It wasn’t my intent, but, somehow, I grew a conscience.
I devote much of my free time to understanding the ins and outs of the fashion industry, but recently, I’ve been distressed about the ethics of the biz. There are only so many articles and Netflix documentaries a person can avoid until they are faced with one of the fashion industry’s many downfalls: its environmental impact.
And so, with a guilty conscience, I started to change my retail ways, and luckily, I’m not alone.
On Sept. 7, during New York Fashion Week (NYFW), fashion designer Heron Preston debuted his collaborative clothing line with New York’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY). The collection, UNIFORM, is made from old DSNY uniforms, along with secondhand clothing from thrift stores like Goodwill and Housing Works. Preston, Kanye West’s former fashion consultant, revamped the clothing and screen-printed the DSNY logo onto the garments, creating a sort of eco-aware-streetwear. UNIFORM is part of an effort to raise money for the Foundation for New York’s Strongest, a non-profit with an initiative to eliminate the state’s landfill waste by 2030.
NYFW provokes a consumer craze, but if used wisely, it is the perfect place to promote a discussion. Preston’s sentiment is clear: We need to reduce textile waste. The fashion industry is the source of the problem, but they can also pioneer a solution.
According to the documentary, The True Cost, the U.S. generates more than 11 million tons of textile waste every year, which is 400 percent more waste than what we were producing 20 years ago. Livia Firth, The True Cost producer and creative director for the sustainability consulting firm Eco-Age, states that fast fashion products have a five-week long lifespan in a woman’s wardrobe.
Fast fashion companies like Primark, Forever 21, Zara, Topshop, and H&M produce large quantities of clothing very fast for little cost. So when the colors fade, the fabric stretches, and the trend passes—we toss it. A faulty, worn-out product is difficult to resell and besides, “it was only $10, no big deal.” This is when clothing becomes textile waste.
My environmental footprint is probably large. The last time I tried to make a difference, I was 10 and donated $50 to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) to protect polar bears from what was then called Global Warming. My environmental activism stopped there, though. Today, I hardly ever remember to unplug my chargers, and I still don’t know the proper place to recycle a plastic cup with liquid still in it, but I’m working on it.
On a whim, I visited the WWF website and found myself reading about cotton farming. One fact read, “It can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton; equivalent to a single T-shirt and pair of jeans.”
This threw me into a researching frenzy. I learned that cotton, the apparent fabric of our lives, is also a very pesticide-intensive crop. These pesticides can contain carcinogens that endanger field workers and the chemicals harm nearby ecosystems.
Consumers should instead look for tags that state “organic cotton,” because like linen and hemp, organic cotton is sustainable and eco-friendly. It uses less water and requires no chemicals. Also, synthetics such as nylon and polyester require factory production, which entails burning fossil fuels that emit pollutants and carbon dioxide. Polluted air affects public health and carbon dioxide traps heat in our ozone, and bada bing, bada boom: a failing ecosystem.
Although it may seem unlikely after that list of grievances, there are, in fact, other textile options and many solutions.
There is a Los Angeles brand that I worship called Reformation. The company motto: “We make killer clothes that don't kill the environment.” According to its website, 5 percent of the fabrics Reformation uses are vintage, and 35 percent are unused surplus materials. Linen, silk, viscose, and Tencel are other ecologically-mindful fabrics employed in its line. For every garment you purchase, the company publishes its environmental footprint on its webpage, and on the tag (which is made of recycled paper). From growing the textile fibers to producing and dyeing the fabric, packaging it, transporting it, and then caring for it later, Reformation keeps tabs, literally.
Unfortunately though, it’s a privilege to be a conscious consumer. But finding inexpensive ethical retailers is not impossible. Indigenous Clothing, Everlane, and Zady are three men’s and women’s eco-minded stores priced reasonably, and I'm sure there are more.
But if you want low-cost: DIY. Last year we saw trends like patches and pins on outerwear, so instead of buying a mass-produced synthetic Zara knockoff of a Gucci jacket, why not customize a jacket you already have?
Also, to reduce textile waste and expenses, buy your products for life. Dr. Martens, L.L. Bean, Timberland, and Jansport are just four quality manufacturers that provide consumers with a lifetime warranty.
Shopping second hand also reduces waste and is less expensive. My most recent thrifted purchase is a pair of vintage Levi 501s that I wear seven days a week. And in case you’re wondering, no, I hardly ever wash them. You don’t have to.
You can also shop secondhand. The Morgan Memorial Goodwill here in Boston announced on their website that they divert over 23 million pounds of goods from wastelands yearly.
I think 10-year-old me would be really happy to hear that.