Our love of looking good is quickly creating a very ugly problem.
You see, the clothes we wear day in and day out are responsible for an absolutely staggering amount of pollution every year. Virtually every step of the fashion industry and clothing production process is intensely wasteful: the pesticides used to grow crops like cotton, the water used to wash and treat the fabric, and the dyes used to give our duds those vibrant colors. And that’s not even getting into the process of packaging, shipping, advertising or selling them, either.
Then a few months after being bought and brought home, seasons change or trends shift, we clean out our closets and donate our outdated wardrobes, and the process begins again.
The issue here — and it’s a big one — is that no one knows what to do with our old clothes. Thrift stores try to sell them and H&M is attempting to recycle them (with limited success), but mostly, our tattered, worn or just plain unfashionable clothing ends up where all of our other waste ends up: the landfill.
As a recent Newsweek article, aptly titled “No One Wants Your Old Clothes,” explains, it’s not only that there is so much waste, it’s also what happens to the waste when it reaches its final destination. Landfills bursting with old clothing can mean horrific things for the natural world around us:
“… 84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator. [Chemicals from clothing fibers] can leach from the textiles and — in improperly sealed landfills — into groundwater. Burning the items in incinerators can release those toxins into the air.”
Diverting this massive amount of clothing from landfills and incinerators is no easy task — ideally, we would consume less so that there would be less to dispose of, but until we find a way to decrease this obsessive desire to consume, a handful of designers are getting a head start at finding creative ways to use clothes recycling to prevent old clothes from going to waste.
1. Insecta Shoes
Brazil is well-known for their leather industry, but small-scale Insecta is choosing to eschew leather in favor of recycled plastic bottles, reclaimed rubber and vintage clothing. The results are stunning — brightly colored, gorgeous, durable footwear with minimal environmental footprint. Who knew clothes recycling could look so good?!
Shoes are created in small batches using vintage clothing material, so while supporting ethical manufacturing processes, you’re also ensuring that your shoes are one of just a handful of others like them in the world.
Most of my clothing is sourced secondhand, but for those feeling a bit squeamish about literally walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, buying shoes made entirely from recycled materials is a fantastic option.
2. Eileen Fisher
Upscale brand Eileen Fisher is hardly the first place you’d expect innovations in eco-friendly fashion, but last year Fisher stunned the audience at the Riverkeeper Ball awards ceremony in Manhattan when she acknowledged the disastrous environmental impact of the textile industry. “The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world … second only to oil,” she said, in an unflinching assessment.
To address this impact, Fisher has made a number of changes to her clothing line, including choosing organic cotton and linen and working to reduce carbon emissions. Fisher has also recently launched a limited-run “Remade in the USA” clothing line, which repurposes discarded, stained or worn clothing into brand-new pieces.
Men’s clothing is notoriously hard to find secondhand — men tend to be rougher on their clothing and wear individual pieces far longer than women do (maybe we women should be following suit!). NYC-based Kallio has figured out how to make clothes recycling functional and cute, too, by turning men’s dress shirts into clothing for wee ones.
Transforming a dress shirt into a dress is an easy, adorable way to give a garment new life, and Kallio makes a full line of clothing for babies, little girls and little boys.
Patagonia has always had a less-than-conventional approach to marketing, encouraging its loyal customer base to buy less, not more. The outdoor gear manufacturer encourages its customers to bring garments in for repair when they wear out rather than replacing them, offers used clothing sales through one of its Portland stores, and accepts Patagonia garments back for recycling, too.
The brand was one of the first to turn plastic bottles into polar fleece, and today uses recycled polyester, recycled wool and recycled down in many of its products as a way to protect the great outdoors they love so much.
Making Do with Less
It’s incredibly encouraging to see brands large and small turning to clothes recycling to mitigate the environmental impact of the fashion industry, but we mustn’t forget that textile recycling — no matter how technologically advanced, widespread or even cute it is — won’t ever come close to the positive environmental benefits of simply reducing how much we consume in the first place.
Recycling — whether it’s a shirt or a plastic bottle — always comes with an environmental cost. So remember, sometimes the greenest shopping choice of all is to simply make do with what we have and avoid buying anything.
Now that’s a fashion choice that’ll always be in style.
Still curious about clothes recycling? Our article “Shedding Light on Textile Recycling” goes into more depth about the industry.
Featured imaged courtesy of Shutterstock.com