How to Reduce Your Wardrobe’s Impact on the Environment

Every year millions of garments are discarded as consumers ditch fast-fashion styles for a new wardrobe. Slowly but surely the industry is acting – but more has to be done. While a large amount of responsibility lies with the manufacturer, there is an equal amount of responsibility in the hands of the consumer. The choices we make as shoppers influence the business choices manufacturers make. If the demand for sustainable clothing increases, manufacturers will be forced to respond.

As Dr Margo Barton, professor of fashion at the Otago Polytechnic and iD fashion creative director and chair, explains: “Change comes where there is a demand for something. Many wearers want to buy sustainable and ethically made clothing, and so there’s a real change in the industry.”

So what can you do to reduce your impact on the environment?

Firstly, shop sustainably when possible. Dr Whitty, senior lecturer of fashion design at Massey University and director of social enterprise Space Between, says we need to be more mindful and considered when purchasing clothing. “Choose wisely, do your research and act accordingly,” she advises. “Ask yourself some hard questions, like does this price really seem fair? Will I wear this more than 30 times? What will I do with it after I’m finished with it?”

Gosia Piatek of Kowtow suggests investigating a brand’s values and practices. “Looking for independent certifications is a good start, and if you can’t find what you’re looking for – ask questions!” Once you have done your research, try to choose clothing made from organic or recycled materials with plant-based dyes to prevent chemical and textile waste. Buying local is another option, as it reduces export waste from processing, packaging and transport pollution.

However, it’s no secret the cost of sustainable fashion is significantly greater than the cost of fast fashion, and while some are persuaded enough by the knowledge that what they are buying is better for the environment, others simply cannot afford sustainably made garments. Thankfully, there are other ways you can reduce your environmental footprint when it comes to fashion.

Start by purchasing clothing you will treasure for years to come rather than something you will only wear a handful of times then throw out. “It’s not about buying something and throwing it away, rather it’s about buying something you love that you will cherish,” says Anna Gedda, head of sustainability for H&M. Think quality, not quantity. A few beautifully-made garments created to last countless washes without losing condition is better than a tonne of poorly-made pieces that will shrink, stretch, unravel or fade after just a couple of wears. “Choose something you absolutely love,” Dr Whitty recommends. “You will never grow tired of the items you truly adore.” Op-shopping is also a great alternative that gives clothing a second life, saves you money and encourages creativity.

Once you’ve purchased something – new or second hand – try to be more thoughtful in your practices. Care for your clothing by washing and storing it correctly, repair damages and alter items so they fit rather than throwing them out.

There’s much to be done before we reach an appropriate level of sustainability in the fashion world, but there are steps we can take to get there sooner rather than later. If manufacturers refine processes and we, as consumers, adjust priorities, with any luck the fashion world will transform into an industry that puts the planet first.

Fashion Forward: Big Responsibility for Big Business

It can no longer be ignored that the fashion industry is having a huge impact on the environment. The second most polluting industry in the world, the fashion industry is overloading landfills with textile waste and threatening the environment with toxic chemicals. And just as it pollutes, the industry depletes vital resources of water and oil. Consumers bear a big responsibility to respond to this crisis and change their habits. But they’re not the only ones; there’s also an urgent need for big businesses to change the way they operate too. 

The way we see waste needs to be radically redefined. For most of us, if it’s not perfect, we discard it, which adds to the volume of textiles being thrown into landfills. Big businesses are at the heart of this problem, many regarding waste as a problem that they can’t fix. But Dr Whitty, senior lecturer of fashion design at Massey University and director of social enterprise Space Between, say that businesses need to start thinking of waste as a resource. Damaged textiles can be down-cycled into fibres that can then be re-spun into yarn and given new life. Similarly, Space Between is committed to upcycling techniques that repurpose damaged garments and clothing scraps into wearable items. “Slow fashion methods are important as they allow for us as producers and consumers to pause, to stray outside the dominant paradigm of speed and to reflect,” says Dr Whitty.
In Los Angeles, clothing brand Christy Dawn collects textile scraps, which would normally go into landfill, from large fashion houses and upcycles them into beautiful dresses. Not only does this drastically reduce pollution and waste, it means buyers purchase unique items because often there is only enough of a certain print to make two or three dresses. Locally, businesses such as Smoove Reworked Vintage are repurposing old clothing into retro dresses and skirts to give garments a new life.
Founder and creative director of Kowtow, Gosia Piatek, says a designer’s responsibility shouldn’t end once a sale has been made: “We as designers and makers need to create ways to help consumers responsibly dispose of their unwanted goods.” In line with this mode of thought, H&M has created an in-store recycling service for its customers.“If you don’t want a piece of clothing anymore you recycle it or give it to charity,” urges Ann- Sofie Johansson, creative advisor for H&M.
To help consumers make smart shopping choices, fashion manufacturers should be more transparent about their goals and the impact they have on the environment. For Piatek, transparency is essential to the Kowtow brand. “We are committed to transparency, screening and innovation,” she says. “This includes the paper we use and coffee we drink in the workroom and, most recently, all the materials used within our flagship store.”
Brands looking to improve transparency can look to the Higg Index, a score-based system that helps them measure and track their sustainability. While only in its infancy, Anna Gedda, head of sustainability for H&M, believes the Higg Index will make it easier for consumers to identify sustainable brands, too. “It’s like a map,” she says. “And it will be easy for brands to see how they increase their score. It will show them exactly what they need to do.”
Basically, there is plenty big businesses can do to reduce their environmental impact. To find out more about how you can reduce your waste as a consumer, click here.