans. According to a study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (titled “Primary Microplastics in the Oceans”), 35 percent of this material comes from the washing of synthetic fabric.
Changing the way you buy clothes can help reduce these numbers. Check out these tips on conscious consumption that can help you save money and the planet.
The first step is asking whether you need so much clothing. Open your closet and make a list of what you really need to buy (if anything), and what can be given away.
On average, a person buys 60 percent more clothing nowadays than he/she did 15 years ago, and each item is worn for half the time. Consume less.
3. Choose Well
If you want to know whether an item of clothing will last, hold the piece up to the light. Pay attention to loose threads or wide stitches. These indicate poor quality. Search for pieces that will fit your lifestyle: If you’re a busy person, avoid fabric that needs to be ironed, otherwise it’ll be one more thing left in your closet. Synthetic fabric tends to be cheaper but does not last long.
On the other hand, some materials once considered “green” are now being questioned. A T-shirt made from a recycled PET bottle cannot be recycled, as there is no technology to reuse this blend of cotton and PET. This means recycling the bottle in any number of other ways would be better than turning it into clothing.
4. Take Care
Check the label for information on the best way to wash each piece. Wash delicate clothing by hand and use less abrasive, more natural products so it will last longer (check out how to make detergent without chemicals). You’ll save money as well as natural resources.
Don’t get rid of a piece of clothing just because you’ve lost a button or there’s a little hole in it. Fix, sew, repair, or reuse it. Or make something new out of the material (a practice called upcycling). Get some ideas and instruction from this article here.
6. Let It Go
Do not leave unworn clothes in your closet. If you don’t want to wear a piece of clothing any longer, find out whether a friend or family member wants it. If clothing is still in good condition, donate it (many churches and homeless shelters accept clothing donations). There are also websites that promote exchange and giveaways, such as The Buy Nothing Project and The Freecycle Network.
A visit to could inspire you to stop feeding this wasteful industry; you might give up buying new clothes altogether. You can also save money, up to 80 percent of what you would pay at a traditional store. Children’s second-hand stores have especially nice, well-priced offerings, as the pieces are used for a short time and are, consequently, in very good condition.
8. Be Simple
A so-called “capsule wardrobe,” that is, a few, high-quality, essential items that last and don’t go out of fashion, can help limit the amount of clothing you need to buy. This site thoughtfully combines how-to tips with some good thinking about the practice.
9. Get Information
According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, most workers in the fashion industry earn less than US $2 a day. They generally earn between 1 and 3 percent of the value of each piece they produce, according to the Labour Behind the Label organization. Learn more about the brands you wear, finding out if they employ slave labor, use sustainable materials, engage in fair trade and value the local labor force. A good round-up of ethical, fair-trade clothing is here (and check the comments, as people keep adding suggestions!).
With the boom in “fast fashion” (inexpensive clothing produced quickly in response to rapidly-changing trends), production doubled between 2000 and 2014, reaching 100 billion pieces. Prices dropped as a result. But when clothing is cheap, someone pays. In 2013, a building collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,133 people. Most of those who died were workers making clothing for big brands under precarious conditions. After that tragedy, organizations such as Fashion Revolution began questioning the brands about their labor conditions. Cheap for customers, it turned out, meant costly for workers.
In the United States, only about 14 percent of money spent at nationwide chain stores benefits the local economy, according to a 2012 study by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Instead, try to buy directly from producers, whether at fairs, bazaars, or independent stores. Independent We Stand, a U.S. group, has a free app that will help you find locally-owned businesses near you.. This keeps money in your community and help support producers who live and work in your area.
Being sustainable doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the fun of making that one-time sensational fashion statement you’ll never make again. Try Rent the Runway.
If you can afford to, consider paying more for clothing made sustainably. These brands sell clothing made from textile waste, some of it quite stylish.
Fernanda Simon, from Fashion Revolution Brasil, and the geographer Leila Vendrametto, who is also an environmental educator of Ecoativos, a project of the Alana Institute and UN Environment, were consulted on this content.
- Fashion Revolution’s Instagram has nice tips for those aspiring to a more sustainable closet.
- Greenpeace’s Detox My Fashion campaign is a good clearinghouse of information on the environmental impacts of the fashion industry as well as on positive initiatives in the sector.
- CFS, a London-based research center on sustainable fashion, studies the subject and proposes initiatives.
- ModaEs site has developed a complete dossier on social and environmental ethics in the fashion world (in Spanish). Check it out.
- A Believe.Earth article on Zero Waste efforts in the textile and fashion industries.