When it comes to helping the environment and practicing sustainability, we tend to focus on a few key things – plastic consumption and pollution, reducing water, energy and food waste, and how we can offset carbon emissions through the way we travel. These are important things to focus on, however, when we look for ways we can reduce our own impact on the environment, we tend to neglect one of the worst offenders – the fashion industry.
We can see with our own eyes the terrible impact plastic has on the environment as well as on human heath – something that has been bolstered into the public eye with David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet’ towards the end of last year. However fashion is something that is easier to ignore. We may help the environment by drinking water out of a reusable bottle and refusing straws in bars, but what about the impact of our clothes addiction? For those of us who love fashion and enjoy expressing ourselves through the medium of clothes, this can be a bitter pill to swallow. But swallow it, we must.
The production involved within the fashion industry takes a huge toll on the environment. The fashion industry is one of the largest industries in terms of water use. Cotton, which is one of the most common materials used in the industry, needs a huge amount of water and this often puts the countries producing cotton at risk of drought. In fact, it takes 2700 litres of water simply to produce one t-shirt.
In addition to this the actual materials many clothes are made with are toxic for the environment. Polyester, for example, can shed microfibres when washed in washing machines which add to the already extremely high levels of plastic in our oceans and waterways. Then there is cotton, which is often genetically modified. The dyes used to colour materials can also be toxic and is the second largest polluter of clean water globally, after agriculture **.
In addition to the environmental harm the fashion industry causes, there is also the issue of how – or who – makes the clothes we wear. It is no secret that many of our cheap clothes are made by cheap labour – often in factories abroad which have extremely low health and safety standards by people who are forced to work extremely long hours and for very little money. Yet despite this being something that has been reported on repeatedly it is still something that the general consumer continues to ignore. Whilst many companies have made improvements, it would be naive to believe that this practice has been eradicated.
However, the above facts are often glossed over and not something that as a society we pay too much attention to. I myself am guilty of this – I really love clothes and do genuinely believe that clothes can be a fantastic way to express yourself and learn about your own identity. Plus, we live in a consumer culture which encourages us to always be purchasing new things and stuff that we don’t necessarily need. It doesn’t help that alongside regular forms of advertising, we now have bloggers and vloggers (many of which I follow and love) doing ‘haul’ posts, which encourages buying items on mass from companies we know harm the environment. This attitude also encourages us to constantly buy more and more, and thus chuck more and more, with many clothes ending up in a landfill.
However, I have fantastic news for all of you clothes lovers out there who also want to save the planet – you don’t have to choose between one or the other. There are ways to still be stylish and true to your own style whilst helping the planet. Dressing sustainably doesn’t have to mean dressing blandly. All it takes is a change in attitude and some key changes in habits in terms of the ways we shop and the ways we dispose of unwanted clothes. Here are my tips:
Buy Second Hand/Thift clothing
Possibly the most obvious thing to do – when you want to get some new clothes, instead of going straight for the high street stores, look for clothes that are pre-loved. Charity shops can stock some seriously great hidden gems which also end up being absolute bargains nowadays. Not only will you benefit, but so will your bank balance and you’ll get to put your money into a good cause.
An alternative is looking at vintage stores – these can sometimes be more expensive depending on the store, but you’ll be able to grab some seriously stylish clothes that no one else will have. Vintage shops are my favourite places to find new clothes and whenever I go to new cities I always find what vintage stores are around and spend a bit of time routing through them.
Support Local Businesses
Living in Bristol, I’m very lucky as Bristol is a hub for independent businesses and brands. Yes, you are still getting new clothes rather than pre-loved clothes (unless the local business is a vintage company), but you are supporting an actual human or small group of humans and supporting your community, instead of putting more money back into big corporations who don’t always treat their staff fairly. Plus by supporting local instead of going to a high street chain, you also help offset the carbon emissions from clothes travelling long distances from overseas factories.
Local businesses are also highly unlikely to be having their clothes made in sweat shops, which is another really important thing to consider when being ethical with your clothing purchases.
Look for businesses whose clothes are made ethically and sustainably.
This feeds into the above, however doesn’t have to necessarily be a local or even a small business.
