The Myth and Potential of Sustainable Fashion

Rachel Ashley
August 8, 2019

Dress for climate success: buy fewer new clothes

Every few months, an article pops up about Kate Middleton rewearing a dress in public. While we’d rarely consider fashion news relevant compared to the devastating effects of climate breakdown… Kate’s reuse of clothing is a breath of fresh air in the age of fast fashion.

The fashion industry is a surprisingly large contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. On a micro level, a new T-shirt has about the same carbon impact as a big, beefy burger: generating ~11-13 lbs of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). On a macro level, a 2018 Quantis report found the fashion industry accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to 3,990 million tons of CO2e. That’s 2-3x the impact of the aviation industry.

Production comprises 98% of the carbon impact of clothing. While distribution’s impact on the planet is “negligible”, rapid delivery (via air) over standard shipping can increase the carbon impact of distribution by 35%.

The upside is that buying fewer clothes is the single most impactful thing we can do to manage the carbon impact of our closets.

Contribution of the apparel industry to climate change by value chain stage

Source: “Measuring Fashion.” Quantis International. 2018.

That’s not exactly the direction we’re headed in – yet. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that most consumers wear clothes just 7-10 times before they end up in the trash. A Statista report values the U.S. apparel market at $292 billion, expected to grow by 34% by 2025.

The good news is that aspirational startups are disrupting the traditional model. Two-sided platforms like ThredUp, TheRealReal, and make it easy to consign online and buy verified used clothing. Other companies like Vetta Capsule, Miakoda, and Patagonia are thinking carefully about disposal and recycling. And don’t forget classic brick & mortar thrift stores offering the occasional diamond in the rough for anyone willing to search.

Change how you buy; save a flight

The average American purchases 5 or more articles of clothing each month, amounting to a carbon impact of 360 kgs (or 794 lbs) CO2e per year. Changing how you furnish your closet can meaningfully improve your footprint, equivalent to a roundtrip flight from Boston to Washington DC.

We did some calculations to help illustrate the impact of different fashion choices.

1. Buy second hand: High Impact

Save $900 and 330 kg (728 lbs) of CO2e this year, approximately equal to one roundtrip flight from Boston to Washington D.C.

New clothes don’t necessarily need to be brand new – they just need to be new to you. Think about the types of pieces you need to build your ideal wardrobe, and consider buying high-quality, second hand clothing to avoid producing new clothes.

Check out local thrift and vintage stores or online consignment like ThredUp and TheRealRealfor new pieces. Organize a clothing swap with friends in your community to refresh your wardrobe without spending cash or producing CO2e emissions.

Impact calculation: One year of used clothing

  • Clothing: 0 kg CO2e/ month (no new demand for clothes)
  • Shipping: 2.5 kg CO2e/ month (assume purchasing one new item of clothing per month)
  • Estimated footprint savings: 330kg (728 lbs) CO2e/ year
    Live lighter with a carbon footprint from clothing of 30 kg CO2e/ year by buying 1 used item of clothing per month vs. 360 kg CO2e/ year by buying 5 new articles of clothing per month.
  • Estimated cost savings: $900/ year
    On average, second hand clothing can be 50-70% cheaper than buying new clothes. The average American spends about $1800/year on clothing and related services, making buying second hand an opportunity to save upwards of $900 per year.

2. Buy fewer, higher quality pieces: High Impact

Save $800 and 270 kg (595 lbs) of CO2e this year, more than a roundtrip flight from Boston to NYC.

Source: Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

By purchasing fewer, higher-quality items, we can increase clothing utilization and reduce landfill – and still look good doing it.

Vetta Capsule creates sustainably produced pieces and each capsule of 6-8 pieces combines to create roughly 30 outfits. Patagonia repairs apparel for free and created Worn Wear to resell used clothing. Levi Strauss decreased the water intensity of jean production and includes care instructions for owners to decrease your carbon footprint and make denim last longer.

When you buy clothing, consider how the pieces were made. Look for natural fibers, sustainably-produced or organic items, and high-quality manufacturing to increase the longevity of wear.

Impact calculation: “Capsule” wardrobe with a few high quality pieces

  • Clothing: 5 kg CO2e/ month (10 new pieces of high-quality clothing in a year)
  • Shipping: 2.5 kg CO2e/ month (assuming $10 shipping)
  • Estimated footprint savings: 270 kg (595 lbs) CO2e/ year
    Live lighter with a carbon footprint from clothing of 90 kg/year vs 360kg/year if you were to buy 5 new articles of clothing per month.
  • Estimated cost savings: $800/ year
    Assuming a high-quality item of clothing could cost up to $100, purchasing 10 new items in a year would cost $1000, versus spending $1,800 on 60 new items.
3. Rent instead of buy: Unclear Impact

If you buy between 2+ items of clothing/ month, you may improve your footprint by switching to a rental subscription. However, if you buy fewer items of clothing/ month, or would want buy clothes in addition to a rental subscription, renting could actually increase your footprint.

Rent the Runway and Hurr Collective make it possible to stay on-trend without buying clothes outright. Unfortunately, most of these luxury items aren’t produced sustainably, and depending on your current habits, could mean an increase in your net footprint.

A rental subscription could be a more sustainable option if you transition from purchasing 2+ clothing items per month to purchasing no clothing at all. If you’re someone who purchases fast fashion regularly, renting is better than buying new pieces you’ll wear only 7-10 times. However, if you are a less-frequent buyer of clothing, or are open to reducing the number of new pieces you buy, rental fashion is not as sustainable an option.

Check out the numbers below:

Impact calculation: Monthly box with 4 articles of clothing

  • Clothing: 4 kg CO2e/ month (4 pieces/month * 6 kg CO2e each/ 6 uses per item)
  • Shipping: 5 kg CO2e/ month (2.5 kg * 2 to receive and return shipment, assuming $10 shipping)
  • Estimated carbon savings:
  • Fast fashion user: Produce only 108 kg (238 lbs) CO2e vs. 360kg if you were buying 5 new articles of clothing/ month.
  • High-quality buyer: Produce an extra 18 kg (40 lbs) of CO2e by renting rather than purchasing fewer, higher-quality pieces.
  • Estimated cost savings: $720/ year
    Rent the Runway’s monthly package costs about $90/month, or $1080/year. Compare to spending $1,800/ year on new clothes, the subscription model could make economic sense if you don’t buy much additional clothing.

Managing your closet’s afterlife

Source: Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Curating an intentional wardrobe is the first step toward lowering the carbon footprint of your closet.

The second step is to extend the life of your clothes and dispose of apparel responsibly. The average American throws out 81 pounds of clothing per year, most of which ends up in landfill. More companies are advocating for “cradle to grave” lifecycle strategies for their clothing, meaning they consider the full life of the apparel from origination to disposal.

Consider these three options to radically reduce waste you send to landfill:

  1. Repair. Repair apparel you still like but is slightly worn. A tailor or cobbler can fix a broken zipper, minor tear, or worn sole for less than or the same cost as a new piece. Patagonia leads the way, educating consumers that repairing clothing is more economical and sustainable.
  2. Resell. Sell or donate clothing in good condition that you no longer wear. Resell through Thredup, Poshmark, TheRealReal, or a local consignment; donate to Salvation Army, Goodwill, or a local charity.
  3. Recycle. If a garment is no longer in good condition, recycle it through retailers like H&Mand Madewell. In most cases, stores offer a discount on your next purchase for recycling your apparel.

Do you feel equipped to manage the carbon impact of your closet? Do you have questions, tips, or tricks to share with the community? We’d love to hear from you.

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