Fortunately, there are myriad ways we can change our habits without losing the pleasure that many of us derive from buying new things. The situation is complicated, but it’s not hopeless.
Juliet Schor, an economist and sociologist at Boston College, explains that consumption is driven by social process. Fast fashion is a manifestation of keeping up with a higher standard of living, resulting in individualistic, me-centric shopping.
Schor says we need to think differently, and really care about the things we buy, focusing on quality and longevity.
“I talk about how Americans aren’t materialist enough — they don’t take the materiality of goods seriously enough,” she says. “We should be more materialist, rather than participating in a throwaway culture.”
Here’s what you can do: Remember the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. Buy less. Favor timeless and long-lasting over trendy. Rent your clothes, or buy secondhand, both popular options now. When you must buy new, buy clothes with recycled content.
Educate yourself about durable clothing: opaque, good stitching, and damage-resistant, for example. Cotton is durable, but environmentally taxing — organic cotton is better. Local value-based brands are a good place for well-made garments. L.L. Bean has long specialized in durable, classic goods that are made from responsible materials. Patagonia, which has a strong presence here, has been using recycled polyester for over 25 years.
If you buy quality goods, you won’t have to refresh your wardrobe every season. Schor says, “Treat your clothing like you’re getting a pet — something you’re going to be committed to for a long time. You’re not just going to throw it in the trash when you’re tired of it or you can’t keep it anymore. You’re going to find another good home for it.”
Because it’s hard to recycle clothes (less than 15 percent is recycled into new garments because the fibers can be tough to break down), donating or selling are better options than throwing something in the trash. Local consignment stores like Boomerangs and The Garment District have been around for years.
Clothing swaps with friends or through programs like Freecycle make shopping a communal activity. Take care of your clothes (and use a gifted tailor) to repurpose and preserve. Approach your closet as a static entity. Think about the price-per-wear; something cheap you wore twice has a much higher price-per-wear than the durable pants you wear every week.
The industry has also innovated. Many brands use tencel, fiber made from wood pulp with cleaner production processes. Everlane makes clothes and shoes from plastic bottles and recycled cotton, cashmere, and polyester. Rothy’s makes 100 percent recycled shoes. Nike uses a whole suite of recycled, regenerated materials as the company works toward a zero-waste production process. Other brands make clothes out of corn, beans, and algae. And quality is similar to traditionally made clothes. “The consumer wouldn’t know a sustainable material versus an unsustainable material, by and large,” says Kate Black, author and founder of sustainable fashion blog Magnifico.com.
But environmental costs associated with manufacturing, production, and waste still exist. Linda Greer, an environmental toxicology expert and founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Clean by Design program, says using greener materials only reduces the carbon footprint of the products by a small amount. “It’s not the silver bullet for customers to look for,” Greer says. “Most brands are using these better materials in only a very small percentage of their goods.”
Because government regulations don’t exist for the apparel industry, action mostly lies with consumers. During Fashion Revolution Week in April, shoppers ask brands #whomademyclothes and demand transparency. The browser extension DoneGood tells you how sustainably you’re shopping and helps you communicate your needs to brands. Instead of full boycotts, telling companies you’ll buy their products if they change is better. “Companies are most likely to do things in response to customer pressure rather than because of their own ethical commitments to responsible behavior,” says Greer.
Brands sometimes use vague sustainability terminology, but it’s hard to determine the truth behind the jargon. CDP Global shows which brands have made commitments to admissions reductions, and the Green Supply Chain CITI Index shows who’s doing sustainability well. One of those brands is Target — a reminder that shopping sustainably isn’t always pricey.
Black uses the acronym VALUE: vintage, artisan, local, upcycled, and (critically) ethical. Shopping better doesn’t have to mean depriving yourself completely.
“It’s not that stuff is bad,” Schor says. “We need a culture of consumption that embodies values.”
Katherine J. Igoe is a Boston-based freelancer and part-time contributing editor at MarieClaire.com. Follow her on Twitter @kjigoe.