The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries on the planet, and it’s helping accelerate climate change. Part of the problem is our culture of overconsumption: We buy way more outfits than we need, and we let them hang in closets for years, wearing them once or twice, before throwing them out. The solution is obvious: We need to stop wearing clothes. Okay, I realize that nudity may not work for everyone. It could get cold, and also, it could get awkward.
The good news is that some fashion brands are trying to improve parts of their business to become more sustainable. You’ve probably noticed this while shopping already; many fashion labels present themselves as more eco-friendly than their competitors these days. But how can you tell if they’re really making things better, or they’re just “greenwashing” their marketing to get you to buy more products? Fashion supply chains are very complicated, so it can be hard to assess whether improving any one aspect of the business will have a significant impact.
The line between real improvement and hype can be hard to parse–here’s what you should know about some of the fashion industry’s biggest sustainability trends.
Using Leftover Fabrics
The apparel industry is notorious for creating wasted inventory. Since fashion is all about trends, apparel manufacturers need to predict what will be in style six to nine months from now. This is incredibly hard to do, and as a result many clothes produced every season don’t end up selling. Mills, which make fabrics, also need to place their own bets on what designs, colors, and textures will be in vogue months from now. Often, entire bolts of fabric never get sold and are thrown in a landfill without ever being turned into clothes.
Brands like Christy Dawn are trying to tackle this enormous waste. This Los Angeles-based brand makes ethereal, bohemian dresses out of fabrics that are left over from other fashion brands, otherwise known as deadstock. This approach creates a lot of extra work for the brand. Rather than designing outfits with particular colors or patterns, the brand only sketches out particular patterns and cuts. Then designers source their fabrics from among the bolts of fabrics that are destined to be thrown out. This means that they can only make small runs of each style, based on how much fabric they were able to get their hands on.
There are now many fashion brands that rely entirely on deadstock, including Dorsu, Tonle, and the luxury brand Haney. Some brands, like Reformation and Eileen Fisher, use deadstock for part of their collections. On average, brands don’t use about 10% of their fabrics, and in total, the fashion industry generates a total of about 40 billion square feet of deadstock every year. These small brands are helping to chip away at some of this waste, but the scale of the problem is fairly vast right now.
Buying from brands that use deadstock is certainly one way to be more conscious as a consumer, since you’re diverting the materials from landfills. But it’s also worth noting that this entire approach also removes an incentive for fabric manufacturers to be careful about the amount of material they produce, because there are now brands that will be willing to buy their deadstock. And often, deadstock fabrics are very trend-driven. After all, if it was a classic, evergreen fabric–like a blue silk or a black cotton–manufacturers wouldn’t be throwing them out.
The bottom line is this: If you’re in the market to buy an outfit with an interesting and colorful pattern, buying from a brand that uses deadstock is better than buying from one that doesn’t. If you do buy one of these outfits, make sure that it’s one that you love and see yourself wearing for many years to come.
But more broadly, we should be encouraging the industry to move away from the hyper-trend driven, fast-fashion approach to apparel. And we can do this with wallet activism: Focus on buying classic pieces that you can wear for years, not months. We’re already seeing consumer shopping behavior impacting the industry. The fast-fashion company H&M, for instance, has been in decline, and has been toying with new concepts like Arket, which makes minimal, well-made pieces that are not so trend-focused. In the end, while using deadstock is one good way to reduce waste, it would be much better for everyone if deadstock didn’t exist in the first place.
Renting Rather Than Buying
Rent the Runway helped normalize the idea of renting clothes. The brand began by renting out gowns and formal wear, which the average woman only wears once or twice. But over the last few years, women have shown an appetite for renting almost everything in their closet, including frequently used items like jeans and workout gear. The technology company Caastle has also created a platform that makes it easier for any fashion label to become a rental company, and brands like Ann Taylor and New York & Company are testing clothing rentals.
