Ugh. How is it possible that Labor Day is here and summer is over? The glorious weather might still be with us, but it’s definitely time for back to school and the inevitable back to school shopping. I took my grandkids for a round because I like to help out (and I like spoiling them) and guess where they wanted to go? Goodwill. Yep. I got some eco-minded kiddos.
Oxfam started a campaign in the UK in 2019 to inspire people to shop in a way that is kinder to people and planet. Second Hand September encourages people to buy only second hand items for 30 days in the month of September, right in time for the back to school blitz. I feel like this is something that we tend to miss in our sustainability journey - in our consumer based economy the pressure to stay stylish is pretty intense, and younger consumers aren’t exactly gentle on their clothes. This high demand has created a monster called fast fashion.
“It used to be four seasons in a year; now it may be up to 11 or 15 or more,” said Tasha Lewis, a professor at Cornell University's Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design. This rapid turnaround entices retailers to produce inexpensive, non-durable clothing. I saw this firsthand when I went for a post pandemic stroll through an old favorite clothing store recently. I was shocked at the obvious lack of quality with price tags that made me choke. The fashion industry has taken a huge slide backward. This is not only bad news for the consumer but also for an exploited workforce, whose wages are a direct result of the need to keep production costs low.
But the biggest horror show that we don’t often consider is the impact our clothes have on the environment. Textile production requires a lot of chemicals, water, energy, and other natural resources. According to the World Resources Institute, it takes 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt. When cheap clothing ends up in the garbage, not only does it waste money and resources, but it can take 200 years for the materials to decompose in a landfill - the whole time leaching toxins and dyes into the groundwater and methane gas into the atmosphere.
According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the US generates an average of 25 billion pounds of textiles every year. Of that, 15 percent gets donated or recycled, and the remaining 85 percent goes to landfills. That’s 21 billion pounds of textile waste going to landfills every year or 70/80 pounds for every one of us.
We’ve got to do better.
Some high end manufacturers like Patagonia and North Face have had recycling programs for years in an attempt to keep their textiles out of landfills; which makes sense because their products are made to last. Even H&M, a known player in the fast fashion industry, is offering recycling services at more than 4,200 stores and was the first fashion company to have a clothing collection initiative worldwide. They accept textiles old or new, from any brand, send them to the nearest recycling plant, and give customers a discount card off their next in-store purchase. The brand collected 20,649 tons of textiles for reuse and recycling in 2018, 16% more than the previous year and equivalent to 103 million T-shirts. Of course, this is a drop in the ocean of the crap they produce, so there’s that.
But, as always, recycling isn’t the answer. We need to buy less. We need to buy used or upcycled; we need to buy quality that will last. We have the power to change our habits. So how about trying to go a month without buying any new clothing? If my 8 year old grand baby can, you can.