New Mexico is literally on fire, homes in North Carolina are being washed away, scientists are locking themselves (in protest) to banks, and yet at the beginning of each day, we all have to get dressed to face this collapsing world.
Just as there are many interpretations of being “stylish,” there are equally numerous interpretations clothing brands take on being “sustainable” that drastically vary in actual impact. It’s exhausting to dig into company practices when all you really want is the instant gratification of a cute *lewk.*
So what outfit best embodies “I care about the Earth more than you?”
- Answer: DIY dress out of recycled cotton (sewn by hand with repurposed thread, not sewing machine, only in the daylight)
- Includes: pockets: for all reusable goodies - cloth handkerchief, ohashi, etc.
- Glasses: daily contacts = daily trash
If you don’t have the time for that, one step we can easily take to address the climate crisis starts in our closets. Creating a sustainable wardrobe doesn’t mean throwing out all of your fast fashion pieces. Keep what you already have and adjust how you care for them. Spot clean your clothes. Avoid the delicate cycle which uses twice as much water and releases hundreds of thousands more microfibers. Wear what you have multiple times before washing in full loads. Full loads and front loaded washers both create less friction which means less wear on your clothes for durability and less shedding of microplastics from synthetic fibers. You can install a filter to help catch microplastics or use a GuppyFriend bag. Then hang dry to further save your clothes and energy. When you do have to use the dryer, consider reusable wool dryer balls instead of disposable dryer sheets.
For tears, holes and/or your clothes don’t fit as comfortably, take the piece to a tailor. Feeling crafty? Finally ready to pick up a pandemic hobby (almost post-pandemic)? Learn how to darn your socks; sashiko, embroider or slap a decorative patch on. Dye it for a refresh or take it to Suay Shop to have pieces repaired AND dyed. Replace the battery instead of buying a new watch every time your old battery dies (lol, guilty). Take your shoes to a cobbler to get resoled or even better, zhush it up by taking it to a place like Goods and Services to customize your kicks.
Still want to do a closet purge? Find your local Buy Nothing group on Facebook (yeah, I know this might be too old of a platform for some of you) to foster hyperlocal relationships with your neighbors and embrace a gifting economy. There are plenty of companies that will allow you to buy, sell, trade, and recycle online (Free Cycle, ReTold, Isthmus, REI Re/Supply, Poshmark, Ebay, etc. and be weary of greenwashers like Nuuly), but keep in mind there is a larger carbon footprint with all of the packaging and shipping than walking to meet your neighbor or a short drive to your local nonprofit thrift store. Not only are these resources for you to divert your used clothes away from a landfill, they are also places to find new-to-you pieces.
Maybe you’re the type that needs new clothes. After all, clothes can be a form of personal expression–who you are, what you believe in, where you work, and what you value. When it comes to sustainability, fashion or otherwise, design and your choices have the potential to be intentional. And that looks different for everyone.
*Spoiler alert* The metrics I use to gauge how sustainable new-to-me clothing is might be different from yours and our need for certain types of clothing may also be drastically different. Below are a few sustainable categories that I take into consideration before purchasing new clothes (or anything, really).
FABRICATION: Materials: Some fabrics are better for the planet than others. Synthetic fibers such as nylon and polyester are made from fossil fuels (gross) and toxic chemicals (double gross), shed microplastics in the washing machine and are difficult to actually recycle. The alternative is natural fabrics such as cotton, linen and wool, even better if it’s organic and recycled. Linen, made out of flax, takes less water to grow than cotton. A popular material in sustainable fashion is Tencel, the name brand for lyocell and modal, made out of eucalyptus and beech trees which require little to no irrigation and no pesticides. This particular brand also reuses over 90% of the water and chemicals in the processing phase. It’s often used because of its versatility to be wrinkle resistant, soft, breathable, elastic, and more absorbent than cotton. Tencel claims their wood pulp is certified organic, compostable and biodegradable. Amazing, right? Ehhh…yes, and…with any natural fabric, compostability depends on what type of dyes and finishing materials were used. Sure your shirt may be organic cotton, but if it’s screen printed with synthetic paints, you shouldn’t be burying it in your backyard.
FABRICATION: Environment: Sustainable fabrication also extends to the working conditions of the factories and neighborhoods they are in. Is there a negative environmental impact in the surrounding communities such as toxic waste runoff, algae blooms and air pollution? Are employees at all levels being paid livable wages in safe working environments? Safe working environments not only affect the health of employees (think clean, well lit, ventilated spaces versus not), they also reduce the likelihood of disastrous factory fires or collapses (avoidable death and pollution). Livable wages help to create some economic freedom which can lead to longer formal education, healthier diets and less stress. When you don't have to worry about your own health, it’s easier to care for others and the planet.
AVAILABILITY: How far did this item have to travel to be produced and how much further does it need to go to get to me? Global supply chains in the fashion industry creates pollution when material fibers are grown in one place, shipped to be processed in another, sewn in a third location, and distributed from a fourth before arriving at a store or on my doorstep. Would I be driving far to pick one thing up “locally” at a store and is that better than having it shipped to me if I know the distribution center is equally as far and USPS can deliver it at the same time as other mail? Do I need to pay for rush shipping with a larger carbon footprint because it had to be flown over instead of a truck?
AESTHETICS: Some pieces you want/need might not have a specific company that prioritizes sustainability as part of their brand. It could be something you need for work or a function. There are some synthetic fabrics that are better for performance and durability than natural materials. This happens, and it’s okay. Make this the exception, not the rule.
THE STORY: This is less about environmental sustainability, and more about cultural sustainability. In addition to the factors above, I often consider the “story” behind a brand. Who are the makers? Is this an AAPI or BIPOC small business? A legacy business? A fundraiser? Are there other ways I could support this company or organization in lieu of buying another T-shirt?
And lastly, AFFORDABILITY: Buying new from sustainable brands is not cheap. I admit this helps me buy less.
There are so many other factors and tons of nuance in the sustainable fashion world, but the ones listed help me decide if a piece of clothing is worth my investment, because how my clothes are made is an investment, albeit micro, in the environment. The bottom line is be intentional with your clothing and minimize your harmful impact on the planet by using less resources, whether that’s buying less, washing less, buying local and secondhand. So even if the world is ON fire, your closet can BE fire with sustainability in mind.
Additional resource: ThreadUP has a footprint calculator, which is an easy way to get an idea of how “sustainable” your fashion habits are.