sustainable fashion: tips on dressing eco-friendly
How many times have you worn the shirt you’re wearing now? Five times? A dozen times? What about your jeans? The average lifespan for an article of clothing is two-three years - yet Americans throw away up 25.5 billion pounds in textiles each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While it may be tempting to drop $20 and get several items at a chain retail store, the problems surrounding the phenomenon known as “fast fashion” extend beyond your wardrobe and your wallet. The fashion industry is one of the top industries worldwide. In the U.S. alone, 12.8 million tons of clothing are sent to landfills every year. The amount of resources required to produce clothing and goods, as well as the effect the waste and chemicals have on the environment, is astounding and just one of the many ways we are damaging the planet.
Sustainable fashion aims to provide clothing that is created as environmentally safe as possible. This can mean anything from using natural and organic dyes to utilizing wind to power manufacturing to upcycling materials. But why is it so important for us to make changes to how we buy and consume fashion?
Fast fashion relies on providing large amounts of clothing that is cheaply made, which encourages the consumer to buy more. When you can buy 8 different items for under $30 bucks, it becomes pretty easy to see how fast fashion preys upon those with lower incomes. If you need a shirt for work, why buy one $25 shirt from an independent brand when you can buy two for $20 from a chain retail store? Big name retailers like H&M, Forever 21, Zara, and Rue 21 rely on constantly shifting and changing trends to stock their stores. Their goal is to take designs from the runaway to their stores as fast as possible, which results in literal tons of clothing that ends up in landfills. Fast fashion clothing is often ill-designed, ill-made, and ill-fitting. Clothing that is made quickly and cheaply falls apart quickly. It is clothing that isn’t made to last and that turnover is intentional.
Aside from the land used for factories and stores, fashion impacts the environment down to the fibers. Cotton, the most commonly used fabric, requires 2,700 liters of water in order to sustain a crop which will eventually produce one shirt: that’s the equivalent of the drinking water for one person for 2 and a half years. Not to mention the insecticides and other chemicals used to treat crops, which end up back in the ecosystem. The carbon footprint of the processes used to create clothing depends on the material of the garment, with synthetic materials such as polyester emitting more than double the amount of greenhouse gases than cotton. But even after the clothing is made and sold, according to the EPA Office of Solid Waste, Americans throw away more than 68 pounds of clothing per person per year.
Big name companies frequently turn to outsourcing their production to countries such as China, India, Bangladesh, and Taiwan because they are able to pay workers less. It is no secret that popular brands that utilize sweatshop labor to keep costs down. Workers, typically women, are underpaid, forced to work long hours with little to no breaks, in unsafe conditions. When a shirt costs $12, it probably means that the garment worker who made probably got paid less than $3.When you take into account the cost of the design, raw materials, factory space, labor wages, administration, transportation, and marketing for low priced items, you have to question where the profit is being made. Often it comes at the expense of the environment and the workers.
Unfortunately, it is also all too common for big name companies to steal designs from smaller, lesser known brands. The former have the wider audience and money to pay for legal expenses where the latter doesn’t. Theft happens often in the fashion world so be critical consumers and help support small and independent designers who get jipped in the process by amplifying their voices when this happens. (Check out @diet_prada on IG for more examples of how prevalent theft versus inspiration is in the design world.)
So now that we’ve identified some of the problems with the fashion industry, what can you do to help?
1. Boycott Brands
Boycott brands and companies that don’t practice ethical standards. Why support brands that engage in animal cruelty, sweatshop labor, design theft, etc.? You can find some boycott lists online, such as Joojoo Azad, a Muslim American fashion activist and blogger’s boycott list and examples of some ethical brands here!
2. DIY, baby!
Make your own clothing! Start out with some basic pieces, such as dresses and skirts, then work your way up to making a whole outfit! There are plenty of patterns and resources online to reference. (For inspiration check out Lydia Higginson’s blog, Made My Wardrobe.)
If you’re not up for the challenge of making your own clothing, try your hand at altering stuff you already own! Have a shirt with a hem that’s just a little too long and looks boxy on you? Crop it! Start small with alterations and work your way up.
Paint, sew, cut, embroider your clothing! Personalize it and develop your own brand of style. Slap some patches on, bleach it-there’s tons of tutorials on youtube, instagram, and wikihow to show you how to customize your clothes.
Utilizing second hand clothing is the most logical and obvious way to stop supporting unethical fashion practices. Challenge yourself to not buy any new clothing for a month. For 6 months. For a year. You may find you enjoy the thrill of sifting through thrift store racks or hunting garage sales for gently used clothing to give a new life to more than browsing the trendy racks at retail stores.
Got a group of friends interested in getting rid of clothing they don’t wear? Organize a clothing swap! Trade your Levi’s that don’t fit anymore for your friend’s gently used Docs, for example. Host it at your house or public space, invite friends, tell friends to invite their friends, make flyers and share it with the community! Take whatever is left over and donate it to a local women’s shelter or other charitable organizations.
Shopping online is a great way to find specific sizes, styles, and brands! Depop and etsy (even instagram!) are popular apps for people to sell and buy secondhand or vintage clothing. Questing for the perfect pair of high waisted light wash Levi’s in your size? Type in some tags, filter your search, and you are one step closer to your dream denim.
4. Shop local
Seek out independent and local designers & brands that not only present the aesthetic you’re looking for, but also adhere to certain moral standards. There are a plethora of small clothing companies that do strive for their products to be made as ethically as possible, that show transparency in their production process, are size and gender inclusive and feature diverse models. What better way to spend your money on clothing that is supporting real people’s dreams and families?
So let’s review: what’s the bright side of engaging in more sustainable, ethical fashion standards? While clothing might occasionally cost more, it is more likely to be durable. Invest in clothing that will last by paying for craftsmanship. You’re supporting individuals and their families, and buying clothes for the long run. You can more easily develop an individual style, reference different periods of style by wearing vintage clothing, and find rare and unique statement pieces for your wardrobe. You’ll save money by buying or trading only second hand clothing, maybe splurge on statement or essential pieces of higher quality.
The issues surrounding fashion go beyond sticking out in a crowd or looking cool though. By actively withholding your money and support from companies that mistreat their workers, steal, and damage the environment, and by attempting to reduce the amount of clothing waste we produce, we work towards a fashion industry that values sustainability and individuality, from the producer to the consumer.
author, cara alizadeh
Cara Alizadeh lives in OKC, caught as a traveler of the present. They received their BA in Art History from the University of Oklahoma in 2017. A curator and writer, Cara is concerned with issues such as sustainable fashion, human rights, and presenting a fuller understanding of history. They are frequently found feeling nostalgic and thinking/reading/looking at/making art. They identify as nonbinary/gender non-conforming and enjoy traveling, trains, and alliterations.
graphics, averi campbell
Averi is a member of the Gold Hand Creative Team
Averi Campbell is an art student, multi-musician, and all around music enthusiast. Any indie garage band or badass girl band puts her in a daze, and that sound has carried over into the music she creates herself. Music and art have played a huge role in her life and she is very fortunate to have encountered so many fearless and driven women, both in the arts and music industry, all which have impacted the woman and artist she is today.