The most haunting words you’ll ever hear on TV are “In fashion one day you’re in, and the next you’re out” — and not because Project Runway or host Heidi Klum should be taken seriously or anything. Trends drive the fashion industry, and the hottest item today gets laughed at tomorrow… all the way to the landfill.
Instead of investing our dollars in a few high-quality pieces we’ll wear for years, we buy cute, trendy “throwaway” or “one season” items from Forever 21, knowing that our $12.99 sparkly top will fall apart before it can land us on a worst-dressed page. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans throw out more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person, per year. That’s the weight of a third grader made up of your old sorority t-shirts and sweat socks sitting in landfills.
“The cheapest fashion is the most environmentally problematic,” says Sandy Black, author of Eco-Chic: The Fashion Paradox. “It’s produced in great bulk, with the pressure of producing fastest, at the lowest price.”
The result: production that ignores environmentally friendly practices, based entirely on speculation. If companies miss the trend, huge quantities end up in the bargain bin, get passed over and land as garbage. And the stuff you do buy – if it hasn’t unraveled after a season – accumulates in your closet.
Conscious consumption is key, says Inessah Selditz, co-founder of sustainable clothing line Sublet Clothing. “There’s no point in buying something to wear it once… You don’t have to live in a commune, but you can incorporate it into your daily life.”
You can be eco-conscious, financially savvy and fashionably unique by buying less and shopping vintage – the ultimate form of fashion recycling. “There are so many clothes already out there,” says Meghan Bailey, manager at Crossroads Trading Co. on Sherman Avenue in Evanston. “It’s a good way to avoid over-consumption. You don’t need new clothes every season when there’s so much good stuff people can re-wear and re-use.”
According to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops, sales at consignment and thrift stores are growing at a pace of 5 percent each year. Spending your dollars on barely-worn threads can simultaneously help the planet and help you avoid looking like every other North Face-clad Northwestern undergrad.
However, excess volume of clothing is only part of the story. Fashion production leaves a Bigfoot-sized ecological footprint. Cotton is an insecticide-heavy crop (it comprises only 3 percent of global acreage, but makes up 25 percent of insecticide use) and requires huge amounts of water. The damage correlated with some of these pesticides include cancer, brain and fetal damage, and kidney and liver failure. Other textiles aren’t much better; synthetic materials like nylon and polyester aren’t biodegradable and come from petrochemicals, leading to nasty emissions. The EPA names textile manufacturers as generators of hazardous waste.
What’s a green-minded fashionista to do? Look for organic cottons or sustainable fabrics; hemp and bamboo are both eco-friendly textiles. Fleece can be made from recycled plastic – Patagonia estimates that over 13 years they saved 86 million soda bottles from landfills by refashioning them into fleece.
These materials are moving into the mainstream fashion world. The winner of Project Runway last week, Leanne, drew on her use of sustainable fabrics in her argument about why she should win. Green runway shows are popping up at fashion weeks. “It’s become the responsible yet chic thing to do,” says former Elle intern and Medill junior Alexandra Ilyashov. “Even just four or five years ago, there was a ‘dirty hippy’ persona associated with people who bought eco-friendly products.” Now fashion magazines from Elle to Lucky feature green shopping.
At the moment, being green is stylish. But fashion is still all about trends – will eco-consciousness in fashion stick around? Selditz thinks so. “Hopefully it’s more than just trends. Consumers are becoming more and more aware, knowing what goes into the things they’re consuming. As globalization increases, people are more conscious about keeping things local and having green industry.”