So is renting more eco-friendly than buying? In some ways, it is. Renting means that each article of clothing that is made will be worn many more times before it is thrown out. In theory, this means that fewer garments need to be made to meet demand. This is particularly true for fashion-forward pieces, and clothes we don’t wear very frequently, like the ballgowns mentioned above. My parents bought me a velvet pink dress for my high school prom–and I wore it once. It’s still in my basement right now. But with the rental model, a dress like mine would be worn over and over during prom season, then again by women going to weddings that summer, before finally ending up in a landfill.
It’s definitely an improvement on the status quo, but there are some important caveats to consider. For one, the clothes must be shipped back and forth to the rental company, where they are dry-cleaned. Both Rent the Runway and Caastle use sustainable dry-cleaning methods, and also use light, recycled materials for shipping to mitigate the environmental impact. But it is not totally pollution-free.
Research by environmental scientists at MIT found that the carbon footprint of ordering a product online is actually lower than going to a store to purchase it (1.42 kg of CO2 versus 1.65 kg). However, that footprint goes up if you try to deliver it more quickly, like with two-day shipping (1.92 kg of CO2). Clothing rental companies often use high-speed deliveries to get clothes to the customer quickly. And with “unlimited” rental plans, they make it easy for customers to order more than they need, and experiment with outfits they might not otherwise rent or buy.
Since the clothing rental industry is still relatively new and only a small proportion of the overall fashion market, there have not been any specific studies calculating how renting reduces the amount of clothes in landfills and the carbon footprint of transporting these clothes back and forth. But based on what we know about the environmental impact of online shopping, it would not be surprising if their carbon emissions are very high.
More broadly, these brands make it more affordable for women to wear trendy items because they don’t have to buy them. But again, we would produce far less waste if the fashion industry didn’t make us feel like we had to wear the latest, most fashionable clothes all the time. Ultimately, it would be better for us to wear the same classic, durable clothes for years on end–though, of course, that would be very boring. But if fashion is very important to you, renting may be a better option.
Since most plastic does not biodegrade, it sits forever in our landfills and oceans, adding to the billions of tons of plastic we have already created.
Most people don’t realize that most of our clothes are made of plastic. Synthetic fibers, like polyester and nylon, are made from fine strands of plastic. And because they are so cheap, brands have incorporated them widely into clothes. These synthetics also have other advantages that natural materials don’t have, including the fact that they are stretchy and water resistant, so they are commonly used in activewear and outerwear. In the world of shoes, plastic is everywhere. Sneakers are often almost entirely made from plastic, and even leather shoes often have some layers of plastic-based foam.
Fashion brands are beginning to come to terms with plastic pollution. Over the last year, brands like Everlane and Adidas have vowed to eliminate new (also known as virgin) plastic from their supply chain, and rely instead on recycled plastic. Some recent startups like Rothy’s and Summersalt use recycled plastics from the start. These brands should be applauded for thinking more carefully about their supply chains and reducing their reliance on virgin plastic. They are also drawing more awareness to the problem of plastic in the fashion industry by pointing to the many places where synthetic fibers appear.
However, it’s worth knowing that when you wash plastic fibers–whether they are virgin or recycled–tiny bits of plastic end up in the water, which ultimately ends up in the oceans. These microplastics are eventually consumed by sea creatures, which end up in our food. It’s still unclear exactly how these microplastics affect us, but early research suggests that they are toxic to our livers and kidneys.
A startup called GuppyFriend has created a bag for you to put your clothes in when you wash them that prevents microplastics from entering the water. But to see real change in the microplastic levels in the ocean, we need more comprehensive solutions, like filters in the sewer systems or washing machines. And most garments made from recycled plastic will end up in a landfill at the end of their life cycle, since fabric recycling technology is still at its infancy. So, in the end, they will just add to the plastic in landfills and oceans.
If you’re concerned about your plastic consumption, I would recommend limiting your use of synthetic garments to things like parkas and running tights, and rely on brands that use recycled plastic if you need to buy these products. Patagonia, for instance, makes high-performance outerwear using recycled materials. But whenever you can, go for natural materials, like cotton, silk, and wool. These garments will eventually biodegrade.