When we think of our waste stream, we often focus on daily-use items associated with food such as bottles, cans, paper, food scraps, straws, and plastic film. However, we may often neglect thinking about another source of waste that we also use every day: clothing. Perhaps you have never thrown a clothing item into your garbage, but nonetheless one garbage truck worth of textiles is wasted every second.
One of the main reasons we do not realize how much clothing ends up in landfills is that there is significant waste created even before consumer purchase. This waste, also known as upstream waste, consists of discarded material that does not become part of a finished garment. On the downstream end, clothing in poor condition that are sent to donation centers may also end up in the landfill. Another environmental impact of clothing production less visible to consumers, is the large amounts of water it takes to make clothing. On average, making just one cotton t-shirt requires approximately 2,700 liters of water. Fortunately, there are many ways to curb our waste associated with clothing.
Reduce Clothing Consumption
Stopping fashion waste can be thought of like stopping an overflowing bathtub. The first and most important step is to turn off the faucet! In this case, the faucet is our global annual production of 80 billion pieces of clothing! As an individual, the best way to help is to limit how many new clothing items you purchase. Of course, this is easier said than done, but here are several strategies that can help.
- Limit yourself to a certain number of clothing purchases per year. This strategy works well if you know you buy a lot of clothing each year and need a tangible target to help limit yourself.
- Only visit clothing stores when you need a specific clothing item. Remember that online stores count too!
- When you do purchase clothing, limit waste by purchasing secondhand. This prevents an unwanted item from going to the landfill, but it also avoids all the upstream waste associated with the production of new clothing.
- If you have to purchase new, try to buy durable clothing that you know you will enjoy for a long period of time. Look out for brands that are very transparent about the environmental impact of their production, as these companies make a large effort to reduce their impact and treat their workers fairly.
Extend Clothing Life
After long exposure to the elements and a certain number of washes, some clothes may have a few holes or a tear, but this doesn’t mean you have to throw it away. With just a needle and some thread, we can extend the life of our garments. Extending the life of a piece of clothing by just nine months can reduce its environmental impact by 20 to 30%! Another way to extend the life of your clothing is to repurpose it into a different clothing item. For example, a t-shirt can easily be turned into a tank top or a pair of pants can be turned into shorts.
If an article of clothing no longer fits you or your taste in style has changed, there are likely many other people that can still appreciate it. Here are a few different ways to extend the life of your clothing.
- Give to a friend or family member
- Participate in a clothing swap (or organize your own with friends, family or co-workers!)
- Sell at an online secondhand clothing market or platforms such as Craigslist or Ebay
- Donate to a thrift store or donation center
- Repurpose into other items such as rags to clean around the house, a cloth napkin, or even stitch together into a reusable bag!
Unfortunately, some clothing does eventually reach a stage where it cannot be passed on to somebody else or fixed. There are some brands and stores that have drop-off locations to recycle clothing. This should be the last-ditch option because recycling clothing is energy intensive and companies are only able to recycle a very small fraction of the textiles they collect for recycling.
The fashion industry has significant environmental and social impacts, but curbing our impact does not mean we have to give up clothing or sacrifice our sense of style. While it may take more effort to look for used or sustainably sourced clothing, refreshing old clothes and finding a new home or use for retired clothing, it is a process that can be fun, rewarding, and most importantly will help protect our natural resources!