C’mon: It’s not like human survival depends on us each having five pairs of jeans in our closet.
When I was 12, I went school shopping in the fall and bought one pair of Levi’s jeans, a gray Fair Isle sweater, and white Nike sneakers with a red swish. I wore a version of this outfit nearly every day to school until the sweater, jeans, and shoes became too small. I wasn’t aware of fashion, never mind high fashion or fast fashion. Function and comfort were the only goals.
How times have changed. My 12-year-old daughter is conscious of millions of styles and brands brilliantly marketed to her with slogans espousing strength, girl power, body positivity, and individuality. Of course the options for adults these days are equally endless. Catalogs arrive in piles and the “promotions” tab in our email inboxes are full of offers. I was a junior in high school when I called and ordered my first piece of catalog clothing: a green J. Crew roll neck sweater. Now ordering from a catalog or company by phone feels old-fashioned, even quaint. Internet clothing shopping has become the mainstay.
Acknowledge the true cost of fashion
The problem with all of these offerings and the accessibility is that it means, among many other things, we are buying more. A lot more. According to a recent McKinsey study, Americans purchased 60 percent more clothing in 2014 than in 2000, and kept the garment half as long. And, on average, Americans are throwing away 81 pounds of textiles a year. That is a lot of clothes. According to a study by Quantis, more than 8 percent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions are from the apparel and footwear industry. Worse: the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts that if the industry continues on its current path, it will use more than 25 percent of the total carbon budget. To give you a sense of this, ALL global transport — planes, trains, shipping, etc. — uses 23 percent.
“What is the carbon budget?” you ask. The carbon budget is the single number that encapsulates the finite limits of our planet’s physical system and ability to negotiate and cope with carbon emissions. If we release more carbon than this in a year, our planet’s temperature will continue to rise. So our clothing consumption seems like an obvious place where we can make cuts. Because, let’s be honest: it’s not like human survival depends on us each having five pairs of jeans in our closet.
But I’d like to pause here and say two things:
- I am aware of the fact that our global clothing problem cannot and, in many ways, should not be solved by consumers alone. Ultimately, it needs to be addressed at the highest levels: via manufacturing and agricultural laws; by designers; and by the entire fashion business that has fueled this problem in every sense of the word.
- I appreciate clothing, beautiful design, and know the great pleasure and romance of wearing a wonderful summer frock or a fabulously cozy winter sweater. So I am not saying stop, but maybe just slow down, buy less and make informed purchases.
But let’s get back to what the big clothing companies are doing and not doing. Are they taking any responsibility for the problem they’ve helped create? I am pleased to report, some companies are taking action. Others, not so much or not at all.
Know which companies are translating words into action
The Business of Fashion, a highly regarded industry resource that offers a self-described, “analytical point of view on the $2.5 trillion global fashion industry,” recently published its first Sustainability Study of the industry, “Measuring the progress of the five largest public companies by annual revenue in 2019 in three distinct fashion industry verticals — luxury, high street and sportswear.” These companies included name brands such as Nike, Under Armour, Gap Inc., H&M, LVMH, and Hermès. The summary reports that “the fashion industry’s rhetoric on sustainability is often far ahead of companies’ actions.” In other words, many of the brands have adopted the vernacular, but that’s about it. And “Even among the industry’s largest and most highly resourced companies, public disclosures indicate there are substantial disparities in progress, with a handful playing catch-up or just beginning to engage with the six key issues at hand: transparency, emissions, water and chemicals, materials, worker’s rights, and waste.”
These six areas are big issues. The report notes while some major clothing companies have made progress in one area, the other five areas have been neglected. This said, I applaud the multinational companies that are making significant and important changes to their manufacturing practices. Nike, Puma, Kering (they own Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Alexander McQueen, etc.), H&M, Gap, and Levi Strauss got relatively good marks in the BOF Sustainability Report, whereas Under Armour and Richemont (they own Chloé, Alaïa, etc.) have made little or no effort to change any of their practices. Note that the study did not include companies like Patagonia, which have been embracing a more conscious ethos for some time.
So the first step to a more sustainable closet is actually label consciousness. If you are going to buy from a big company, know what you are paying for: great design with environmental action or great design with environmental degradation. Maybe the new trend is buying for transparency, reduced emissions, limiting water and chemical use, using better, more earth friendly materials, advocating for workers’ rights, and reducing waste.
Buy local, buy less, buy better
When I talk to experts and local designers they agree: the big companies all need to be doing more. MUCH more. Meanwhile, it is the smaller companies who are taking action — even though they do not have the buying power to influence and persuade cotton growers and fabric producers as much as the multinational ones. Los Angeles-based Christy Dawn has a “Farm to Closet” collection of clothes that tracks their cotton from seed to store. But, as my friend Sarah Davis told me, “Sourcing true organic materials and ensuring that the process considers all things — from workers’ rights to water use — is a rabbit hole. And the dirty secret is that we already have enough material on the planet for years to come. We don’t need to produce more.”
This is why local designer Stina Sayre sources her material from bigger designers. “I buy leftover fabric from Donna Karan, leftover seatbelt material to make handbags. My drive comes from creating something useful, beautiful, and practical. I stay away from synthetics as much as I can. Linen, wool, and bamboo, which I love, they too have their downsides. What is really important is to buy high-quality clothing. Yes, it costs more, but in the long run you are saving money because the garment is going to last.”
Likewise, local designer Randi Sylvia of Kenworthy Design says, “We think there is too much disposable clothing in the world. We want people to buy less and really fall in love with their purchase so they will wear it over and over again.”
Designer Lauren Morgan was inspired by the documentary film The True Cost, which takes fashion’s environmental infractions to task, and began what can only be described as an intrepid process of sourcing materials for her signature rain jacket (see Bluedot Living’s story for more on Lauren). She says, “The film and my subsequent research really got me thinking about what I am buying, how I am buying it, and what I am putting on my body.” Her jacket is American made, free of formaldehyde, PFAS, silicone, petroleum, and man-made polymers, and compostable at the end of its life. It doesn’t hurt that it is also great looking.
Also smaller companies are going to make comparatively ridiculously less than a large clothing company like Nike. This means much less water, chemicals, and waste. Even better, these designers are not sourcing their work out to people in far away factories with far fewer environmental and labor laws. Transportation and transparency concerns become less of an issue.
The good news is there are now tons of these smaller designers making wonderful clothing. The list of these folks is far too long to share here. But discovering them for yourself is part of the joy of label consciousness. There is a sense of discovery when I find a gem of a company. Sometimes right in my backyard. Yay, Conrado!
Shrink your closet, grow your joy
Basically, we all need to come up with a new set of closet rules. My rules include:
- Stop clicking and buying in the most obvious, convenient places
- Buy a company’s values rather than for a value (when you can)
- Buy less
- Buy only what you love and will absolutely wear
- Buy high quality, natural organic fibers
- Buy for all seasons
- Buy used
- Buy local
- Pass it on or … (maybe even), pass it up?
The more I apply this kind of approach to my closet, the more joy I feel. It also needs to be said that there is great satisfaction in wearing something out or repurposing it. A five-year-old yellowing white T-shirt becomes a rag. And, finally, I will say that I feel a total charge of strength when I have the courage to walk away from something I don’t need. Better than the charge of the purchase. In every way.