A lot of the time, we sadly become blind to the conditions our clothes are made in, and the materials used within our clothes, as described above. The clothes we buy are cheap but they do come at a cost – we just don’t see it.
Not only are the clothes we purchase from these bigger businesses often made in abhorrent conditions, but the actual condition of the clothes is subpar. There are so many fast fashion online companies these days who have thousands of items of clothing to offer at a ridiculously cheap price, but these clothes often don’t last very long before they start tearing or the material loses quality. This creates more waste as we don’t get to keep these clothes for very long before we have to chuck them away.
However, there are so many fantastic companies out there who are combatting this by creating clothes which are not only made ethically and lovingly, but also are made in a sustainable way.
Sometimes buying sustainable clothes can be more expensive, however this is because you are buying clothes that will last, and you are ensuring that someone gets a fair wage and decent working conditions. Remember how you spend your money is a powerful vote into what kind of world you want to live in.
Upcycle, Mend or Rejuvinate Old Clothes
This can be a trickier one for the less creative or time short amongst us, however is a great way to get more wear out of old clothes. This is exactly what the generations before us did – instead of having a wasteful attitude, our grandparents would ‘make do and mend’. Yet in todays consumeristic culture, we are encouraged to simply chuck and buy again.
Instead, get out the needle and thread and see if you can mend your clothes yourself. Get creative and see if you can even turn your item into something new, or give it a new lease of life with the addition of sequins or studs. There are so many ideas and tutorials online when it comes to transforming clothes into something new, so it’s never been easier to test your creativity and your sewing/glue gun skills.
Make Clothes If you are so inclined
To take the above one step further, you could even try your hand at making your own clothing creations! This is the perfect way to express yourself and get creative, whilst also not supporting the fast-fashion industry. Just try to ensure you buy fabrics that are sustainable and from a reliable source.
When getting rid of old clothes….
If the clothes are still in wearable condition, but simply don’t fit anymore, don’t suit you, or you just don’t get any wear out of them, then instead of chucking them make sure you donate them to a local charity shop. If your clothes are in great condition, you could even sell them.
Alternatively, another great option is to give them to friends or do a clothes swap with friends.
If your clothes are unwearable and truly beyond repair, see if you can recycle the material instead of opting straight away to throw them in the bin. Remember that everything that goes in the rubbish bin ends up in a landfill. It doesn’t simply disappear so it’s important we are sensible and thoughtful when it comes to how we dispose of unloved clothes.
I hope some of the above tips helped you when it comes to thinking about how to be sustainable when it comes to fashion. It’s not easy to completely change your attitude to buying clothes, and I myself am still guilty of buying clothes from questionable sources or not truly doing my research into a brand before I purchase clothes from there. It’s easy to get sucked in by a trend or a price tag. However, like any other industry which needs tackling when it comes to helping the environment, it’s ok to start small. Even simply stopping to think about whether you need a new item of clothing or making an effort to start mending old clothes can help change old mindsets. Sometimes it can be overwhelming when we are told we immediately need to only shop organic and completely change our style and our budgets for clothing – this isn’t always possible. But small steps and an overall understanding of the impact that fashion has on the environment is key.
Above all however, if you do nothing else, avoid fast-fashion!! Not only is the fast fashion industry often unethical in it’s approaches to everything from designing clothes (so many independent designers I know have had their designs shamelessly ripped off from bigger companies) to clothing production, but the clothes are often not the best quality and encourage people to buy pieces based purely what is in trend right now.
Remember, fashion is seasonal, but true style is timeless. Try to go for pieces that you’ll want to wear for years to come, not just until Autumn. Try to find your own style that you can identify with and look for key pieces surrounding this, instead of filling your wardrobe with items which will look unfashionable in a few months time – that is, if they don’t break at the seams beforehand. Whilst it’s not possible for most people to spend loads of money on one piece of clothing, see if you can buy less but spend a little more on key items to ensure you get durability and quality, and support good businesses. The impact of fashion on the earth and it’s inhabitants has long been ignored, because we are all addicted to over-consumption and fitting in. But it is time to change our attitude and recognise that actually, we have the power. We have the power in what we support with our money, and we have the power to choose how we reflect ourselves through style. And if we’re smart, we don’t have to sacrifice saving the planet or being stylish.