A burger on a drive-through dollar menu may seem like a great deal, but there are countless hidden costs to the environment and our health behind that low price. The same goes for what we wear: much like fast food, the “fast-fashion” industry is built on pumping out cheap, poor-quality goods—subsidizing its low prices with tolls on the environment and, often, human rights.
In the era of fast fashion, enough clothing is produced each year to give 20 new items to each person on Earth. As a result, we’re shopping more (400 percent more than 20 years ago, according to the documentary The True Cost) and sending massive amounts of textiles to landfills (82 pounds per person each year). Here’s how you can lighten the environmental footprint of your closet, one step at a time.
It sounds simple, right? But breaking any habit can be challenging—especially one that’s been shaped by a multi-trillion-dollar industry that pumps out new styles every few months and encourages us to buy clothes as casually as a cup of coffee and then toss them aside just as thoughtlessly (Here are some eco-friendly ways to declutter your closet next time you need to get rid of clothes). According to Elizabeth Cline’s book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, the average American buys 64 items of clothing each year—that’s more than five new pieces a month. The first step in breaking this wasteful habit is to think twice before adding another item to your closet.
Thrift stores, consignment stores, vintage boutiques—there’s a flavor of used clothing for everyone. If you’re in need of some new looks, prioritize buying used (or borrowed, á la services like RenttheRunway.com).
Be a smart shopper
When the time comes to purchase new clothing, look for sustainable materials and ethical, eco-forward brands (like Rothy's, which makes the incredibly cute flats, above, out of recycled garbage. You can buy a pair here.). Resources like The Sustainable Fashion Directory, The United Nation’s Ethical Fashion Initiative, and The Fashion Transparency Index are handy when considering which companies to support.
Two words: Investment pieces
Psychology is an interesting thing: when clothes are perceived to be less valuable, we’re more likely to discard them. To the same effect, we’re more liable to hang onto an item that has greater worth or meaning to us. The fast-fashion machine churns out inferior-quality clothing produced, most often, with inexpensive labor in developing nations—all with the expectation that consumers will buy often and in great quantities.
Interrupt that system by investing in far fewer, but exceptionally well-made items. A well-made coat or pair of jeans can last for years, or even decades. Shoot for simple, high-quality closet staples that aren’t likely to go out of style anytime soon. (Rodale’s, our sister brand, carries some good-quality organic basics) You may fork over more at the cash register, but you’ll save money in the long run when you aren’t repeatedly replenishing your dresser with new finds. (Check out our favorite organic underwear!)
Learn to use a needle and thread
If the old eco-adage “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” had a fourth directive, this would be it. Keeping a smaller closet of more appreciated clothing will require some TLC—a practice that’s foreign to the fast-fashion world. (Because why mend a torn top when you can get a new one for $12?) Taking good care of your clothes will prolong their lifespans, thereby reducing your shopping routine and waste cycle. Learn to wield a needle and thread for easy home fixes, and turn to your local seamstress, shoe repair shop, jeweler, et al. for more elaborate needs.
Make your trash another person's treasure
Is there anything as satisfying as cleaning out your closet? Next time the urge to lighten your load strikes, divide your unwanted goods into two piles: clothes in great condition, and clothes in less-than-great shape. Try your hand at selling the nicer items to a consignment store. With whatever’s left, it’s time to swap: bring your giveaway bag to a get together with friends or arrange a clothing-swap party where everyone offers up former wears for grabs. Then, donate your remainders to a local charity. Not only are you recycling your waste, you’re helping others cut back on their consumption of new clothing.
Clothing that isn’t worth giving away may be right for a second act as something else. Get creative by upcycling T-shirts into tote bags, transforming disowned socks into arts and crafts projects for the kids, and turning old, ratty tops into rags. (To help get you started, here are 4 surprising ways to recycle your underwear).
Recycle unusable clothes responsibly
There are some items that simply can’t be saved—maybe they’re stained and torn beyond repair, or so dated and frumpy that no one will take them. An astounding 85 percent of clothing ends up in the landfill, despite the fact that nearly all textiles are recyclable, according to the Secondary Materials And Recycled Textiles [SMART] Association. In the United States, this translates to 11 million tons of textile waste added to landfills each year, as reported in The True Cost.
Luckily, some smart retailers, like Patagonia, will take old products back for recycling. Garments that truly cannot be sold, swapped, upcycled, donated or returned to the retailer for recycling should be dropped off to local organizations and charities that have salvaged textile-recycling programs. The planet will thank you: the EPA reports that recycling 2.62 million tons of textiles has the same effect as taking more than a million cars off the roads.