Fashion Conscious: Taking a dive into your clothing footprint

Our Zero Waste Associate takes a critical look at the clothes in her closet.

mentatdgt | CC-BY-4.0

When we go to the grocery store and buy food, we can look at the ingredients that are in the food, the nutrition contents and count the calories. For fresh produce, we can sometimes look at the sticker and see what farm it came from. This is becoming increasingly important to us; there is a whole movement of farm to table restaurants and organic foods.  This movement is positive because it helps us make better, healthier and greener choices about the food we eat.

But when it comes to the clothes we buy, consumers don’t have easy access to information about where it came from or how it was made. Clothing overproduction poisons our water and contributes to climate change. Around the world, the equivalent of one dump truck filled with clothing is sent to a landfill or incinerator every second.  So, like our food, it is important to understand what is in our closet because that can inform us on how to embrace more sustainable shopping habits and convince companies to adopt better practices.

To try and get a sense of my fashion and  environmental footprint, I decided to take a peek into my closet to see where my clothes came from, where I got them and what they are made of. I knew it was likely to be high. My grandmother is an online shopper and I happen to be the main beneficiary. This means a lot of the items in my closet have been worn less than three times and some have not been worn at all. 

Here’s what I asked myself about each piece of clothing:

  • How long have I owned this?
  • How many times have I worn it?
  • Where did I buy this? 
  • What brand is it?
  • What material blend is it made of?
  • Where was it made?
  • Does it seem durable? 
  • Can I repair it myself or have it repaired if it breaks?
  • Is it able to be resold or if its donated would people wear or buy it?

I looked through my clothes that are hanging up, around 25 items and here are snapshots of the results I found: 

Holly Thompson | TPIN
Holly Thompson | TPIN

Most of my clothes were made from a mix of different materials, with some of them the lining and outer fabrics were made of different materials. 

Holly Thompson | TPIN

I researched the materials I did not recognize. Some of the materials, such as rayon and nylon, sounded like gasses on the periodic table rather than materials that should be in my clothes. In my research, I found most of these materials are often derived from petroleum. About 60% of all clothing made today is made from synthetic materials. These materials continue to shed microplastics throughout their life span. Just like with the different types of plastic, it would be difficult to even start to recycle all of the different combinations of materials.

Here are some other things I learned during my “closet audit”:

  • Many of my clothes were made in other countries. In fact, more than 97% of the clothes in the United States are made overseas. When considering the carbon footprint we have to look at lower environmental standards in other countries along with the shipping impacts.
  • Very few of my clothes were made using recycled materials. Most of what fashion companies mean when they say they recycle old clothes is that they divert them from the landfill to be used as rags or shredded up and used for insulation. This is because most clothes that are made up of two or more types of materials are hard to recycle and only 1% of clothes are recycled into new fibers.
  • I have more clothes than I need, and don’t wear them for as long as I should. If we wore our clothes for an extra nine months, we would reduce the carbon footprint of each piece between 20% and 30%. 

After going through your clothes and learning some of the facts about fashion, here are some more questions about shopping habits to think about:

  • How do I get the majority of my clothes?
  • How much wear and use do I get out of the things I buy?
  • Do I know much about the materials that are in my clothes?
  • Do I know much about how this was made? 

After answering these questions, you can ask yourself what you can do to prolong the life of your clothes and make your current and future closet have a lower overall footprint. Then look to the future and ask what habits you want to change about the way you buy clothes.

Here are some resources on how to have a more sustainable and ethical closet

General Sustainability Tips: https://brightly.eco/blog/sustainable-fashion-tips 

Sustainable Materials: https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/fiber-ecoreview 

Sustainable Laundry: https://blog.planetcare.org/zero-waste-laundry-guide/

Ranking of Fast Fashion brands: https://brightly.eco/blog/fast-fashion-brands-sustainability 

Books to read

The Conscious Closet by Elizabeth L. Cline 

Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas

App to download: Good on You is an app that allows you to look at the impact of different brands of clothes, and then send messages directly to companies that are doing well, or are having a negative impact. 

You can do more research about the results you find from your audit and write down some of the findings. I have also included here a PDF of a chart you can use to write down information about what’s in your closet that I hope will help inspire you to start thinking about what’s in your closet and how to reduce your overall fashion footprint.

Authors

Holly Thompson

Beyond Plastic, Associate, PIRG

Holly works on PIRG’s Beyond Plastic campaign to educate the public and build support for eliminating single-use plastic. Holly lives in Northern Virginia, but grew up in New Jersey where she lived on a lake. She loves hiking, cooking, paddle boarding, kayaking and one day wants to hike the Appalachian Trail.

Matt Casale

Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

Matt oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns and leads PIRG’s climate program to promote a cleaner, healthier future for all Americans. Matt lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, two daughters and chihuahua.

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