These days, it feels like the climate apocalypse is not a distant reality, but something playing out before us in real time, with fires raging in Australia and oceans warming at rates equivalent to five atomic bombs dropping every second. We need major policy changes. In the meantime, what’s the average person supposed to do?
Many of the most impactful things we can do for the planet involve major lifestyle changes. We could follow Greta Thunberg’s example and refuse to travel by plane. We could change our diets and stop eating meat. But there’s also a relatively painless change you can make: altering your relationship with your closet. To that end, ThredUp, an enormous online consignment store, has created a tool with Green Story (which calculates the carbon impact of different consumption behaviors) that estimates your own personal impact based on how you shop and take care of clothes.
The newly launched Fashion Footprint Calculator involves answering 12 straightforward questions, such as how often you buy new clothes and whether you buy mostly online or in-store. Then it identifies what your personal fashion footprint is and compares this to the national average, which is 1,620 pounds of carbon a year.
You may think your transportation habits are the biggest personal contributor to climate change, but the fashion industry is actually more devastating to the planet than the airline industry. One recent study found that apparel and footwear accounted for 3,990 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2016, which is more than 8% of global climate impact. Another found that the manufacturing of textiles—the majority of which goes into clothing—accounts for 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping trips combined. So the carbon footprint of your closet is larger than you might think—but now, you don’t have to guess what it is.
In my case, my footprint weighed in at 535 pounds, which is apparently 67% lower than average. But even with my efforts to do better, my annual fashion footprint is the equivalent of 3.4 flights from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
ThredUp’s new tool is helpful because it doesn’t just help you understand your impact. Next to each question, it provides plenty of evidence-based tips that help you reduce your fashion footprint.
Some of these tips are self-serving, of course, since ThredUp is in the business of selling secondhand clothing, and lifecycle analyses of garments have found that buying used garments instead of new reduces your carbon footprint by between 60% and 70%. Since most of the carbon impacts of a garment happen early in the supply chain—at the level of raw material production and manufacturing in factories—you’re cutting out all of this impact. And the tool also points out that not all clothes have the same impact. Jeans, for instance, which have an elaborate manufacturing process, have four or five times the carbon footprint of, say, a T-shirt. If you’re going to buy secondhand goods, it makes sense to focus on the most carbon-intensive items.
But the tool also offers plenty of other suggestions, unrelated to ThredUp’s business model. For instance, in the section where it asks about whether you tend to shop online or in-store, there is a sidebar explaining that shopping in-store tends to have a higher carbon impact than shopping online since, for most Americans, going to a store generally involves driving. While shipping clothes to houses also has an impact, it is less because clothes are efficiently consolidated. And if you want to reduce your impact even further, you can choose to skip express shipping, which will reduce your footprint by a further 50%.
How you care for your garments can also have a big impact on your fashion footprint. ThredUp’s tool points out that the average U.S. household does between five and six loads of laundry per week, which generates 55 pounds of carbon emissions. All of this washing is bad for the planet, and also makes clothing degrade faster. Three-quarters of the carbon impact of laundry comes from machine-drying your clothes, so it makes more sense to air-dry them. And washing your clothes in cold water reduces its carbon impact by another 10%.
The calculator also makes a nod to other sustainable initiatives happening in the fashion industry. Renting one item from Rent the Runway, for instance, increases the number of times it is worn in its lifetime (much like buying secondhand), thereby reducing its carbon impact by 30%. And buying from brands that design sustainably, such as Patagonia, Allbirds, Reformation, and Amour Vert, can also lessen your impact, although it’s harder to quantify exactly how much. These brands tend to use fabrics with a lower impact, such as recycled polyester and tencel, which adds up to a lower carbon footprint.
In the end, changing your shopping habits is far easier that doing all your transatlantic trips by boat rather than plane, so rethinking our fashion footprint is one reasonable way to help tackle climate change. As ThredUp’s tool rightfully points out, cutting down on your fashion footprint doesn’t come down to one single step, but rather changing your whole approach to clothing. This means buying fewer clothes, getting them from more eco-friendly sources, and laundering them more responsibly. Collectively, as consumers move toward a more conscious model of clothing consumption, this impact will add up.