As environmental concerns have grown over the past decades, scientists and consumers are becoming more aware of a more unexpected contributor to environmental problems–their clothes.
The fashion industry is responsible for around 8% of all global carbon emissions, according to research from Quantis, an environmental sustainability organization.
In addition, clothing consumption is responsible for a substantial amount of waste.
“Approximately 85% of the clothing Americans consume, nearly 3.8 billion pounds annually, is sent to landfills as solid waste, amounting to nearly 80 pounds per American per year,” reported an environmental health study from Washington University researchers.
A major component of this environmental impact is a business practice known as fast fashion–a system in which large clothing retailers produce mass quantities of lower quality goods sold for cheap prices. There’s a reason for the low price tags associated with these businesses. As shown by the Washington University study, fast fashion retailers are often highly unsustainable and unethical, with underpaid workers, high carbon emissions, water use, and pollution of natural resources in low-income countries.
Additionally, the cheap prices and quickly changing fashions these brands produce encourage consumers to buy more clothes more often, leading to an increase in waste. Some of the biggest fast fashion retailers include Shein, Zara, H&M, and Fashion Nova, though many major clothing retailers are involved in unsustainable practices.
Fast fashion is a broad, complex issue. Nonetheless, consumers can still take action to reduce the global impact of fast fashion.
As shopping from fast fashion businesses tends to be cheaper, more accessible, and sometimes more size-inclusive, it may be unavoidable for some. However, being aware of issues within the clothing industry can still make a difference. Pay attention to where you buy clothes from and avoid buying from brands with the highest environmental impacts whenever possible. Additionally, be aware of greenwashing. Often, brands will advertise their products toward environmentally conscious buyers as ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco-friendly’, when, in reality, these claims hold little truth.
Though buying new clothes is often exciting and tempting, stop to think before purchasing. Try to buy clothes that you’ll wear longer, or things that are more of a need than a want. Additionally, be cautious of microtrends. Microtrends are quickly shifting fashion cycles often influenced by social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Often, influencers will purchase certain clothing items as part of a viral trend rather than an actual want or need for the item. Before buying, consider clothes you already own, clothes you are most likely to actually wear, and how often or how long you’d wear something. Though it may be a difficult habit for some to give up, avoiding buying unnecessary clothing can go a long way.
By increasing the lifespan of clothing items, thrifting provides a more sustainable alternative to fast fashion. Buying a garment secondhand saves the water, electricity, packaging, fabric, labor, and greenhouse gas emissions that would have been necessary to make the product firsthand. In recent years, thrifting has been made easier through online companies like ThredUP, Depop, and Curtsy that allow customers access to a broad range of products. Filtering products by brand or style through these websites allows shoppers to find clothes they’d normally buy while still reducing their environmental impact.