When we talk about practices that are harmful to the planet, the coal refineries, plumes of exhaust, and polluted waterways of the fossil fuels industry probably come to mind first—and not the outfit that you’re wearing right this moment.
But the fashion industry has a shockingly high carbon footprint. From the irresponsibly harvested raw materials and toxic chemicals used in production, to the greenhouse gas emissions from shipping from halfway across the world, to the 68 lbs of clothing that the average American throws into our landfills each year, the fashion industry is the second most polluting—just after the fossil fuels that are warming our climate to a dangerous degree. And then there’s the unethical working conditions. Fast fashion plays into consumerism by cranking out “must-have” fashion trends for an astounding 52 micro-seasons per year—a pace that can only be achieved by sweatshops in developing countries, where it’s done cheaply and, often, inhumanely.
If you’re wondering how to make more responsible and ethical fashion choices without resorting to wearing burlap, the good news is that it’s easier than you think. With just a little conscientious planning, you can curate a stylish wardrobe that’s both humane and eco-friendly—here’s how.
Most of the clothing we buy—especially in the world of “fast fashion”—is made from polyester, nylon, and acrylic, since they’re cheaper to produce. But these inorganic materials aren’t biodegradable. In fact, polyester is made up of petroleum-based fibers, derived from plastics made by chemical Company Dupont. When washed, polyester releases tiny plastic microfibers that flow through our waterways and pollute ocean and marine life—which, of course, makes it back to our food. But there are plenty of green alternatives: hemp, which is stronger than cotton and even uses less pesticides; linen, derived from flax plants and requiring no chemicals or pesticides to grow; recycled polyester or organic cotton; or the quickly replenishing bamboo.
What good are wrinkle-freeclothes if they’re causing you hormonal effects? There’s formaldehyde, which gives textiles a just-ironed look, but has been linked to a 30% increase in lung cancer and respiratory/skin irritation. Also common are PVC-based phthalates, which are used as softening agents for things like decorative printing, but also associated with adverse hormonal effects. And the list of toxic chemicals from the fashion industry that are harmful to our health and bodies goes on and on. For safer alternatives, look for clothing made with natural and low-impact dyes, like this breezy summer dress. You can find brands who pledge only to use environmentally responsible materials and non toxic dyes—while also paying their workers a fair wage—through helpful sites like KnowTheChain.org, FairTradeUSA.org, or GoodGuide.com.
With our global temperature reaching record-breaking highs each year, protecting the environment is often our top priority when assessing the pitfalls of the fashion industry, but it’s also imperative to ensure that the working conditions are safe and humane. Overseas factories are notorious for starvation wages, forced and unpaid overtime, and even denying sick leave or breaks—all in an effort to increase output. This means cheap clothing for us, but at the expense of the safety and respect of the workers, it’s a human rights violation. The working conditions in these clothing factories can even be dangerous. In an extreme but not isolated case, Bangladesh clothing factory the Savar building collapsed and killed more than 1,000 workers, and injured more than 2,500.
To ensure that you’re buying responsibly, seek American-made garments whenever possible. Since the US demands more stringent health and safety standards than developing countries, you’ll know that the workers who put the clothes on your back were paid at least a minimum wage and had a safe workplace with limited hours. And be on the lookout for members of the Fair Trade Federation, which confirms that a business is committed to ethical standards, like Austin-based boutique Raven and Lily.
In 1960, the average American bought less than 25 pieces of clothing per year, and 95% of it was US-manufactured. But these days, we buy triple the number of garments every year, and only 2% of it was made in the US! That’s wasteful not just for our landfills, but for our natural resources, too. Considering that your favorite cotton T-shirt used up 2,700 liters of water to make, the easiest way to be environmentally responsible with your wardrobe is by recycling what’s already out there. Secondhand shopping eliminates the need for new production, with the bonus of being less expensive, too. Upscale consignment shops and secondhand shopping national chains like Buffalo Exchange and Crossroads Company are ideal places to score both trendy and high-quality pieces to outlast your synthetic garments—and for a lower price, too.
You can also try online secondhand shopping at sites like PoshMark, theRealReal, and Tradesy, which are about as eco-friendly as you can get, considering that e-commerce uses much less energy than traditional shopping. A Carnegie Mellon study even shows that packaging for shipping uses half the energy necessary for travel emissions to brick and mortar retail. Another budget-friendly option is to throw a clothes-swap party with friends to recycle your unwanted duds for some favorites, all for free. You’ll be helping to eliminate the need for unfair working conditions and wasted natural resources—all while sharing a few bottles of wine with your favorite people.
The best part is that shrinking your fashion-carbon footprint doesn’t require a huge commitment, like solar panels or an electric car—it’s as simple as reading label. Plus, by being a more informed consumer, you’ll choose high-quality pieces that last longer and look better, too. Because although regrettable trends like Crocs or “Mom” jeans will come and go, being a crusader for social and environmental welfare will never go out of style.
About the Writer
Lauren Pezzullo is a writer, editor, and musicophile who's passionate about vegetarianism and sustainable eating. As an editor for Modernize, she writes about energy-efficient living in the home. She's currently writing her debut novel.