Are the clothes on our back damaging our environment? Contributing to world hunger? Ending up in landfills? Most of us don't think too much about the clothing that we count on every day, but clothes, food, and transportation are three of the main ways we are impacting our environment, for better or worse. What should we wear if we want to be warm, look good, and not poison the planet?
For most of human history, we have worn clothing from natural sources. Early civilizations used animal hides, and then as agriculture grew, wool from sheep, silk from silkworms, and linen from flax plants formed the basis of most wardrobes. Cotton became a popular alternative in the 17th century, but with a problematic side-effect- slavery. It was only economical to produce with slave labor, which grew in the Americas during the 18th and 19th centuries. But at least cotton is still a natural fiber.
In the mid-20th century, scientists discovered that petroleum products could be fashioned into cloth fabrics that were cheap, versatile, and easy to produce in large quantities. Fabrics like polyester and nylon became popular and replaced natural fibers in many areas. But there are three huge problems with plastic clothing.
1- Polyesters don't biodegrade like natural fibers do. That means that they end up in landfills, sitting there for centuries while the cloth from natural fibers have already returned to nature to be used again and again.
2- Being a petroleum product, they damage the environment, through carbon emissions at their production and micro-plastic pollution of the oceans and out water with every washing.
3- Their inexpensive nature has encouraged the growth of the fast fashion industry, which churns out more and more fashion trends, and uses cheaper and cheaper labor all around the world. Clothes, which were once meant to be worn for years, are now tossed out after just a few uses. Clothing durability has gone down, and few people use sewing machines anymore to repair clothes when they can easily and cheaply replace an entire wardrobe.
Buying clothes is a big hit of dopamine to most shoppers. We all love something new, and most of us like to look hot and trendy, and we are judged by others for it. Social media has made this much worse, as "influencers" model what people are supposed to look like and covet, while making money from their endorsements. Fast fashion brands like Zara and H&M have exploded in popularity since the turn of the century, thanks to the low cost and heavy marketing. Most outfits today are only worn 7 to 10 times before the wearer tires of them or they fall apart.
Some of us have an illusion that the clothes we drop off at the second-hand store end up in a long chain of usage. Only a small fraction of clothes in a Goodwill store end up getting resold. Most of it ends up in Goodwill outlets where it's sold by the pound. And the clothes that don't get sold there end up in the landfills. Approximately 85% of all clothing ends up in landfills, or a shocking 80 pounds of clothes per person per year.
The choices that face us are stark. We all need clothing, preferably something that looks and feels good. And polyester blends fit the bill not only because they are cheaper, but also they require less ironing and are in many cases more durable. But they are not made to last. In order for today's garment industry to prosper, they need us to buy new wardrobes several times a year, and the fashion industry obliges by making people, (especially women) feel they are ugly or out of step if they don't keep following the maddeningly changing trends. Clothing has become an important status symbol that tells the world who you are.
Eventually, something will have to give, probably sometime during the 21st century. Clothing manufacturers will have to come up with more sustainable clothing that doesn't end up in landfills. (And some if it is available now if you know where to look). Our landfills are filling up with all of the other junk that we produce- food waste, e-waste, rubber, household items, and tons and tons of old clothing.
The environmental movement encourages the use of the three R's to combat waste.
Reduce- means don't buy so many clothes. Stop chasing trends and the dopamine high and find other ways to feel good about yourself.
Reuse- Wear the same outfit until it truly wears out. (More than 7 times). Buy clothes that are well-made to last a long time. And don't judge others by their wardrobes if they don't update them every season.
Recycle- Buy sustainable (biodegradable) clothing when you can. These are showing up more and more, even in large chains. Take the clothes you don't want to Goodwill, shelters, drop-boxes, or give them to friends or relatives. Swap clothes with friends who are the same size.
I would add a fourth R-
Repair- If a button falls off, sew it back on. Don't necessarily rush to toss something if it can be repaired simply. Some outfits can be totally transformed by a good sewing machine and imagination.
As a man, I realize that my gender gets off pretty easily when it comes to clothing. We can wear almost anything and nobody pays that much attention most of the time. As a frequent worker in retail clothing stores, I'm aware that women are much more conscious about their clothes, and are judged much more by what they wear, so much of this transformation will need to be led by them. It won't be easy, but we need to emphasize the person within, and not the packaging. And saving the planet sounds good, too.
If you want to find out more about this growing problem, google fast fashion, sustainable clothing, or watch this powerful German documentary